Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty, and the White Trash Politics of the Republican Party
The “controversy” about the wildly popular reality TV show Duck Dynasty is both laughable and sad for what it reveals about the woeful state of American public discourse.
The manufactured fracas centers on Duck Dynasty actor/character Phil Robertson (who is an ideal-typical example of the worst sort of white trash) and his anti-gay bigotry as shared with GQ magazine during a recent interview.
In the same piece, Robertson discussed his White Supremacist yearnings for the “good old days” of African-American subjugation and oppression in the South, before the foul carpetbaggers, Civil Rights agitators, and the evils of Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the Great Society robbed the good simple Negro people of their innocence and white toothed, big lipped, toothy grinned, banjo playing, watermelon eating, cotton picking ways:
"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," he said. "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.”
For people such as Phil Robertson, and the white conservatives who share his particular type of myopic and ahistorical whiteness, the full liberty and freedom of black Americans, especially as demonstrated through the use of our citizenship rights to redress grievances by struggling for full equality, is morally objectionable.
Robertson and his Duck Dynasty clan are a depiction of how a writer and show-runner have chosen to represent white trash America. How can a network then feign surprise when an actor gives the very performance it has solicited?
The following may be a surprise for those people who are not media literate or critical consumers of popular culture: reality TV is not real. It is a type of entertainment that is predicated on the cultivation and creation of an “irreality”.
The paradox is a simple one: actors pretend to be “real” people, who viewers invest themselves in, as a means of distraction from the pain and anxiety of the “real” real world.
Politics is a performance too. As I have written about on a number of occasions, the spectacle of American politics in the 24/7 news cycle--in an age when capitalism and democracy are conflated, and public policy does not serve the public good but rather a narrow set of private interests who win over voters in much the same way as how a computer company brands its goods to create consumer loyalty and a feeling of emotional attachment to a product--most closely resembles professional wrestling. There is an important difference: professional wrestling is much more honest and transparent.
As one more example of how a debased politics have become almost inseparable from the public spectacle that is the mass media, Robertson’s observations about how “lazy” and “complaining” black Americans have been “ruined” by “entitlements” are none too different from what prominent Republicans and the Right-wing media have being saying for decades about the black community.
The Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” was/is predicated on overt and covert signals to white racial resentment and bigotry such as those channeled by Phil Robertson. Ronald Reagan had his “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks”. Romney had his "makers" and "takers" and lecturing the NAACP about seeking handouts. Newt Gingrich and other “compassionate conservatives” want to give black and brown children mops and brooms so they do not become lazy social parasites like their fecund, breeding, irresponsible parents.
Bloviators like Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter, O’Reilly, and other Right-wing talkers are obsessed with a narrative of black insolence, laziness, broken homes, bad culture, and a return to the “good old days” before the Great Society and “liberals” made African-Americans into a group of ingrates and complainers.
“News” outlets such as Fox News, Right-wing talk radio, conservative social media and websites, as well as even once “respectable” publications such as the National Review, have at one time or another mirrored Robertson’s claims about black Americans.
Here, black conservatives are the worst offenders in perpetrating the White lie of a benign Jim and Jane Crow and slavery, in a political blackface routine wherein the Democratic Party is some type of “plantation”, and African-Americans--who of course lack any sort of agency or intelligence to act in their own political self-interest--have been ruined by the Civil Rights Movement.
Black conservatives have more than earned the ire of the African-American community because they are agents of White Supremacy who shamelessly help to legitimate the type of gross White lies offered by Phil Robertson and the many white folks (and some psychologically maladapted black and brown people) who are emotionally and materially invested in such fictions about happy black people during American Apartheid who were "betrayed" and made worse off by the Black Freedom Struggle.
The post civil rights era Republican Party is a neo-Confederate organization that (now) openly embraces the White Supremacist language and symbols of the antebellum South. Consequently, Robertson is a perfect spokesperson for the Tea Party GOP in the Age of Obama.
The reality TV lie that is Duck Dynasty is no excuse for Phil Robertson’s bigotry and ugliness as wrapped in some misunderstood reading of the Constitution and the right of free speech. Nor, does his boilerplate Christian Dominionist fundamentalism infused White Victimology make him a legitimate martyr.
Unlike the political professionals who crafted the Southern Strategy and the Right-wing’s focus group tested talking points, Robertson’s first mistake was forgetting to modulate his racist and anti-gay performance. Phil Robertson's bigger error was being a reality TV actor who was just a little bit “too real” in his GQ interview.
There is no greater sin in post civil rights America than that of calling a white person a racist--even when it is earned and appropriate. Bigotry pays well in America. Racially resentful white folks will ensure that Phil Robertson will be even more popular than before. He, like the Republican Party, is their unofficial spokesman, and white racism always takes care of its own.