Friday, December 20, 2013

The Trouble With Phil

Let's start with what was actually said.  Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, in a series of unscripted interviews with GQ, said the following, igniting a storm of controversy, accusation, and cultimating in his eventual suspension from his show on A&E.

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.”

On sin and sinfulness
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

Almost overnight, Robertson has gone from a pop-culture star to a cause celeb on the American Right with the likes of Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin wading into the media waters to defend him.  Most of those defenses echo the same "free speech" refrain -- Robertson was only speaking his mind and he has a first amendment right to do so.

And he does have a right to do that -- the trouble with it as a defense is that no one is taking that right away from him.  Robertson's not in prison and no one is threatening him with anything like it.  Invoking the 1st Amendment in Robertson's defense amounts to an endorsement of some kind of government regulation prohibiting businesses from firing people for things they say to the media.  It's hard to imagine that Palin and Jindal would actually back such a measure.

Ultimately the problem with Robertson's comments isn't the faith behind them; it's the politics they inform.  Suggesting that pre-civil-rights black people in Louisiana were happy and godly and that post-civil-rights black people aren't suggests that the systematic racism and oppression which characterized the Jim Crow south was somehow good for African Americans.  That line of argument picks up the patronizing notion of a "white man's burden" lumps it together with an implied racial component to entitlement and welfare, and flings the whole sordid mess at the feat of the people who fought for equal rights.

Likewise, Robertson's judgments on sin -- ignoring the patent absurdity of placing homosexuality at the center of some kind of hierarchy of sinfulness -- has repercussions in the world of politics.  While Robertson does condemn adulterers, idolaters, and prostitutes as well as drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers in the same breath, those people do not find themselves in the unenviable position of having their government judge them ineligible for participation in civil institutions by virtue of their sins.  While Roberson's defenders point to an apparent lack of concern for his identification of drunks as sinners, the fact is that drunks are not out fighting for their right to sit by a loved one's deathbed and comfort him in his final hours.

Homosexuals are.

Robertson's comments could thus be understood more succinctly to mean "ya'll don't need rights; you need Jesus."

For those fighting and sacrificing for those rights such a sentiment is deeply offensive.