A few weeks back, Phil Robertson, the hirsute, camo-sporting, duck pelting patriarch of the hit A&E “reality” series “Duck Dynasty” nearly gave the internet a pulmonary aneurism when he expressed, shall we say, less-than-enlightened views about gays and African-Americans.
In a rather revealing interview for GQ, Robertson, a self-identified “bible thumper” who “just happened to end up on television,” claimed that the so-called normalization of homosexuality nurtures a culture in which “sin becomes fine.” Robertson claimed that when you “start with homosexual behavior,” a host of other vile forms of sexual immorality follows suite, including bestiality and rampant poliamory. Robertson even paraphrased Corinthians to assert that “the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers” wouldn’t “inherit the kingdom of God.”
Robertson’s comments elicited a predictable and entirely justified pushback from LGBT organizations and other groups. His remarks proved so controversial that A&E briefly suspended Robertson from his own program before reinstating the bearded celeb following an outcry from right-wing coach potatoes who view “Duck Dynasty,” as I noted in an article for Salon, as a reassuring beacon of religious conservative values in an entertainment wilderness populated by alleged Godless liberal hedonism.
Robertson’s views on gays are hardly surprising — coming as they do from an old, white, male, southern religious fundamentalist. After all, Deliverance aside, Bubbas have never been outwardly comfortable with buggering. But in the same interview, Robertson also made some dumbass comments about African-Americans. As the Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt noted, Robertson expressed what amounts to a mind-blowing ignorance of the horrors of Jim Crow: the South’s historical apartheid system that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship for a hundred plus years following the Civil War.
‘I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once,’ Ole’ Phil claimed. ‘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,” Robertson continued. He concluded by affirming that he ‘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.’
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates appropriately summed up Robertson’s comments as evidence of the lingering American belief “that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship.” Indeed, Robertson’s combined contempt for gay people and apparent ding-batted belief that blacks were “happy” under American apartheid echoes a long tradition linking white southern manhood to the concept of “mastery” that dates back to the nineteenth century and still reverberates today.
In their now classic collection Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South, historians Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover note that mastery involved southern men’s internalization of “a sense of manliness through relationships to wives, children and slaves by subverting challenges to white male authority leveled by these dependents and by heading autonomous, self-sufficient households.” This type of “masculine mastery” was also known as “Paternalism” or “Patriarchy,” and the maintenance of mastery depended on white southern males’ socially sanctioned dominance over less powerful groups, especially blacks.* The idea that blacks were “happy” under Jim Crow is rooted in the old concept of mastery because such a sentiment rests on the assumption that any deviations from the model of blacks as happy workers and whites as benevolent rulers challenged long-established southern hierarchies.
Although mastery was most internalized by the elite planter class, common white southerners, including “rednecks,” “crackers,” and “po’ white trash” of all kinds also subscribed to the notion of mastery. Doing so allowed them to claim, via their whiteness and domination over blacks, a shared kinship with wealthy white southerners in much the same way contemporary non-rich conservatives worship wealthy “job creators” out of a discredited hope that some of the modern oligarchs’ riches will trickle down to the obedient plebeians.
The idea of mastery as a hallmark of white male southern identity largely, but not entirely, fell by the wayside after the Civil War, when the demise of slavery meant that mastery in its most literal form was no longer a hallmark of Dixie’s culture. But the concept of mastery has retained a stubborn influence — albeit reshaped by changing historical circumstances — on the construction of white southern male identity in the twenty-first century. In the contemporary world, homosexuality is gaining increasingly mainstream acceptance and an uppity black has reached the plateau of uppityness by becoming President. Thus, the old concept of mastery has adapted to the times to forge a non-politically correct creature; a creature who stands in proud defiance against cultural liberalism and creeping secularism: the modern commercial redneck. Phil Robertson is that redneck, and millions of Americans sympathize with his plight.
Scholars have been documenting the mainstreaming of commercial conservative redneckness for some time now. In his excellent study White Masculinity in the Recent South, historian Trent Watts writes that in still conservative twenty-first century America, “national audiences eagerly consume the redneck and good old boy repackaged as a blue collar man who is familiarly southern” in addition to being “hard-working, pragmatic, patriotic, and good-humored” while simultaneously eschewing the explicit, outward trappings of racism that defined white male mastery in the Old South. “No longer marginalized as either a rustic clown or savage hillbilly,” Watts observes, “the ‘blue collar’ man has become in the eyes of millions the most solid and patriotic of Americans.”*
But the media-created “blue collar” man, as evidenced by Phil Robertson and his cohort of modern commercial rednecks on “Duck Dynasty,” is less an organic creation and more a pre-packaged southern good ole’ boy brand. The commercial redneck is portrayed in mass media not by actual working class people, but by millionaires like Phil Robertson, Larry the Cable Guy, and others. The modern commercial redneck became an icon by taking the desire for mastery that defined white manhood in the Old South and reshaping it into a weapon to wield in the contemporary culture wars. Media-generated conservative rednecks like Phil Robertson are therefore less threatening and more mainstream than the patriarchs of the southern past, but they’re still interested in mastery of some sorts. Indeed, the modern commercial redneck is deeply concerned about retaining mastery over popular culture.
By targeting gays and criticizing supposed black welfare fraud rather than calling for outright segregation, the redneck as portrayed by Phil Robertson offers a last stand in defense of mastery and the hierarchies created by white male privilege. Millions of Christian Conservatives, despite the fact that most Americans subscribe to Christianity in some form, feel persecuted by an onslaught of gayness and secularism, and they look to Phil Robertson to defend their way of life.
Robertson can retain cultural mastery over minority groups like gays and Democratic-voting blacks by verbally disparaging them in a mainstream publication and therefore diminishing their claims to mainstream cultural acceptance. His many Republican-voting, mega-church going, Chick-fil-A patronizing followers then vindicate his attempts at mastery by lining up lock-step in support of their bearded, reality t.v. Moses, to whom they look to lead them out of the Egypt that persecutes Christian Conservatives and into the Promised Land of shredded safety nets, low taxation, dinner-table prayers, and firearm proliferation.
Historically, this Promised Land has been the American South, and while the South as a region has never been immune to change, for white southerners especially, change has entailed a loss of mastery over various minority groups. They’ve therefore embraced change only with a fair amount of kicking, screaming, or ranting in GQ.
* See Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover, eds., Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), ix.
* See Trent Watts, ed., White Masculinity in the Recent South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 6.