The ongoing “culture wars” in the U.S. have recorded a fascinating new chapter in the wake of recent inflammatory comments made by Phil Robertson, the patriarch of “Duck Dynasty,” the wildly popular reality TV show on the Arts & Entertainment Network, in GQ Magazine.
Robertson, the sardonic, camo-wearing, long-bearded elderly man from the backwoods of northern Louisiana, and his extended family, have become the unlikeliest of television superstars. But when he denigrated homosexuals and African-Americans in GQ -- among other things, he equated gay sexual activity with bestiality and claimed black people down South were “happy” prior to the Civil Rights movement during his youth -- his employers at A&E were placed in an extremely uncomfortable bind, and they suspended him from the program. Phil also unambiguously defended his views by linking them to his faith in the teachings of the Bible and fundamental Christianity, thereby affirming the paranoia of conservative Evangelicals who believe the liberal, secular media is out to destroy them.
But something far more important than politics or faith are at stake here -- money, and lots of it. "Duck Dynasty" -- which attracts up to 14 million fans (an extraordinary figure for a cable reality TV show) and which has generated many more tens of millions of advertising dollars for the network -- was essentially put on hiatus after Phil Robertson was suspended. Now it is unclear when or if "Duck Dynasty" will return to A&E as both sides appear to be settling in for the long haul. For the record, Phil Robertson’s family assert they cannot continue to appear on the program without their leader. With a reported net worth of some $400 million (a fortune derived from manufacturing duck calls and other hunting and fishing gear), the Robertson clan really does not need another dime; if the show is canceled, they will not be hurt financially in a significant way.
Meanwhile, the cultural polarities in the United States have moved in predictable ways in response to the "Duck Dynasty" controversy: Conservatives like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal have defended Phil Robertson, while liberals, black and gays -- including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, GLAAD and NOW -- have lambasted him as a racist and a homophobe. I admit I have been a huge fan of "Duck Dynasty" and have, if you’ll pardon the expression, “religiously” watched it for about the past six months -- even though I generally shun reality programs. I discovered it quite by accident flipping through the channels -- I thought it was another outdoor nature show, the type they typically feature on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet.
As I watched, I became intrigued and fascinated by this strange family from near West Monroe, Louisiana -- they were funny, warm, eccentric, charming and, yes, their adventures were somewhat contrived and rather scripted. (One of the enduring questions of life is how “real” these “reality shows” are). Yet I came back to it repeatedly as I had never seen a show quite like this on TV before. The Robertsons (all the men are long, skinny and bearded like Biblical prophets and the women are all beautiful, perfectly coiffed and accessorized) appealed to me greatly as an exaggerated, comical version of the Southern redneck culture that I have long admired and found entertaining.
In short, there is nothing remotely offensive about "Duck Dynasty" -- to the contrary, the show seems to promote such ideals as family, faith, hard work and (perhaps most important) not taking oneself too seriously. Of course, if you have a built-in hatred of southern rednecks and hillbillies and the whole Southern hunting lifestyle (like many people in the Northeastern U.S. and the West Coast do), you will likely ridicule these Cajuns or simply not watch the program. I can understand that -- this country is comprised of hundreds of subcultures, many of which have nothing to do with each other and perhaps detest one another.
However, I suspect that one of the motivations for the executives at A&E to broadcast "Duck Dynasty" was to attract viewers who hate and laugh at rednecks (as a way of fulfilling their deep-seated cultural prejudices). But this plan backfired -- the show became a massive hit, and I doubt the majority of "Duck Dynasty" fans mock the bearded boys who love frog-hunting, destroying beaver dams and gently making fun of each other.
I also suspect (on a much larger scale) that something similar happened more than 40 years ago when CBS first debuted "All in the Family" and its resident working-class bigot, Archie Bunker. Half the audience likely laughed at Archie, while the other half laughed with him (and everyone loved the show because it was so well-made). Meanwhile, controversy surrounding Archie’s language and views only served to jack up ratings for years -- and everybody associated with the show got rich.
There are also questions as to why A&E even allowed its cash cow to be interviewed by a publication like GQ -- did it think GQ was enamored with Phil Robertson’s two-foot-long beard, grooming skills and camouflage clothes? Of course, it is unlikely that A&E would want to intentionally torpedo such a goldmine like "Duck Dynasty" by allowing Phil Robertson to spew his uncensored, reactionary views so freely. On the other hand, if this whole saga was a calculated public relations move to increase the show's already-high ratings (and maximize profits), it has worked beautifully. I know a number of people who have never before watched "Duck Dynasty" (and wouldn’t even THINK of watching such a program) and now are glued to it -- all due to the massive media firestorm Phil Robertson’s comments have generated.
Alas, there are many fascinating aspects to this mushrooming story, but I want to focus on one facet: Phil Robertson's attack on gays, which seem to have elicited more outrage than his comments about blacks.
Consider these comments on homosexuality and lesbians by another very famous man:
* "From [our] point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women [sex] is generally considered sexual misconduct.”
* "Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”
* “They want me to condone homosexuality … [but] a relationship between two men is wrong.”
And these comments on oral sex and masturbation:
* "Even with your own wife, using one's mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct."
* “A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else.”
* “[Our] sexual proscriptions ban homosexual activity and heterosexual sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or other sexual activity with the hand.”
* "The purpose of sex is reproduction ... The other holes don’t create life. I don’t mind -- but I can’t condone this way of life.”
* “Sexual organs were created for reproduction between the male element and the female element -- and everything that deviates from that is not acceptable from [our] point of view.”
The aforementioned statements were attributed to Tenzin Gyatso, better known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, one of the most revered figures in the world (outside of China, that is). Phil Robertson and the Dalai Lama may have scarcely little in common -- in fact, they exist light years apart in lifestyle and conduct. But both of these disparate figures have expressed remarkably similar statements about homosexuality and "deviant" sexual practices. And both based their views on their respective scriptural texts.
And like the duck-hunter, the Dalai Lama also qualified his comments by insisting he espouses love and acceptance of all people (even those who engage in "wrong" kinds of sex). Strangely, the Dalai Lama has never faced the kind of opprobrium that Robertson has -- the Dalai Lama is, after all, an icon of peace and brotherhood, almost a modern-day saint, while the grizzled old man from Louisiana is just a TV star. Moreover, the Dalai Lama is a monk who has advocated for millions and taken a vow of celibacy, while Phil Robertson is, uh ... clearly not a monk.
But, if you hate Phil Robertson and his views, kindly remember that someone you probably like -- a bald, smiling, bespectacled Tibetan man -- harbors those exact same attitudes. And in both cases, they strongly believe that God is on their side.