“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
On the night before the United States was set to invade Iraq in March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks, a Texas-born country music trio, took to a London stage. Lead singer Natalie Maines suddenly blurted out, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The audience cheered, and Maines laughed loudly, as if she had just been joking. But, the repercussions here at home were swift and vitriolic. Country music radio stations quickly pulled the band’s music from their play lists; fans turned on the group and began destroying their records and CD’s; others threatened violence; someone even made a bomb threat to the band’s record company. The group has recovered in the ensuing decade, but hasn’t really attained the same level of popularity they enjoyed before “The Incident.” I’m not a country music fan, so I don’t follow the band. But, I’m certainly not a fan of former President George W. Bush. Indeed, he is an embarrassment to the state of Texas.
Maines’ 2003 pronouncement came to light again recently with the uproar over comments made by another southerner: Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame. Robertson’s family created an empire making and selling products for duck hunters from their Duck Commander Company in West Monroe, Louisiana, which has been in operation since 1973. The show debuted on the A&E Network in March of 2012 and became an instant success. The family is devoutly Christian and proudly redneck. They seem to celebrate both, and each episode ends with the family gathered around the dinner table reciting a prayer.
Now, the show’s future is threatened after Robertson granted an interview to GQ Magazine during which he equated homosexuality with bestiality and claimed African-Americans were better off in pre-civil rights America. It’s the homophobic part of his rant that has garnered the most attention.
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Robertson told GQ. “Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. 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.”
After I got past the difficult concept of someone like Phil Robertson actually speaking with GQ Magazine, I just sort of yawned. I’ve heard this crap before. Evangelical Christians here in the U.S. have long compared homosexuality (especially male homosexuality) to bestiality and always seem to know what’s right for everyone else. If anyone should dare criticize them, they then claim they’re merely quoting biblical scripture. I’ve heard that crap before, too. I’ve known plenty of people who often said, ‘Hey, don’t get mad at me. I’m just doing what it says in the Bible,’ – not understanding how stupid they sound. That’s almost like a man claiming he couldn’t help but sexually assault a woman because she was wearing a mini-skirt.
That Robertson assumes Black-Americans would have done well to forgo the efforts of the civil rights struggles of the last two centuries and accept their lowly place in society is equally unsurprising. Many older White conservatives, particularly in the southeastern U.S., bristle at the thought of non-Whites achieving any kind of equality. Robertson and his ilk remain indignant about the Civil War and continually reenact key battles in the vain hope they’ll attain victory and the Negroes and Indians will retreat into the fields where they belong.
When A&E announced “Duck Dynasty” would be suspended, many Robertson fans came to his defense. Among them are the usual right-wing squawkers: Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Yet another, Ian Bayne, an Illinois Republican congressional candidate, produced the most laughable response by comparing Robertson to Rosa Parks. “In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people,” stated Bayne, “and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians. What Parks did was courageous… What Robertson did was courageous too.”
I’d love to see the look on Robertson’s face when he heard that one! Ironically, Rosa Parks’ actions were an early cannon shot in the brewing civil rights movement.
Several Robertson defenders are denouncing the apparent hypocrisy of his critics. “Free speech is an endangered species,” said Palin. Perhaps it is, but then again, you have to consider who’s speaking and what they’re saying. When Natalie Maines criticized President Bush, her detractors suddenly warned that free speech has its responsibilities, which is a polite way of saying if you don’t agree with them, then you’re dead wrong.
Indeed, free speech has its limits. You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater (a common comparison); you can’t phone in a bomb threat; and you can’t falsely accuse someone of committing a criminal act, such as…oh, bestiality. As a writer, I know that free speech is sacrosanct; an undeniable tenet of democracy. It’s a precious right; one born of blood and more valuable than gold or diamonds. I’ve known people who grew up in the former Soviet Union or communist East Germany and listening to their tales of living under such oppressive regimes where dissent was regarded as a scourge makes me understand how fortunate I am to have grown up in the U.S. I’ve seen a few episodes of “Duck Dynasty” and think it’s rather funny. Only in America can someone make a fortune from building duck calls. As much as I detest people like Phil Robertson, I can’t let what he says bother me too much. If he doesn’t like gay people, then that’s his right. No one should try to force him to march in the next gay pride parade, while holding hands with a drag queen. If he feels Black folks had it better in America pre-1970, I feel he’s an idiot. Ask any older Black person, especially those who grew up in the southeastern U.S., what life was like for them under Jim Crow laws, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that – aside from gatherings with family and friends – it was pretty hard and scary. But, if Phil Robertson believes otherwise, what are you going to do? Try to drown him in the swamp behind his mansion?
There is one unique irony about Robertson’s pathetic analogy between homosexuality and bestiality. A hunter’s duck call is actually a ruse; the device mimics the sound of a duck’s mating wail. In other words, the hunter masquerades as an amorous waterfowl to ensnare an unsuspecting bird into a trap. Not that Robertson has ever sought to get busy with a duck, of course! But, just words for thought.
Image: Albany NY a.k.a. Smalbany.