Phil Robertson, Diversity & Offensensitivity
Everybody has been focused on Phil Robertson’s remarks about homosexuals. His rednecky comments about blacks and non-Christians haven’t received nearly as much press, which just goes to show you who has the most cultural power. Here’s what he said about blacks:
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. 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. We’re going across the field…. 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.”
This is cringeworthy stuff, but I’ll tell you this: nobody who is from the rural South is the least bit surprised that a 67-year-old white man from a small town in the Mississippi Delta region would say such a thing, or sees the world through that kind of lens. Paula Deen is the same age as Phil Robertson. Here’s a bit of what I said in USA Today about her controversy earlier this year:
Deen, who is 66, holds to a moonlight-and-magnolias romanticism that is common among white Southerners of her generation. Yes, it is now in questionable taste, and yes, it reveals an impoverished moral imagination.
But this acute sensitivity is a fairly new thing in American culture. Every younger white Southerner who holds enlightened opinions on race knows that you have to allow for the cultural deformation of older white Southerners. Every one of us knows elderly whites who, despite their residual racism, have done more good for particular black neighbors than many of us who believe the right things, but who have done little or nothing to help actual black people in our midst.
I think of the old white lady I interviewed two decades ago in my town. She was politically incorrect on race, and hopelessly innocent of her ignorance. But she was helping lead an ultimately successful charge to save a poor black church from a developer’s wrecking ball. It takes a Puritan to regard that woman as a simplistic villain.
What galls about Deen’s treatment is the puritanical zeal that cultural enforcers bring to bear on the complex realities of race, region and history. By implication, it says that all right-thinking people must drive anyone with Deen’s personal history and antique views out of the public square.
To demonstrate our racial righteousness to the media commissars, are we younger Southerners required to agree that our gray-haired kinfolks are irredeemably tainted? If so, forget it. We know better. We know these people, we love them, and in most cases we grant them grace, knowing that they too were twisted by the evil of racism, by a world into which they were born, and which — contra Mr. Faulkner — has passed and is passing away.
Similarly with an old country man like Phil Robertson. If you lived in the South and went to pieces every time you heard a Southerner of that generation say something that offends contemporary sensitivities, you’d never get out of bed. I’d wager that it’s true in most parts of this country — and of all kinds of people. This past summer I spoke to a young black woman in my own town about local politics. I told her how shocked I was to go to meetings of the parish council, and to hear the most paranoid racist things coming out of the mouths of older black people. She told me that she had grown up hearing that sort of thing — just like I did. I was taken aback by what I heard in those meetings, but when I thought about it, how could I expect black men and women who had had their racial opinions formed by what they had been taught, and what they had seen, during the Jim Crow era to think differently? It’s right to hope that they see the change, and resist judging all white people today by the standards of 40 years ago and more, but how realistic is that? How realistic is it to expect that of country people, black and white, who live in more of a monoculture than many others do?
It must be said that one of the most irritating aspects of the New York media environment is how narrow and monocultural it is, while flattering itself that it is cosmopolitan, diverse, and tolerant. You think Phil Robertson is bigoted? I have been around and worked with liberals in Washington and New York and elsewhere whose opinions were so obnoxious and dismissive of those not like themselves that they make the Duck Commander sound like Dick Cavett.
Anyway, one thing I’ve learned from where I grew up, and from all my travels, is how easy it is to demonize people, and how short-sighted and stupid it is. We all do it. We shouldn’t. All of us have had to sit at Thanksgiving tables and listen to uncles or cousins or family friends say dumb, even ugly, things about Those Not Like Us. Sometimes we speak out against it. Other times we hold our tongues and reproach ourselves later for our silence. Still other times we hold our tongues and say inwardly, “Bless her heart, she has no idea what she’s saying.” But unless the relative or friend is a truly wicked person, we grant them grace because we know their limitations, we know that there is good in them as well as bad, and, if we have any moral self-awareness, because we know that we may be in a position one day to depend on the grace of others when we show our ignorance.
And we will. If you never leave Manhattan, or West Monroe, you may not realize how parochial and even offensive your opinions are to many people, until you find yourself outside of your native habitat, making a fool of yourself without meaning to.
Whenever we have these Two-Minute Hates against figures like Robertson and Deen, I wonder what these things are supposed to accomplish. Are people who believe the things Phil Robertson does supposed to be shamed into a public confession and repentance by the fact that cultural and corporate elites hate them? Does it invite reflection, or defiance? I’m not a big watcher of Duck Dynasty, but I think only an idiot would expect a rough-hewn, 67-year-old duck hunter from rural north Louisiana to be Lionel freaking Trilling. From what I’ve seen of Robertson on TV, he’s a volatile dude, but he would be open to talking to a black pastor (say) of his generation and place about what life was like for black folks back then. Isn’t it worth trying to have that conversation, and redeeming a person, or at least trying to recognize in them a human being as flawed as oneself, and in need of mercy?
Look, I don’t always practice what I preach. In fact, I’m quick to make rash judgments. Often I regret them. And I don’t believe in a kum-ba-yah world in which all differences between people can be resolved by talking it through. But I don’t want to live in a world in which only the bland or those who validate the prejudices of the cultural elite (against country people, against conservative Evangelicals, against Southerners, etc.) have a place in the public square.
The problem is that those in cultural power love to talk loud and long about diversity, but what they really want is everyone to march in lock-step agreement, or else.