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Critic's Notebook: 'Duck Dynasty' controversy comes down to freedom

Television IndustryPhil RobertsonDuck Dynasty (tv program)Social IssuesGQHuman Rights CampaignSame-Sex Marriage

As you have probably heard, unless you are leading a life away from the Internet, television and people, Phil Robertson -- the 67-year-old "patriarch" in A&E's popular redneck-reality swamp comedy "Duck Dynasty" -- gave an interview to GQ, the fancy men's lifestyle magazine.

In that interview, he said some things he himself termed "controversial," according to writer Drew Magary, who visited the Robertsons on their 20,000-acre spread down in Louisiana.

At one point, Robertson includes "homosexual offenders" among adulterers, idolaters, male prostitutes,  drunkards, slanderers, swindlers and "the greedy" as ineligible to "inherit the kingdom of God." In a boxed quote separate from Magary's narrative, Robertson conjures a whimsically rosy image of the old South, remembering working alongside African Americans in the cotton fields: "They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!. . . Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."

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As Robertson foresaw, this caused some talk.

In quick due course, GLAAD issued a statement decrying "Phil's decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes [as] a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families." The NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign (an LGBT advocacy group) sent a joint letter to the network, saying "These remarks go beyond being outlandishly inaccurate and offensive. They are dangerous and revisionist, appealing to those in our society who wish to repeat patterns of discrimination."

Declaring itself "extremely disappointed" that Robertson had spoken these words -- presumably, since someone in charge must have known his mind -- A&E put him on indefinite hiatus while it sorts out the options. And so the controversy generated a second controversy among those who found the suspension offensive.

Sarah Palin weighed in with a Tweet: "Free speech is an endangered species: Those 'intolerants' hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all.") Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared, "The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. This is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views." (The fact such defenses of free speech are also attacks on free speech is just one irony in an affair rich with them.)

Still, though Robertson's ideas may be ill-informed, parochial, naive and injudicious, one could say they are only incidentally malicious.

“We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell," Robertson said in a less-quoted passage from the GQ piece. "That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?" Robertson's association of gay people with drunks and terrorists is, to be sure, not good.

Similarly, in a statement on the family's website, he wrote, "I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."

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I am sure he is sincere, however many contradictions his statements seem to contain. A statement from the family characterized him as "a Godly man" who "would never incite or encourage hate."

The outsized success of "Duck Dynasty" may seem unlikely, but it is not mysterious. Though some viewers undoubtedly watch as if gawking at animals in the zoo, many more surely find something deeply appealing there. The Robertsons are telegenic, in their way, and the material is scrupulously "clean" in a time when unworldly family entertainment is difficult to find on television. If the strategy of many reality TV shows is to bring out the worst in people, "Duck Dynasty" does quite the opposite -- it has the shape of a homespun sitcom, as if the Clampetts had elected to stay in Bug Tussel after the oil started flowing.

Reality television has the same relationship to the real world as professional wrestling does to sports; it exists in a kind of quantum state where the artificial and the authentic are one. On "Duck Dynasty," the Robertsons, while essentially themselves, are also fictionalized, just to the point where their quirkiness remains salable to a wide audience. To be a little less than real, to remain inoffensive -- that is the compact (with A&E, if not with his public or his god) that Robertson, in pushing past that point, has broken.

Though I inhabit a different reality from Robertson -- my authorities are secular and scientific, not Biblical and faith-based -- I assuredly don't believe his remarks, which were not even made on television, disqualify him from appearing on television. Except as network broadcasters are responsible to the public that owns the airwaves, ideological purity tests have no place in that medium or any other.

There are people on TV whose professed politics are not mine, but whose work I enjoy, and surely many more whose unstated ideas I would find strange, or even disturbing, were they made known.

Once Hollywood knew how to keep a lid on these things. The talent understood that, in exchange for a career, they had to surrender a certain amount of autonomy to their studio overlords. Stars were people, but they were products too.

Now as then, you probably do not have to dig down far into the celebrity substratum to turn up some strange ideas; ideas their owners are usually counseled or cautious enough to keep to themselves. But not infrequently, these ideas get out, and the apologies, clarifications and carefully engineered talk show appearances begin. That is the circus we live with now.

But that's not what's happening here. As a self-professed missionary, Robertson is bound not to keep his opinions, which he would call facts, to himself. "We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television," he told Magary.

His family, who are also his co-stars, have declared themselves ready to walk away from "Duck Dynasty" if Phil does not return to the show. They will be leaving a lot of money on the table, but they have a lot of money already, and -- whether they remain on TV or not -- they are bankable celebrities for life.

In the end, it comes down to freedom. A&E has the freedom to reckon lost revenue against lost good will and make whatever decision works best for it. (It will be a practical decision more than a moral one.) The Robertsons have every right to do likewise, within the bounds of whatever the lawyers work out. If the show continues, sponsors will make similar calculations. And, should the show return, you will be free to watch or never to watch, and to protest its ongoing existence or not.

It will settle itself one way or another, by forgiveness or forgetfulness. The world will go on, with or without a "Duck Dynasty," and will go on, by all indications, in ways that will not be to Phil Robertson's liking. On Friday, same-sex marriages were taking place in Utah, which has come as close to theocracy as any state in the union. The mayor of Salt Lake City conducted one of the first weddings himself.

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Television IndustryPhil RobertsonDuck Dynasty (tv program)Social IssuesGQHuman Rights CampaignSame-Sex Marriage
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