Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s victory over the A&E network, which sheepishly reinstated him late Friday, is a rare culture-war victory for conservatives. Though Robertson’s controversial remarks to GQ magazine were fairly cringeworthy, it is exhilarating to see the zero-tolerance liberal commissars who police the public square with such Javert-like zeal get their, er, goose cooked by their worst nightmare: a rural, Southern, fundamentalist Christian duck hunter who does not give a tinker’s damn what they think.
Bien-pensant activists and their corporate and media enablers lecture us endlessly about the virtues of “diversity” and “tolerance.” In fact, these are Orwellian terms they use to mask the intolerant monoculture that they truly desire — one that sends dissenters from the maximalist gay-rights line to … well, the closet.
We may (must?) celebrate a gay man hanging naked by hooks embedded in his back before a cheering crowd — as happened at this year’s Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, the annual sadomasochism festival, sponsored in part by Marriott Hotels and American Airlines — but we must banish from public sight a Bible-quoting fundamentalist who believes what nearly all Christians believed about homosexuality until around 50 years ago. A society in which St. Paul’s letters are considered “hate speech” is one with no place for traditional Christians. And people are surprised that these Christians push back?
The thing is, gay-rights activists have won the culture war. America has changed and is changing with astonishing speed. Many Christians who still believe normative Christian teaching on sexuality (and not just homosexuality) regretted Robertson’s coarse and dehumanizing language, preferring instead the more irenic tone struck by Pope Francis (who, by the way, shares the Duck patriarch’s basic view of the moral status of homosexuality). The Phil Robertsons have lost power and are fading into history. So why are gay activists and their supporters behaving like sore winners?
Similarly, the generation of white Southerners to which the 67-year-old Robertson belongs is passing away. His memories of how peaceful and happy black people were in the Jim Crow era were factually and morally wrong, but they were no surprise to me. I grew up in rural Louisiana and live there today. You hear many older whites talk that way about conditions in their youth, and by no means are they expressing a wish to return to segregation.
Are they morally blind on the question of race and history? Yes, mostly. But the more interesting question their opinion raises is why otherwise good people failed to see what was right in front of them. It’s not a simply a matter of personal racism. If you grow up in a culture that conditions you not to see how it abuses black people, is there any wonder that you don’t have memories of black people being abused? “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” said Orwell. This is the kind of thing he was talking about.
This is not to justify Robertson’s remarks, but to understand them as a product of their era. This past summer, I attended public meetings in my town about our new form of government. The unapologetic antiwhite racism expressed by some black citizens took me aback. Later, I realized that these men and women, all in their 60s, had grown up amid the violence and cruelty of Jim Crow’s demise. The distorting legacy of Jim Crow clouds their vision too.
Too many of us — black and white, liberal and conservative, gay and straight, religious and secular — prefer the comforts of outrage and the self-absolution of victimhood to the struggle to see what is in front of our noses, in all its complexity.
Robertson’s harshest critics don’t see what his legions of fans do: he is not a troglodytic bigot, but a rough man, of rough speech, who loves his God and his family. Aside from the mountain-man beard, Robertson looks and sounds a lot like them, or at least people they know, love and respect, even if they disagree with them. When they see Robertson’s livelihood threatened by the politically correct outrage brigades, they know the same thing could happen to them. Because he’s rich and famous, Robertson can fight back; his triumph against A&E and GLAAD is a rare victory for people who are accustomed to losing.
You know what would be nice? If the people who make and shape culture — TV producers, journalists, activists and the like — would take this moment to reflect on how ignorant and intolerant they are of their own country, and the world beyond their cultural bubble. Here’s a reading assignment for them: The Righteous Mind, a 2012 book by University of Virginia research psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
Haidt, a secular liberal, explores social-science findings that educated, upper-middle-class Americans are the most extreme moral outliers in the world. That is, the moral framework they impose on human thought and behavior is radically alien to the moral perceptions of the overwhelming majority of humanity. This doesn’t make them wrong, but it does make them extremely unusual.
These happen to be the people who populate and direct America’s culture-making institutions. They are often every bit as parochial as those they condemn, but flatter themselves that they are the tolerant, cosmopolitan ones. I have lived in Manhattan, and I live once again in my tiny south Louisiana hometown. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the border between narrow-minded and tolerant runs not between city and country, North and South, degreed and uneducated, but down the middle of every human community and every human heart.
“Anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another,” Haidt writes.
The Duck Dynasty mess revealed that not all fundamentalists live in the Bible Belt, and that some of the biggest hicks live in Hollywood. The Duckman’s win is a score for authentic diversity and pluralism in the public square, and a victory for the right to be wrong without being ruined.