Phil Robertson thinks that homosexuality is a slippery slope towards chicken- and toaster-fucking, and in his mind, every black person he met before Civil Rights was just hunky-dory, with no need for more voting rights or nonsense like that. The debate surrounding his interview is so intense, or at least so loud, that Internet activists have tricked themselves into thinking that this is a good and necessary fight. Phil is rich because he manufactures a scarily accurate duck call that is popular amongst hunters: he’s just another millionaire who thinks that gay sex somehow leads to bestiality. Nonetheless, my Facebook feed burst into all caps when his GQ interview hit the press. This isn’t because his opinion is a relevant metric of our culture, but because his spectacle has the appearance of mattering, and loudly focusing digital hatred or admiration on a reality TV star is the least amount of work you can do and still feel like you’re a part of something bigger. Instead of taking aim at the underlying causes of intolerance, we’ve focused the blunderbuss of our collective rage at the spectacles resulting from this intolerance.
When reality TV stars push “vile and extreme stereotypes” in softball interviews, the heroes stand out from the pack. A&E, under strong pressure from gay rights groups (including GLAAD), suspends Phil Robertson “indefinitely,” thereby proving that they are “champions of the gay community.” Their victory seems short lived because Phil refuses to apologize for speaking his mind. Then press statements begin to fire back from the other side. Phil’s actions remind congressional hopeful Ian Bayne of Rosa Parks. What Rosa Parks did was courageous and “what Mr. Robertson did was courageous too…[he] took a stand against the persecution of Christians.” Forget the fact that no Christians have been beaten or arrested for anything that they said in a GQ interview, forget the fact that Rosa Parks was working towards Civil Rights before and after she was arrested, and definitely forget that Rosa Parks lost her job because of her refusal to leave her seat.
This forgetfulness is nothing new; Paula Deen dreams of Sambos shucking and jiving through wedding parties, Ani Difranco announces a new-age retreat on an old-fashioned plantation, Kramer freaks out on an audience member, a Russian magazine editor sits on a chair that is shaped like a black woman and everyone wants the whole internet to know that they will or won’t stand to hear about it. Again and again the quack to action is typed out, amplified in all caps and sent echoing through the twitterverse. Behind the duck blinds of Internet personas, “activists” sound imitation calls, hoping to lure intolerance close enough to kill. This form of Internet activism will never lead to substantive change; unfortunately, like revenge and Skittles, the truth is hard to chew and it dulls the teeth.
Americans do have a particular knack for using spectacles to provoke legal and cultural change; the sit-in movement of the 50s and 60s used spectacle to motivate further action. The organizers of these protests recorded the brutalization of sit in protestors at the hands of police and broadcast these videos on the news in order to provoke America’s moral outrage, and inspire action and societal change. The spectacular brutality of these videos was shocking not only because it often occurred in familiar and comfortable settings (lunch counters), but also because it happened at the hands of police, meaning that this violence was not only state-sanctioned, but also par for the course.
The ghost of the sit-in tactic haunts the digital duck blinds where we hold discourse on these issues. The echoing quack to action has allowed us to feel that the choice of whether or not to watch a reality TV show is a boycott. We’ve convinced ourselves that copying and pasting is action, that a Facebook petition is a first step towards change, and everyday we feel more involved and we get less done.
Phil Robertson is not a courageous man. Unlike Paula Deen, Kramer, Difranco, and countless other out-of-control celebs, Phil’s presence on TV is only a side-business for him; he’s a millionaire because of his duck calls. So it’s easier for him to remain stubborn about the media hating him because his main livelihood is not entertainment.
The whole situation reminds me of a saying that my momma used to have: if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and has alternative sources of revenue, it must be a clay pigeon. Phil Robertson, as we know him, isn’t the cause of any societal problems. His spectacle is a commodity crafted to be visible in the woods of our world, and flung high above our heads as if it were the real thing. Hunting is as similar to shooting skeet as a Facebook petition is to activism and if we never learn to flush intolerance from hiding, track it and trick it into our sights, if we can’t tell when it’s dead, and can’t understand why it dies, then we will never be able to achieve the changes that we need to sustain our society. And as movements for progress starve, we’ll realize that we have been playing at sport, unable to bring down so much as a dynasty of ducks.