A&E’s Problem — And Ours

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Whatever happened to tolerating dissenting views?

To avoid getting bogged down in the witless minutiae of those who will studiously miss the point, let me get the boring stuff out of the way at the outset: Having nothing to do with the government, A&E’s suspension of duck-dynast Phil Robertson is not a First Amendment issue, and his freedom of speech has not been violated. By the same token, A&E, being a private company, can more or less do what it wants. Absent a hidden contractual provision or a subtle violation of employment law, the network was within its rights to suspend their star for what he said. That’s how liberty works.

That notwithstanding, the decision is a terrible one, and it speaks poorly of the culture that more people aren’t up in arms. American liberty relies upon an awful lot more than just a legal framework. If it is to flourish, it requires its beneficiaries to possess a set of cultural habits that persist independently of their preferences. The kneejerk instinct to silence anybody who steps out of line — which we have seen recently on both sides of the political aisle — is deeply injurious to our folkways, and it should be condemned. Shame on you, A&E. Shame on you, GLAAD. Shame on you if you applauded the move.

Robertson was suspended for expressing his opposition to homosexuality, “bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” Discussing Corinthians in an interview he gave to GQ, Robertson urged readers not to “be deceived,” for “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.” Later, Robertson expounded on his “hate the sin, love the sinner” philosophy:

“We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus — whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

Really, it shouldn’t be remotely surprising to anyone that a self-identified Christian believes these things — especially one who appears on the most popular television show in the United States. Duck Dynasty not only closes each episode with a prayer, but it is chock-full of references to faith and to the Bible. Who is startled that a man who lives his faith on television lives his faith in print, too?

Christianity in America is by no means monolithic, but of the 77 percent of Americans who identify as “Christian,” I would wager that a significant number agree with some or all of what Robertson says. It doesn’t matter how many agree, of course — Robertson’s right to believe what he will is not contingent on majority backup. But the sheer numbers make it all the more difficult to imagine that anybody is truly taken aback. News flash: Someone who believes the Bible to be the word of God believes (a) that adultery, idolatry, prostitution, homosexuality, greed, drunkenness, swindling, and slander constitute sinful behavior, (b) that his job is not to decide who is going to heaven and who isn’t, but instead to share the “good news,” and (c) that he should hew to the guidance he believes to be divine. As Robert A. George points out, this is precisely what the pope thinks — and says — too. Should he be suspended?

The most quoted part of Robertson’s interview was the most typically forthright:

“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.”

Again, I fail to see the problem here. As a straight man, I don’t want to have sex with men, either. I differ from Robertson in that I don’t believe that having sex with men is a sin — I just have no interest in doing it — but that’s really okay: We’re allowed to have different views of this. The British comic Stephen Fry, who is gay, doesn’t want to have sex with women. In fact, he thinks it’s pretty disgusting. “My first words, as I was being born,” Fry quipped brilliantly in his memoir, “I looked up at my mother and said, ‘That’s the last time I’m going up one of those.’” Fry might well have said, “It seems like, to me, an anus would be more desirable than a woman’s vagina. That’s just me. I’m just thinking.” That’s fine, too. Dan Savage has made a career out of making such claims.

Yesterday evening, when I defended Robertson, Twitter users were quick to point out that A&E has to react to its own corporate interests — and to those of its advertisers and customers. This, of course, is true. But pointing this out doesn’t make the problem go away, it just transfers the criticism from A&E to the culture at large. If A&E is “understandably” reacting to outside pressure, then that means they’re reacting to a cultural trend. And that trend needs criticizing — and hard. Are viewers really so prissy that they won’t tolerate a man who dissents from the mainstream culture? Duck Dynasty’s ratings certainly don’t suggest so. Are people who find his views abhorrent incapable of turning off their televisions?

Was A&E really unaware that he believed these things? Is the aim here to normalize all television to prevailing norms, allowing only those views that society’s tailwinds have approved to prevail and shedding all other views? I hope not. What sort of culture will we have if people can’t be different without fear of suspension? What sort of society will we produce if religious people can’t say what they believe? Evidently, there are swaths of the American population — and people of all other nationalities, too — who agree with Robertson. Are we going to liquidate them from the public square?

People attempting to justify the private removal of those who say things they dislike rely on a host of weasel words and the habitual laziness of the population at large. They say that we have to think about “standards,” and “values,” and “feelings,” and “inclusion” and, too, about what is “acceptable.” What does this actually mean in practice? Robertson made his comments in GQ, which evidently considered them acceptable enough to print. I am a non-Christian who disagrees with Robertson on the question of gay marriage. What do the censors think is going to happen to me if I come across Robertson’s interview. Will I die? Will I break out in lesions? Will I go bankrupt? Will I immediately start lynching homosexuals? What might my complaint be: “Well, strike me down. I can’t believe it. I was just minding my own business reading this magazine, and then this guy I don’t know who makes duck calls said something I don’t like, and then . . . ” — well, and then what? Here’s the thing: I’m in favor of gay marriage; Phil Robertson thinks homosexuality is a sin. So bloody what? I’m happy to listen to him.

It is telling what we allow and what we don’t. Phil Robertson’s words quite literally affected nobody. They’re words. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence argued that it should be illegal for Americans to call people “fat” on television: In other words, she actually advocated for her fellow citizens to be arrested for speaking. Robertson related what he believes; Lawrence, however mildly, called for the state to start punishing people for expressing themselves. The latter transgression is infinitely worse, but she will likely lose no work for having expressed it.

Damn you to hell, A&E. I can still say that, right?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.