By Ted Braun
Duck Dynasty had a winning combination in its A&E American reality television series—a show about a family that our nation had come to love. Its fourth season premiere drew 11.8 million viewers making it the most watched nonfiction cable series in history.
Phil Robertson, the patriarch of this remarkable family, grew up in the northeastern corner of Louisiana, and in 1972 founded a family-operated business, Duck Commander, which makes products for duck hunters, especially wooden duck calls. Robertson is a Bible-thumping Christian and a member of the White's Ferry Church of Christ. This past October his family produced a Christmas album titled "Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas."
This past December, however, his world suddenly became more turbulent. He had been interviewed by Drew Magary for an article, "What the Duck?", for the January 2014 issue of GQ magazine, and Magary had asked him "What, in your mind, is sinful?" That's when the terrain became a lot more perilous for him.
Robertson began by saying, "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and those women and those men." He went on to talk about the degrading passions and shameless acts mentioned in the first chapter of Romans, a catalog of disturbing behavior.
Little did he know, however, that nowhere does the Bible say anything about homosexuality as a sexual orientation which we now know is part of the natural makeup of a person from birth. Biblical references are primarily to certain kinds of homosexual acts, usually related to a foreign religion or practice. We have experienced the same kind of challenge in our own educational history. It wasn't so many years ago that left-handed school children were told that it was unnatural to be left-handed and were forced to write with their right hand, in many cases ending up with poor penmanship for the rest of their lives.
On Dec. 18 the blowback started. A&E announced that it was suspending Robertson from the show indefinitely for the remarks he had made. Family members said that the show could not go on without him. Conservative politicians such as Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz joined the fray, claiming that it was a matter of free speech. A&E gave in and rescinded its decision.
Even more disturbing than Robertson's homophobic remarks, however, were his racial comments: "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 farmer. 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."
Words from James Baldwin's essay "A Fly in Buttermilk" speak directly to Richardson's situation. "Segregation has worked brilliantly in the South and in fact, in the nation to this extent: It has allowed white people with scarcely any pangs of conscience whatever, to create, in every generation only the Negro they wished to see."
One of the lessons of this experience, as Salon writer Brittney Cooper points out, is that individual prejudices, and the amelioration of them, are bound up with the structures that support them.
Phil Robertson has been on the griddle for some time now. But our whole nation has also been there along with him.