I does it!
At least I should get a whippin’ for posting about this already tired story, but what the duck! I have a few words to tap out over Phil Robertson’s interview with GQ Magazine.
For me, the most striking thing about the recent dust-up over the Duck Dynasty star is a recurrent theme of decoys and deceptions, perhaps even self-deception. In the GQ article, the author’s (Drew Magary) focuses on one prominent theme about the show itself, the role of Duck Dynasty in a message of redemption. That message begins (at least chronologically) with Phil Robertson’s own transformation from an drunken, abusive, and neglectful husband and father to an upstanding head of a household filled righteous dignity. The message will end, so we are told when Duck Dynasty has run its course and Phil is free to make his ministry into a full-time occupation – barring breaks for duck-hunting of course. For Magary, the real story of Duck Dynasty is one of personal redemption. The beards, the ducks, and all the rest are but flavor for that story.
And suddenly it seems ever-so fitting that a man who has made his living off a device intended to lure ducks in for hunters might have used a show to lure in the audience for a sermon on how to live one’s life. The intent itself seems a little bit more benign, at least at this level, but it is still very much a false-front operation. And fair enough, as far as it goes. The Robertson family certainly doesn’t hide their beliefs in the show, and yet they have surrounded themselves with artifice. A family of well-costumed men, playing out a series of scripted scenarios; this is the same sort of pap television has been selling as ‘reality’ for some time now. Even the apparently rustic backwater home is carefully engineered to maintain just the sort of rustic lifestyle this opponent of modern technology wants to live and to show us on television. Phil’s faith may be one of the most sincere features of the show, wrapped as it is in a facade of down-home-ish nonsense. So, I suppose it is fitting, almost noble, that Phil would hope the success of Duck Dynasty might in the end furnish him with a means to do something more substantive.
There isn’t much reason to doubt that Phil is serious about his core message, about the role of Christ in redemption as he sees it. After all, Christianity was central to his own transformation, a transformation that does indeed seem to have been quite dramatic. In assuming that the road to redemption is the same path the rest of us must ultimately take, he is hardly out of step with the mainstream Christian practice. For Robertson, his troubled pas is what comes of sin, and Jesus is the only answer to those problems, just as he would be for the rest of us. This is where his message begins to chafe. The major controversies in this story begin when Phil explains what it will take to go down the path towards Jesus. The tricky parts of the trail would seem to include the following:
It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.
Phil On Growing Up in Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Louisiana
‘I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. 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.’
I should say at this point that I am at least a little concerned about the context behind Magary’s presentation of the racial politics. I am currently taking the block above at face value, though the quote itself does not contain a direct reference to segregation era politics. Magary fills that in himself with a heading for the block quote on the subject. If Robertson didn’t mean to address that particular topic with these comments, then I shall have to revise my thinking on that particular point.
[Robertson]Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”
[Magary]What, in your mind, is sinful?
[Robertson]’Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,’ he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: ‘Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers–they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.’
For conservative Christians, this is pretty standard fare. Phil is preaching a gospel of self-reliance and upstanding moral conduct. The power of this message can be seen in the narrative of Phil’s own life, and many conservative Christians will no doubt claim it can be seen in their own lives as well. Ultimately, they might suggest, what Phil is offering is salvation, not condemnation, and that is surely a message of love.
Who could deny that message? Who could reject that love?
It should be added that much of the conservative Christian defense of Phil Robertson (including the family’s own public statement on the matter) has centered on the notion that his views are essentially Biblical in nature. To reject his views one is, so the implication would seem, to reject the Bible. And who could deny that?
Well, I’ll be your huckleberry.
More to the point, there is a great deal more than scripture in Phil’s views, and his chosen horribles (welfare dependence and homosexual behavior) are not dictated by scripture. They are dictated by the politics of modern conservatism.
That Phil denies the horrors of Jim Crow is particularly telling, and particularly disturbing. Perhaps he didn’t see anyone mistreat a black man (though I suspect it more likely that he didn’t recognize it when he did, or that he simply won’t admit it); but Phil goes beyond his personal experience to suggest that blacks were better off in the days of segregation. The notion that Jim Crow was not-so-bad and that welfare is an absolute evil are both hallmarks of modern conservatism. One can no doubt cobble-together a scriptural argument or three on this topic, but that is the way the genre works. It’s a big book, and one can find a broad range of ideas in there, especially is he is fast and loose with the particulars. In point of fact, Robertson’s views on this point are those of the Republican party.
Regarding homosexuality, we may begin by noting that Robertson does not merely say that it is sinful; he uses it as the paradigm case of sinfulness, even going so far as to suggest that other forms of sin can be understood as transformations of homosexuality. This too is a modern pre-occupation, and it is a telling one. I still remember my days on christianforums.com, back when it was the largest Christian forum on the net. The biggest divisions on that forum were not those between Catholic and Protestant or even between Christian and non-Christian. No, the defining battles of that forum were fought over homosexuality and its significance for membership, moderation, and its user-iconography. For all the richness of Christian traditions, and all the varieties of life commitments Christians can make, in the public sphere the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian is today first and foremost a question of how one views homosexuality. This foregrounding of the issue does not come from scripture, much less from Jesus; it is a function of modern politics.
Conservative Christians have employed a great variety of means to argue the point about homosexuality, some plausible, many outright ignorant or deceitful. But what do we get from Phil? In this interview, we get a sermon on the aesthetic benefits of a vagina. The Bible is a big book, but I somehow doubt that is in there. More to the point, I doubt that is where Phil got his thoughts on that particular matter.
There is something particularly disturbing, almost pornographic, about the way some homophobes talk about mechanics of anal sex. The notion that anal sex is somehow-the go-to moment for questions about the meaning of homosexuality is hardly obvious. It misses questions about oral and digital sex, anal sex occurring in straight couples, and (I believe) the vast majority of acts occurring between lesbian couples. It is by no means obvious that this is the sex act of choice for gay men either. And all of this ignores the larger questions of love and the formation of relationships, be they fleeting or long-lasting. Still, one finds folks like Phil meditating on the act of anal sex as if it is the key to the whole issue. That’s just a little creepy.
Did I say that the interest was almost pornographic? Let’s just delete the ‘almost’!
The bottom line is that there is a great deal worth objecting to in Phil’s comments, and much of it simply does not come from the Bible so much as the Republican play book. Small wonder that Phil tells us he voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. Fair enough, he may vote for whomever he wishes, but his stated reason is pathetic (I’ll leave it to y’all to look it up in the article). But I’ve already spent too long on the details, which have been hashed over dozens of times in other posts.
Coming to the point of the matter, what I hear from conservative Christians on this subject is that this is not a message of hatred; it is a message of love and redemption. I can even see a certain case for this, or at least the outlines of a consistent narrative. Phil isn’t saying these things to be hurtful, so the argument goes; he is saying them because he believes that people need Christ in order to overcome the terrible consequences of a life of sin. What looks like condemnation is in fact, so the argument goes, righteous criticism, all part of an effort to help people find the right path. That right path is of course the one Phil has followed, and the one we must all follow. To describe all of this as hatred or cruelty would seem to be a deliberate misreading of the man’s intent.
This is all well enough, providing that one accepts Phil’s narrative at face value, providing one accepts at face value that the horrors Phil is calling out really are horrors. If they are not, then it is a perverse comfort to hear that he is offering hope of salvation. It is hardly a token of love and affection to follow baseless attacks with assertions of hope for change. And herein lies the heartbreaking feature about all this rhetoric; it asks us to simply accept the premise that homosexuality is evil without any evidence (or with the scant evidence of scriptures, many of which are poorly understood by those citing them). Failing that it asks us to accept at face value that Christians believe this premise at least, and to measure their own actions in the light of this belief. Thus, does a premise wholly without foundation become a given for purposes of the conversation about homosexuality, and the intent of people spreading genuinely harmful messages rises to a height beyond reproach. The love in this sort of sermon thus becomes the perfect cover for a harmful message, and its human source is hidden behind a Godly facade.
It does not add to the case for Phil’s love and compassion that his thoughts on the subject would stretch to a defense of segregation or pornographic meditations on other people’s sex lives. This is not merely a reflection of Godly thought; it is perfectly human, and to many of us perfectly contemptible.
This kind of love feels an awful lot like hatred. It looks like hatred, it sounds like hatred, and it smells like hatred. All the talk of love and redemption does little to change this impression, nor does do much to change the impact of such messages on the actual world. Countless African-Americans suffered through life under the system that Phil appears to be defending, and high suicide rate among those of homosexual persuasion alone is enough to give the lie to the distinction between sin and sinner. You simply cannot condemn the most basic elements of a person’s sex drive and then say; “no harm done, I love you.”
It just doesn’t work.
The aftermath of the interview is interesting enough. We all know that A&E suspended Phil. Well, maybe not all of us. The folks at Fox seem to think A&E declared war on Christianity, but of course they also think there is a war on Christmas. Note to Fox: if you want an example of an actual war incited by media, y’all can look at Iraq and the propaganda that you used to sell that disaster. Sarah Palin and hoards of similarly illiterate people (et tu Joe Perry) have hyped this as a free speech issue, thus throwing yet another decoy out into the pond. It has since come to light that Palin did not actually read the interview in question, but I suppose it should come as no surprise to anyone that she didn’t read something or that this fact did not prevent her from commenting on the matter.
More to the point, this simply isn’t a free speech issue, nor is it an issue of A&E silencing Christians, as many have pretended. It looks to me like A&E has been giving this particular Christian a forum for 5 years. Phil Robertson is certainly free to preach his message, just as he has done before (and it should be noted his actually a very skilled public speaker). Just like the rest of us, he must bear the consequences of his own speech, and if that includes trouble with his employers, then this is part of the price of freedom.
For those of us not privy to the negotiations going on behind the scenes, it is unclear as to whether or not A&E ever intended to keep Phil off the show permanently, but for the moment is appears that Phil’s supporters have enough weight to put Phil back on the show and the Robertson family back in the Cracker Barrel. Whether it because of greater numbers of greater passion, they appear to be winning the battle over Phil’s presence on the show. But this battle too is not what meets the eye. It simply is not a battle over free speech; it is a battle over the thoughts and ideas Phil actually communicated in that speech. Simply put, the vast majority of Phil’s supporters are not merely defending his right to say what he wants; they are endorsing his message itself
Is that a message of love?
Sure it is.
It is about as authentic as a duck call made from a blind.