'The last thing I'd do is condemn you'

'The last thing I'd do is condemn you' September 23, 2011

Last month I was surfing a bit at The Blacklisted Journalist — an awkwardly designed website hosting the writings of Al Aronowitz. I was looking for his August Blues, which is a lovely thing:

August is the month when wars start. It’s when the water dries up and the spirit begins to wither. Insomniacs pull down their shades and lock themselves in their rooms in August. Lifelong friends have fist fights. People feel like they’re going to burst. Sometimes they do.

… I suppose it has to do with the sun and the heat and the planets and the stars. Brian Epstein died in August. So did Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, although their August stretched through an Indian summer. It’s no accident the Jewish New Year begins then. August sometimes lasts until the sound of the ram’s horn. People move in September. School starts. Somehow the pulse revives. People begin to think about lighting fires for winter. Finally, August lets go like the leaves from the trees. And the weirdness ends.

While browsing there I tripped across the trippy account of Aronowitz’s long friendship with Scott Ross, a talk-show host on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Ross had also been a creature of the 1960s counterculture — a rock-and-roll radio DJ married to a former member of the Ronettes. Aronowitz and Ross remained friends after Ross became a born-again, Pentecostal Christian and went to work for Robertson. (For the Dylan-obsessed Aronowitz, I suppose, everyone was entitled to their “born-again” phase.)

What struck me most in the profile was Ross’ gratitude and admiration toward his boss, including this anecdote recounted by Ross:

Back in the ’60s, I brought in a bunch of rock and rollers, vagrants who’d been in jail the night before. They were a rock and roll band. I brought them into the studio and said, “Let’s listen to a song that represents who they are.” I think they did a Dylan song. The people at the Christian Broadcasting Network were so angry, they walked out the studio. I had brought in ‘these dirty heathen’ off the street. One of the CBN women pointed out a girl in the group and said, “She doesn’t have any underwear on! She’s sitting on that brand, new couch and God’s money built this place!” I don’t know how the woman knew the girl didn’t have any underwear on, but there you are!

I came out of the studio because my TV crew had walked out on me. I’m standing out in the middle of the hallway of this brand, new building, which had been dedicated just a few weeks before. All these people are yelling and screaming and walking up and down the halls and waving their arms. and Pat comes down the stairs and says, “What’s going on here?” And they point at me and say, “He brought in these rock and rollers and that girl doesn’t have any underwear and they’re filthy people and this is God’s building dedicated to God’s purposes.” And Pat just looked at all these people and said, “The day this building becomes more important than those people, I will personally burn this building to the ground.”

That story seems so out of character compared to the person Robertson had become by the time Aronowitz was writing this (in 1996) and compared to the person Pat Robertson is today.

These days it’s very hard to imagine Robertson welcoming a bunch of hippies off the street — or declaring people like that to be more important than property. Putting people ahead of property violates the platform he ran on as a Republican candidate for president in 1988.

I suppose what’s most startling to me about Ross’ anecdote is that it’s a reminder that Robertson wasn’t always, and perhaps didn’t originally set out to become, the right-wing huckster, media mogul and political power-broker that he is today. Much of what Robertson does these days appears as cynical ploys for power and money — from the perpetual telethon of his TV programming, to his peddling of quackish dietary supplements, to his publishing books filled with John Birch nuttery and conspiracy theories plagiarized from Lyndon LaRouche.

The Robertson of Ross’ story also seems incompatible with the Robertson we’ve all gotten to know over the past several decades — a pundit who specializes in kicking people when they’re down. Whenever there’s a terror attack, earthquake or hurricane, Pat Robertson always rushes forward to assign blame — assuring his audience that the victims of 9/11 or in Haiti or in Andrew, Hugo, Gloria, Katrina or Irene had it coming and deserved to suffer.

Robertson always sees a connection between natural disasters and those people he views as Those People — gays, liberals, evolutionists, atheists, Pagans and women who have sex. His scapegoating condemnations have become so routine that I’ve come to think of them as just another part of natural disaster. Earthquakes are followed by aftershocks, and both earthquakes and hurricanes are followed by appalling pronouncements by Pat Robertson.

If you mute the TV and ignore the substance of his comments, you can almost view Robertson’s reflexive blaming as a kind of “all-clear” signal showing that the worst of the storm has passed. “The wind is dying down a bit and, oh, look, there’s Pat Robertson saying this is all gay people’s fault — I think we’re out of danger.”

But it’s not really that easy to ignore the substance of Robertson’s hateful post-tragedy statements. If you love God, or if you love GLBT people, or if you love both God and people, then it’s not easy to ignore Robertson’s habitual suggestion that every natural disaster is the product of a petty, reckless, sloppy god indiscriminately pouring out wrathful destruction due to some divine “gay panic” defense. That’s blasphemy. And the scapegoating of GLBT people as the alleged focus of this poorly aimed divine wrath invites Robertson’s many followers to imitate his churlish god by directing their own animus toward Those People as well.

Robertson’s post-disaster ritual thus isn’t just abstractly hateful, it’s tangibly hurtful.

Just once, I’ve often said, just once I’d like to see this guy respond with a little humility in the wake of human tragedy. I’d like to see him rendered speechless and incapable of glibly dismissive “explanations” — not rushing to judge others by imagining some direct and specific causal link between suffering and supposed sins. Just once I’d like to hear him say, “I don’t know.” I’d like to see him withhold blame and judgment and simply mourn with those who mourn.

And, just once, I finally got to see this.

In a recent broadcast of The 700 Club, Robertson fielded a message from a viewer describing a man who was devastated by personal tragedy. The man’s wife had Alzheimer’s disease. He was no longer able to care for her and she was no longer able to recognize him. She no longer even remembered that she had a husband. The daily, unyielding painfulness of the man’s situation was more than he could bear.

The call seemed to knock Robertson back on his heels. The man’s pain seemed to reach Robertson in a way that, somehow, the pain of the Haitian earthquake victims or the post-Katrina devastation in New Orleans had somehow not reached him. For once he seemed unable to muster the arrogant certainty that would enable him to explain away suffering by assigning blame for it.

Here’s the video of Robertson’s stumbling attempt to respond to this question:

That video has gotten a great deal of attention, sparking widespread criticism from Robertson’s fellow evangelicals piling on to condemn Robertson for endorsing the “abandonment” of an ailing spouse. That’s a stretch from what he actually said, though I’m not inclined to try to defend him — Pat Robertson has long since surrendered any claim to the benefit of the doubt. Plus I can’t help but wonder if his advice would have been quite the same if the caller’s question had involved a wife struggling with her ailing husband.

(For a defense of Robertson’s response, see Becky Knight’s “Til Death Do Us Part?” — via, which starts with her bewilderment at actually agreeing with Robertson about anything.)

I’m less concerned here with the specifics of Robertson’s advice than I am with the way he framed that advice:

“That is a terribly hard thing …”

“This is an ethical question that is beyond my ken to tell you, but I certainly wouldn’t put a guilt-trip on you …”

“It is a terrible, difficult thing for somebody and I, I can’t fault them … ”

“Get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer because I recognize the dilemma and the last thing I’d do is condemn you.”

This is something Pat Robertson needs to learn to say more often. Perhaps he’ll remember this the next time a natural disaster strikes somewhere in the world.

Perhaps then, rather than explaining away such tragedies as the wrath of a petulant god against his political foes, he will just step back as he did here, as he ought to have been doing all along, and say again that such tragedies defy certainty and blame.

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