I thought the A&E network would deeply regret its decision to suspend “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson because of his religious beliefs, but I thought they’d gone too far to back down. And yet, back down they did, as our plucky band of Louisiana entrepreneurs decisively defeated the Thought Police and got Phil back on the air.
It might be the biggest push-back in the history of the Culture Wars, a defeat of stunning magnitude for political correctness and pressure groups like GLAAD. It will take a while to judge whether this was the Battle of Midway, a victory that turns the tide in a war, because not many people are in a position to tell the Thought Police to get bent like the Robertson family did. But a precedent has been set, and there will be shockwaves.
CNN brings us the finale to the least successful act of censorship in a decade:
Little more than a week after it suspended “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson for incendiary remarks about homosexuality, the cable channel A&E said Friday that it would include him in future tapings of the reality television show, effectively lifting the suspension amid a flurry of petitions in support of Robertson.
“After discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family,” the channel said in a statement.
In an apparent gesture to the advocacy groups, A&E said that it would “also use this moment” to broadcast public service announcements “promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people.”
Robertson’s son Willie wrote on Twitter on Friday evening, “Back to work!!! So proud of all the fans of the show and family. Ole Phil may be a little crude but his heart is good. He’s the Real Deal!”
Phil’s critics, however, are a pack of phonies who can’t get through a paragraph without misquoting him or misrepresenting his comments. For example, here’s Entertainment Weekly on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering during A&E’s nine days of bleeding from a self-inflicted wound:
But what probably helped turn the tide in the Robertsons’ favor was that the debate wasn’t as clear-cut as the network and many in the media initially assumed. Robertson and his supporters argued that his anti-gay statements were an extension of his passion for the Bible. Once that frame gained a foothold — that this fight is about religion, and the freedom to endorse biblical teachings — A&E was stuck in the awkward position of appearing to advocate against both its own star and orthodox Christianity (ironic, considering A&E Networks garnered such goodwill from Christians for taking a chance on its The Bible mini-series on History this year).
Of course, the Bible doesn’t lend any support to Robertson’s other inflammatory sentiment made during his GQ magazine interview — that blacks were better off during the Civil Rights era. But even Jon Stewart grudgingly came down on Phil Robertson’s side on that, with the Daily Show host admitting he felt “an inclination to support a world where saying ignorant s–t on television doesn’t get you kicked off that medium.”
In the interview itself, Robertson emphatically stated that he was critical of homosexual conduct, not the people themselves – “hate the sin, love the sinner,” as the ideal is commonly expressed. But now he’s almost universally described as “anti-gay” or “homophobic,” because the Thought Police will not permit this separation of behavior from the individual. And yet, the people who tried to drive Robertson off the air go ballistic when they are described as “anti-Christian,” even though the label is perfectly appropriate under their own rules. They do reserve the right to separate conduct from the individual, harshly criticizing – indeed, effectively outlawing – a belief system without hating the people who espouse it.
As for Robertson’s “inflammatory sentiment” about blacks being “better off during the Civil Rights era,” this is what he actually said:
“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.”
He’s not praising segregation, or looking down his nose at the black people of the Sixties – he explicitly states that he worked alongside them, relating his firsthand observations, and making a point about the relationship between their godliness and happiness. I notice those who are trying to squeeze juice from sour grapes over this passage, now that Phil has defeated militant gay ideology, have not been able to prove that he was lying when he relayed these observations… and if he’s being honest, what’s so “inflammatory” or “stupid” about his accurate 50-year-old memories?
It’s amusing for Entertainment Weekly to talk about the “frame” of the debate shifting to a “fight about religion.” That’s always what it was about, from Minute One. The noise generated by small gay-rights pressure groups with huge media megaphones was deafening, but it should never have obscured what Phil Robertson actually said. Likewise, it wasn’t some kind of amazing, tide-turning discovery that the Robertson family sticks together, could find plenty of venues other than A&E for their TV show, and doesn’t really need the TV show anyway. Media accounts of the A&E reversal make it sound like executives slowly learned all of this during nine grueling days of blowback, but anyone in the network boardroom with a room-temperature IQ would have known all of these things before the decision to fire Robertson was made. Reporting over the weekend made it sound like the people who run A&E are only dimly aware of what shows their network carries.
A more likely explanation is that A&E was rattled by both the number of viewers who convincingly stated they would abandon the network completely – they had to know they would most likely lose the rest of the Robertson family, and the show – combined with the reputation for weak-kneed intolerance they were developing. The blowback wasn’t only coming from the core “Duck Dynasty” audience. It’s a sign of how bad things were going for A&E that they decided looking like a pack of spaghetti-spined nincompoops by eating crow and reinstating Phil was the least damaging course of action at this point. They’re never going to hear the end of this from power players in Hollywood.
In truth, putting Phil back in the show was a much harder call for the network than dismissing him was, because they know it makes them look intolerant for firing him, cowardly for taking him back, and incompetent as hell for getting blindsided by resistance from the “Duck Dynasty” family and their fans. It’s also a stunning blow for the groups that got him thrown off the show, which no amount of tolerance PSAs or behind-the-scenes donations from the network to GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign can cushion. They’re shakedown artists; fear is their only resource. Protection rackets don’t work if the muscle gets beaten up and sent packing. Their other donors aren’t going to be thrilled over how they got their butts handed to them on a plate by a family of Bible-thumping swamp people.
Perhaps some of those donors will prove to be unhappy that these pressure groups saw fit to persecute Phil Robertson for his religious beliefs in the first place. The thing about pressure groups is that they have to make themselves appear to be indispensable, tireless champions against oppression, which means they have to go looking for fights – they have to make it seem as if the forces of hatred are but one victory away from swarming over the battlements of tolerance and equality. That’s a pretty tough sell when it comes to vigilance against “anti-gay” sentiment from the extremely supportive entertainment industry. If Phil Robertson is the worst ogre GLAAD can conjure, they might have a hard time staying in the ogre-slaying business. People of faith, on the other hand, have every reason to celebrate this victory in their ongoing struggle for breathing room in a popular culture that despises them.