After all, GQ describes itself as “the definitive men’s magazine with style advice and tips.” The down-home, born-again, duck-call maker hardly fits between features on Bradley Cooper and Denzel Washington.
But Robertson and Duck Dynasty are white hot.
It’s the most popular nonfiction cable show ever. Forbes magazine reported last month that “By the end of 2013, Duck Dynasty product tie-ins will have raked in a massive $400 million in revenues, according to industry sources.”
I suspect GQ, like everyone else, was trying to cash in. And it was in the now-infamous magazine interview that Robertson went verbal commando on a variety of subjects, including homosexuality and race relations.
On gay sex, Robertson stated that he believes homosexuality is a sin (a view shared by 41 percent of Americans, according to Gallup) and he opined graphically on gay versus straight sex.
On race, Robertson said that growing up as white trash (his words), he worked the fields with blacks in Louisiana. “We’re going across the field… they’re singing and happy. Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
His wistful description of the Old South is a simplified caricature. It’s inaccurate, but likely not uncommon among whites of a certain age—Robertson is 67—who came of age prior to the civil rights movement.
A&E Network suspended Robertson indefinitely, saying it’s “extremely disappointed” in his comments. Notably, the Duck Dynasty marathons scheduled for last night, this weekend and on Christmas Day are still on the network’s broadcast schedule.
Sarah Palin is among those who have come to the defense of Robertson, saying “free speech is an endangered species.” It’s perfectly appropriate for Palin to support Robertson, but the basis of her argument is flawed; this is not a free speech issue.
The First Amendment provides protection from government action, but not private employers. Robertson has a right to his opinion, but he does not have a First Amendment right to a TV show. A&E is within its rights to suspend, discipline or even dismiss an employee whose conduct or comments are deemed offensive. Any disagreement between Robertson and A&E will be sorted out in court.
Still, there’s something unsettling about the uproar over Robertson’s comments. This is the Duck Dynasty guy, not the President, the Pope or even the school principal. And he was expressing opinions in an adult magazine, not teaching junior high history or science class.
While not all forms of speech are equally protected by the Constitution, we should still value the marketplace of ideas. Challenging Robertson on his views makes for a worthwhile discussion. It would be enlightening for one of those “happy, singing” field hands to give Roberston the other side of the story.
But making him a public pariah, as some want to do, has a chilling effect on the national dialogs on race, homosexuality and all controversial topics in between.