Cook: If it talks like a duck

Cook: If it talks like a duck

December 22nd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Phil Robertson shouldn't lose his job.

Or be suspended. Or put on hiatus. Or whatever it is the jittery A&E network executives can think to do to dodge the real issue. (Hint: It's not what Robertson thinks about gay Americans).

If you don't know, Robertson is the patriarch of a Louisiana family made famous -- very famous -- by the A&E show "Duck Dynasty," which is everything good about bad TV: facial-hair goofiness, dinner-table lessons and, somewhere nearby, a side of dynamite.

Theirs is a God, guns and country family: lovable, often quite funny, stereotypically Southern, predictably conservative. So when a writer from GQ asked Robertson his thoughts on sin, he responded, well, as you might guess.

"Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there," Robertson said.

He says more unpleasant things than this (even reminiscing on a pre-civil-rights Louisiana as a quaint, Uncle Remus world where blacks are aw-shucks happy), but in this hair-trigger climate of political sensitivity, A&E quickly suspends Robertson. That leads to huge backlash -- online petitions, Facebook support -- from "Duck" fans.

"Free speech is endangered species," Sarah Palin tweeted.

It's also a selective double standard. Robertson is silenced, yet Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke aren't. To reach the GQ article with Robertson's apparently offensive quotes, how many sexualized advertisements do we have to thumb past?

To find "Duck Dynasty" episodes on the A&E website, you'll have to click past women in Daisy Dukes and pink bikinis on horseback, an image the network's using to advertise its "Rodeo Girls" show.

To find Robertson's controversial quotes, you have to read the GQ writer's bonanza of expletives, which only further highlights the difference between the PG-ness of the Robertsons and the R-rated world around them.

We treat free speech like a baby bird; we handle it gingerly, as if we may injure it. Yes, Robertson said things that were hurtful. But it was not hate speech, and there are millions of Americans who probably think just like him. And many are good and decent and doing the hard work of trying to reconcile their Bible verses with the growing suspicion that maybe, just maybe, being gay is OK.

"We're Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television," Robertson told GQ. "You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off."

Behind such judgment calls -- Robertson censured, Cyrus not -- is the marketplace, which has decided that some things are acceptable and others aren't. By silencing Robertson, A&E proves it's concerned with advertisers, which means it's concerned about money.

And that's what this is about.

The network is quite willing to exploit Cajun and Ozark culture to make money, but as soon as one of its moneymakers speaks his full mind, the network execs cut and run.

It is the worst form of media, one that's willing to commodify the Robertsons, but not let them be their full selves. (And they call it reality TV.)

You can't walk down two aisles in Walmart without seeing some form of "Duck"-inspired item for sale. Any and every part of the Duck-Cajun culture has been co-opted into an item to be sold, but not so with the ideas, opinions and theology of the Robertsons. There, you're only served what's nonthreatening and marketable.

What a contradiction: no limits on the amount of junk you can buy with their faces on it, but plenty of limits on what the Robertsons can say.

(How soon before another reporter asks the Robertson sons their feelings about gay Americans and their interpretation of the Bible? Will they be honest, will they loyally defend their father, will they speak in false tongues just to keep the political dogs off their back? This mess is far from over).

I'm not suggesting the Robertsons -- willing partners in all this, richer than their wildest duck dreams -- are victims.

But we are.

The suspension of Robertson is one more reminder of the spectacle of television, which dictates the conditions of what we see and what we don't, of what is offensive and what isn't. A&E executives would have let Robertson burn his beard off to get ratings, but as soon as he disturbs their bottom line, they'll pluck him like a Christmas goose.

As the old saying goes, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's actually a chicken known as A&E Networks.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.