I have to admit I feel a bit silly even commenting on this story at all. I don't watch Duck Dynasty and I certainly spend very little time thinking about it. I have passing familiarity with the premise of the show and with the family whose antics it portrays. I know their story, and I know that they are very popular in some circles, for various reasons.
By now you almost certainly know that A&E has "caved," announcing that Phil Robertson would return to the show. I have a hard time believing that this whole affair was something other than a publicity stunt, designed to get people talking about the show in advance of the upcoming fifth season premiere. The main reason why I suspect a stunt is A&E's disproportionate initial response. Let's face it: Phil didn't say anything that he's never said before, at least in character if not verbatim, and he's never made any secret of his claim to adhere to the Bible in forming his opinions about matters like homosexuality. There is simply no reason why A&E would act as it did now after all of these years. So the most likely explanation is that it was a set-up.*
* - I suspect that there is some sort of internal war at A&E over this show. Despite the fact that DD makes A&E a lot of money, there are very likely some powerful people at the network who really don't like holding these people up as paragons of wholesomeness, and someone seized on an opportunity to use the network to make a statement about their own values.
This incident, however, has nonetheless provided an opportunity to talk about some aspects of our society in which there is a seemingly intractable conflict and prompted some people to speak about things of which they have lately been silent.
Phil's supporters were quick to howl about A&E's supposed infringement of his free speech rights. I can tell you as a lawyer that the First Amendment protects against government action, and A&E is a private company. Phil can say what he wants to say and he's not going to jail for it, but A&E is just as free to fire him for saying those things.
But that's mostly a diversion. The larger outcry is from the people who (1) agree with the sentiments he expressed, (2) heard him called a bigot, and (3) don't like being called bigots, even by implication. Those people took the further step of claiming to be the oppressed party in our society, a group of people with old-fashioned ideas about values and sexuality who (apparently) want to denigrate, in the crudest of terms, those whose proclivities and activities fall outside their own, yet cannot freely express themselves without being called names.
The old "PC" canard even made an appearance. I have been hearing the term "politically correct" for something like 25 years. In all of that time, I have never heard that term used by anyone as something aspirational (as in "I really wish you would make your comments more politically correct").
Instead, the term "politically correct" is used by people
who want to be free to express bigotry without being called bigots for
it. It's true that one of the overarching goals of the modern progressive movement is to convince people to be less bigoted. But the speech you use is merely a by-product of what you think. I am really not interested in people hiding their bigotry; there is no need to modify your speech to reflect something you don't believe.
That is, I think it's better for the Phil Robertsons of the world to make it clear, for example, that they view homosexuality and bestiality as pretty much the same thing (and, oddly, the source of sin), or that blacks were better off and happier under Jim Crow. If people hide their wrongheaded views, they tend to fester because we never know to respond to them.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.** wrote once that "The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract."
** - Holmes, Sr. was the father, quite naturally, of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of the great Supreme Court justices and a close friend of Louis Brandeis, about whom I have written previously.
By derisively calling respect for others "political correctness,"
bigots seek to undermine the power of the central progressive message:
that we're all in this together.
As I was discussing this issue with a longtime friend, one who is a big fan of Duck Dynasty and who shares those religious sensibilities, I found myself making a meta-argument in trying to explain to her that she was mischaracterizing my side's position. I realized at that point that the fundamental problem here isn't that the two sides don't understand each other. It's that there are sides in the first place.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not against "sides" per se. But here's an illustration of the problem: Sarah Palin, the half-term governor turned professional loudmouth, was quick to Phil Robertson's defense, talking about how A&E was oppressing him for his Christian beliefs and violating his free speech rights. Later, she admitted that she hadn't even read the comments she was defending. He could have been advocating for the summary execution of homosexuals, for all she knew. But she knew one thing: In her worldview, you're either with her or you're with the enemy, and Phil Robertson was definitely with her.
This is a problem, not because Sarah Palin's a halfwit, but because it's symptomatic of the sort of tribalism that is tearing this country apart. When you have one party controlled by a core group of people who are fiercely dedicated to the propositions that our nation works best as a theocracy and that compromise is the worst swear word you can say, our whole system is in danger. When James Madison and his crew were writing the Constitution, they were operating from a set of initial conditions in which the various factions disagreed about policy, often vigorously, but were willing to accept the validity of a democratic framework as a mechanism for resolving those differences and moving forward together. They understood that the fabric of our nation was knit from the structure of our governance, not from commonality of religion or of heritage or of class or of interest.
That framework has been often tested, and it has been found wanting only once: When our nation became so divided against itself that we took up arms against each other. The darkening clouds of division and insurrection led Abraham Lincoln in 1858, when accepting the Republican nomination for Senator from Illinois, famously to paraphrase Mark 3:25: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Fortunately, our Union survived that test, but it took everything we had and then some.
The problem with Phil Robertson's comments is not that he makes them but that he believes them and in all that they imply. His whole belief structure appears to be built around the idea that there is an "other," a person who differs from him and who is therefore less deserving than he is of respect, of participation, of equality. You can be sure that he doesn't truly believe he is equal to homosexuals--or, for that matter, to the kind of uppity black folks who demand things like equal rights instead of just happily singing in the fields.
That makes him a bigot. And there is nothing wrong with calling him a bigot, or with calling his ideas bigoted, or with saying that he is free, but wrong, to believe as he does and speak as he does, not so much because of the content of those ideas but because they are designed to separate American from American, to separate human from human, without any reason other than to lift up Phil Robertson by pushing others down. That makes him the oppressor, not the oppressed.