Phil robertson makes duck calls, but nobody can accuse him of using dog whistles. “He’s got lots of thoughts on modern immorality, and there’s no stopping them from rushing out,” Drew Magary observed in a profile of the Duck Dynasty patriarch for the January issue of GQ.
In an interview with Magary, Robertson bluntly expressed his bewilderment about male homosexuality:
It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.
“What, in your mind, is sinful?” Magary asked, to which Robinson answered:
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.
Then he paraphrased 1 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.”
Predictably, GLAAD swung into action. GLAAD is “no longer an acronym” as of March 2013, but before then it stood for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. GLAAD’s “director of news,” Ross Murray, issued a press release targeting Robertson and A&E, the network that airs Duck Dynasty. He characterized Robertson’s comments as “some of the vilest and most extreme statements uttered against LGBT people in a mainstream publication.” (Whether LGBT is still an acronym awaits further inquiry. A&E was called the Arts & Entertainment Network before 1995, and GQ was Gentleman’s Quarterly until 1967.)
Robertson’s “statement is far outside of the mainstream understanding of LGBT people,” Murray continued. He quoted GLAAD “spokesperson” Wilson Cruz as saying of Robertson: “He clearly knows nothing about gay people.” Cruz opined that “Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.”
Cruz’s wish was A&E’s command. The network quickly announced that it had “placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely,” explaining: “His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” The Cracker Barrel restaurant chain followed suit, pulling Duck Dynasty merchandise from its gift-store shelves lest it “offend some of our guests.” The chain explained that “we operate within the ideals of fairness, mutual respect, and equal treatment of all people.”
Both companies turned out to be thoroughly Marxist—not Karl but Groucho, who once said: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them—well, I have others.” Cracker Barrel took all of two days to restock its shelves. “We offended many of our loyal customers,” it noted on its Facebook page. “Our intent was to avoid offending, but that’s just what we’ve done.” A&E ended Robertson’s “hiatus” after nine days, during which he didn’t miss any filming anyway (nor did the network cancel an 11-hour Christmas marathon). “We…reiterate that they are not views we hold,” the network said in its statement to the media. “But Duck Dynasty is not a show about one man’s views.”
Such behavior is to be expected from the capitalist class. A&E and Cracker Barrel are in business to make money, and toward that end it is almost always wise to duck controversy. But A&E manifestly erred in its assumption that yielding to GLAAD’s demands would accomplish that goal.
As for Cracker Barrel, its actions were a puzzlement. The chain hadn’t even shown up on GLAAD’s radar when it yanked the merchandise. Perhaps the company is sensitive on this question owing to a 1991 incident in which gay-rights groups protested a policy under which employees were fired for not displaying “normal heterosexual behavior.” Cracker Barrel swiftly rescinded that policy, but not until 2002 did shareholders approve a measure adding sexual orientation protections to the company’s nondiscrimination rules.
There’s no doubt that public opinion about homosexuality has moved a considerable distance in GLAAD’s direction since the early 1990s. Then again, firing an employee merely for seeming gay was heavy-handed even by 1991 standards, and suspending someone over politically incorrect utterances is heavy-handed even in 2014. Still, it seems clear that the leaders of both companies overestimated the degree to which GLAAD’s views have prevailed.
The likely explanation for that mistake is that GLAAD’s views are in fact completely dominant within the elite media, a sector of which A&E is a part and from which all corporate leaders get much of their information. Consider the media’s frequent overstatement of the (admittedly increasing) support for same-sex marriage (see “Presswatch,” TAS, July/August 2012) and the case of the anonymous Washington Post reporter who saw nothing wrong with open advocacy, in news stories, on behalf of “the civil rights issue of our time” (“Presswatch,” TAS, April 2013).
Thus executives of A&E in New York and even of Cracker Barrel in Lebanon, Tennessee, were in enough of a bubble that they failed to anticipate there would be another side to the Phil Robertson kerfuffle—or, more importantly, that most of their customers would be on it.
The network’s reversal made GLAAD mad: “If dialogue with Phil is not part of next steps [sic],” it harrumphed in a statement, “then A&E has chosen profits over…gay people—especially its employees and viewers.”
At least GLAAD gets more respect than the Catholic League. In January the group’s president, Bill Donohue, issued a series of press releases protesting a piece of commentary published in U.S. News & World Report. The article, by syndicated columnist Jamie Stehm, was right out of the Know Nothing movement:
Et tu, Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Really, we can’t trust you on women’s health and human rights?…Maybe she’s just a good Catholic girl.
The Supreme Court is now best understood as the Extreme Court. One big reason why is that six out of nine Justices are Catholic. Let’s be forthright about that. (The other three are Jewish.) Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama, is a Catholic who put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence.…
In a stay order applying to an appeal by a Colorado nunnery, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Justice Sotomayor undermined the new Affordable Care Act’s sensible policy on contraception.…
Sotomayor’s blow brings us to confront an uncomfortable reality. More than WASPS [sic], Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions.
Answering Donohue’s complaints, U.S. News’s editor, Bran Kelly, said blandly that the piece was “within the bounds of fair commentary.” That would be an adequate defense in the unlikely event of a legal action, but it hardly suffices as an editorial justification of an article as ill-informed as it was bigoted: Sotomayor’s order was on a procedural motion, not the merits of the case.
Yet maybe Kelly was on to something. Media double standards are galling, and it would be a fairer world if media executives kowtowed to the Catholic League as readily as to GLAAD. But it would be a drearier one. Better one in which eccentric views are widely tolerated, and the professionally aggrieved are understood as mere eccentrics.