Thoughts on Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty

I like to watch TV, which is why I don’t own one. Plus, I watch plenty of television shows online, so having a television would at this point interfere with my television watching. Needless to say, I’ve never watched a full Duck Dynasty episode, although some snippets here and there, a quick Google search, and not living under a rock give me a decent general impression.

I started watching Survivor this past year and really like it. I also like Project Runway, although I was recently put off by the otherwise wonderful Tim Gunn, when he seemed incapable of admitting that network considerations go into the judging process during the last episode of the previous season.

One thing I especially like about Survivor is that it is “reality television,” but it is also a game. Like all games, the entire set-up is artificial and the game itself operates in a moderated and controlled fashion. There is no confusion about what is real. At the same time, they also try to make it seem more real than it really is: the content is edited, interviews and spotlights are chosen and placed, snakes are filmed as though the contestants were living in serpent-infested jungles. You never see or hear anything about the camera crew or the recording equipment.

Another pair of reality television shows, Pawnstars and Pickers, started to bother me. After a week or so of streaming them, the episodes smelled funny, even though I often liked them. I did a little bit of research and realized that they are pretty much scripted and most of the deals are prepared in advance. Either way, I still enjoy them, sometimes, but more in the sense that I like to watch a sitcom.

In many ways, Seinfeld was more real than this stuff is. I often remark that The Onion is the only real news anymore because it admits in advance that it is fake news. Anchorman 2 is a brilliant satire of the process. (I liked it much better than that rather tortured and flat motivational poster, Gravity.)

When I think of Duck Dynasty, the first thing that comes to mind is what I tried to write about yesterday: it is absolutely not real. All television is fake, to some degree, but this is at least doubly fake. I think this should be the first thing we notice about it. Sure, Phil Robertson is a real person, but his persona on the screen is not. It is like when Will Ferrell plays Anchorman.

We have to distinguish in our minds and hearts the character of Phil Robertson and the real person. That is not to say that those two things cannot overlap. It is simply to maintain a sane distinction and use it to navigate the situation.

Another thing that seems obvious is that Duck Dynasty is hardly something like Firing Line or Bill Moyers — or The Office or The Simpsons, or even Sherlock or Breaking Bad. Let’s be very honest that there is nothing this sort of program offers to the intellect or serious aesthetic sensibility.

Duck Dynasty is interesting though, in a very depressing way. The recent obsession with wild, primitive, and unshaved “reality,” seems to be a stark commentary on the domesticated, overdeveloped, and closely manicured, plastic life our culture — if we can call it that — weans us on. This is a weak and mendicant age, we are pets, trained and groomed and scared. To prove it, even that primal picture must be managed and scripted and produced and sold.

The cycle gets more absurd when you consider the fact that we are now immersed in a media about media. Television about television. We are watching what we are watching. We take selfies. Take that, Descartes.

When it comes to his interview with GQ magazine, my first reaction was, “What in the world is this guy doing in GQ Magazine?” I don’t subscribe to or read GQ, but I was under the impression that it was primarily a fashion periodical. But, then again, the image of Duck Dynasty has developed something like a chic camouflage Americana, a throwback to The Beverly Hillbillies in the age after the rise of Bill Clinton.

In terms of what he actually said, I was not offended by it in the least. I took no offense, personal or otherwise, to his opinions on homosexuality or even civil rights. I’ve heard far worse and I have a tin ear to politically incorrect talk. I even enjoy it, sometimes. What was vexing to me, especially since I read this all after the fact, was that his opinions were absolutely uninteresting. Predictable even. A slightly edgier and older and less funny version of Larry the Cable Guy.

If he said something truly offensive, with clever reasons for saying it, I would have been delighted and impressed.

I don’t care what anyone thinks so much as I care about how well they think about their own thinking, and have the wit to deliver it in a way that rings and has something to it.

So I’m stuck. One the one hand, I am bored by the hang-wringing and the righteous defense of A&E and demonizing of Mr. Robertson. Television has far darker and more revolting things hidden in plain sight. On the other hand, I am annoyed by the martyrdom of a guy who plays a semi-real role in a lowbrow cable television show. He doesn’t deserve either response. I don’t even think he deserved an interview in a periodical like GQ. But who does?

When you look at the details of what he actually said, the only thing that bothered me in a small way was his rehearsal of this common, but stupid and ahistorical, refrain that suffers from a serious blindness to the role of homoeroticism in the cultural formation of the masculine West. I revel in this and don’t see why it is so routinely and easily ignored. The homoerotic is very old, and any true conservative, who values the intellectual tradition of the West, should have no excuse for pretending that it doesn’t exist.

But Phil Robertson isn’t an intellectual or a man of letters. He’s a businessman and a very good one. But he is hardly Mark Cuban. He’s an actor, too. He got himself into GQ, he said some rather impolitic, but dull and quite generic, caricatured things about homosexuals and Black people, based upon, so it seems, his thoughts and experiences and worldview. On Christianity, he comes off as an inarticulate, low-Church Protestant.

I cannot be angry at him personally, he is what he is and there are many out there like him, but I can be quite put off at the fact that everyone thinks that he is important. If you want to listen to someone who is weird but interesting and overlooked, check out Jaron Lanier.

I haven’t said much about A&E, mainly because I don’t think there is much to be said. Shows get cut and changed every week. Political consideration go into this. Freedom of speech and hate speech and speech in general is a stupid thing to try and pretend like we can have rules for. I hate the Constitution and won’t invoke it like it helps anything.

In the end, I am grateful for Pope Francis in times like these. I am glad that he is a person whom I can read and study and discuss, and not people like Mr. Robertson. I think Catholics who find themselves more friendly towards Robertson’s words on homosexuality than Francis’ should feel at least a little bit silly.

I feel bad, really, for all the poor souls who are losing sleep and time over him and his life and his television show. They should read more. We all should. I am going to watch a movie.

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