Last month’s controversy over the statements of Phil Robertson, one of the yuppie-turned-redneck stars of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, dominated the airwaves and the internet, becoming yet another proxy battle for the strange tribal antagonisms that plague our society.
Sarah Palin and her cohort sprang to immediate, outrage-generating action—apparently before actually reading the GQ interview in which the comments were made—while others scrambled to affirm their LGBT-supporting bona fides by calling for Robertson’s (figurative) head. People changed their profile pictures in support, or posted snarky memes in amusement. Others (your humble columnist included) couldn’t have cared less about the whole brouhaha.
Let’s be clear, Robertson’s statements were certainly ignorant. His little diatribe about the merits of ladyparts over buttsex displayed a puritanical homophobia, blaming gay people for not only bestiality (is that like a major thing, now?), but also promiscuity among straight people. It’s the kind of mentality that comes from one of those illustrated Bible tracts from the ‘80s.
And then there was his authoritative historical pronouncement that black people were totally cool with the Jim Crow era because he never personally heard anybody say anything about “these doggone white people.” First, let’s assume that, were they motivated to speak freely, Robertson’s fellow field workers would have something a touch more sophisticated to say about the conditions they faced.
Second, in Jim Crow Louisiana, the consequences for speaking freely in front of the wrong person could be dangerous, even deadly. Robertson was born in the twilight of the lynching era, but violence and intimidation remained common tactics used in service of segregation. The existence of the civil rights movement would seem to contradict his assertion that “they were happy.”
And, from a musical history standpoint, can we just acknowledge that the statement that “no one was singing the blues” in mid-20th century Louisiana should disqualify someone from ever discussing American music under any context. Delta Blues had already been invented decades before Robertson took his first breath, and old Lead Belly himself hailed from Louisiana.
Obviously, Robertson meant nobody was complaining about their lives. The music terminology was just the kind of pseudo-folksy verbiage that people like him use to feel down-to-earth. But slice it in any direction and it still comes up stupid. But not as stupid as believing that the whole supposed controversy was anything but a merchandising and ratings stunt.
The GQ profile under discussion was actually a very favorable treatment of the show and its cast, considering it was written for a secular audience. The writer clearly bought into the family’s salt-of-the-earth act, and it seemed like he was bending over backwards to make them come off as charming and not-as-bad-as-they-say. If Phil Robertson had been more filtered in his self-expression, the profile might have been damn close to outright marketing for the show.
However, it is unlikely that the favorable tone of the article, along with its inclusion of Robertson’s unfiltered opinions about race and sexual orientation, were accidental. Duck Dynasty is a highly rated show on a major cable network with a loyal core audience, who have demonstrated willingness to purchase virtually anything associated with the show, from baseball caps to bobbleheads all the way up to special edition Mossberg rifles, shotguns, and pistols.
Because of the media attention—just in time for Christmas—sales of the show’s merchandise skyrocketed, as supporters showed their bobbleheaded loyalty. But it wasn’t just the Robertson family that benefited. Cable news personalities, bloggers, late night comedians, evangelist hustlers like Sarah Palin, and even politicians (not to mention yours truly, if you count this column) got some mileage from the dust-up.
And, in a similar fashion to the Great Miley Cyrus Crisis of 2013, the short attention span of the public has started to move on, and what seemed so consequential will become barely noteworthy. In fact, A&E has reportedly relented on Robertson’s “suspension” and begun filming episodes for the next season of the show, which will be undoubtedly greeted by even more rabid loyalty among its fanbase (not to mention at least some amount of new viewers motivated by curiosity generated from the controversy).
Maybe this new pseudo-controversy cycle is our way of responding to the frustration of dealing the realities of the modern world, almost a sitcom-like mass play-acting, where we identify the problem, have conflict about the problem, and, in the third act, leave the problem behind, with nothing of consequence truly changed.
I don’t know whether to blame the media for feeding the controversy circus, seduced by easy ratings and ready-made storylines, or ourselves for so enthusiastically taking part in it, showing where our fascination truly lies with our mountains of clicks. But I do know that as long as we allow ourselves to be distracted by the latest shiny offering from controversyland, we will be unable to have the so-called “adult conversation” our leaders keep insisting is needed to address our nation’s real problems.