Sunday, December 29, 2013

Phil Robertson, Justine Sacco and Free Speech

I didn't want to write about this until it had reached some level of closure and now that A&E has rescinded its non-suspension suspension of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson I'd like to discuss a few things.
We've talked about this before here and here and here. People should understand what free speech means. With a few exceptions the government, (state, federal, municipal) can't physically prevent you from expressing or sharing your opinion, fine you or put you behind bars for your thoughts, pass laws to make your opinion illegal, or require you to get permission from the government before expressing your opinion. There are increasing attempts by governments at all levels to undermine these protections. The First Amendment limits government actions. Private actors are far different entities. The blog lawyers could detail the case histories but corporations and individuals often have the right to hire and fire as they see fit and associate with whom they want. Their money, their company, their rules. If you don't like it well go find another outlet that more closely approximates your belief system. So when Phil Robertson said: 
"Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers -- they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right" 
"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person," Robertson is quoted in GQ. "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.” 
It was no violation of his free speech rights for A&E to have suspended him from Duck Dynasty (which was just PR as the new season was already filmed) or for other groups to have criticized him.

When  PR exec Justine Sacco sent out her joking tweet about AIDS and her employer decided that it could continue to make money and thrive without her contributions, again, there was no threat to her free speech. No one put her in jail. She is free to make all the jokes about AIDS and Africans that she wants to make. Go for it I say. At least for now she can make such statements without being encumbered by such constraints as gainful employment. But I'm sure she'll land on her feet eventually. She must find an employer with different values than her previous company, one that understands and accepts her odd (racist) sense of humor. I doubt that will take too long.
Those doggone white people

You would think that conservatives, who at least when it comes to contraception, abortion and racist speech, champion the rights of corporations and individuals to exercise freedoms of speech, religion and association, would understand that the door swings both ways. These freedoms apply to everyone, not just conservatives. Regarding the content of Robertson's statements I'll echo what most intelligent people already pointed out. Robertson was born in 1946. He was a boy when some of the first court decisions opposing segregation came down and a young adult by the time the South was forced, kicking and screaming, to allow desegregation. When Robertson says he didn't know any black people that were saying "those doggone white people" he might have considered the fact that many black people in 1950s and 1960s Louisiana would have thought twice before expressing their honest opinions to any white person, self-described "white trash" or not. It was after all often the "white trash" who were burning buses, beating sit-in protesters, and committing other violent acts. Robertson doesn't say if he or his family members were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. If he had been perhaps he would learned people's true thoughts. Or Robertson might have, if he were so inclined, when he was 18, travelled to Jonesboro, Louisiana and talked to the Deacons of Defense, a group of armed black men, who intended to protect themselves and their community from conservative violence both official and non-official. The Deacons shot back when they were shot at, something which infuriated racist whites. 
In fact given Louisiana's vicious history of segregation and violence, you have to wonder what planet Robertson was living on if he thought black people were happy with their lot in Louisiana or anywhere else in the Jim Crow South. I wish the GQ interview had delved a little more deeply into the difference between Robertson's claimed experiences and the reality of what was going on. Why the hell does Robertson think Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddamn?  Because that's not a very happy song. No it's not a happy song at all. Since I do happen to know and be related to black people who lived under Jim Crow I can safely say that Robertson doesn't know the whole story. "Welfare and entitlements" don't have anything to do with being harassed or murdered because you opposed the Southern terror state.

There is actually scripture that would seem to condemn gays. AFAIK there's next to nothing in the Bible that would seem to condone a GLAAD approved positive view about homosexuality. However there is also scripture that would seem to condemn just about anyone. Although Paul condemns homosexuality, Jesus doesn't speak on it. Theologians can argue but people tend to pick and choose which sins they condemn. Jesus talked about this hypocrisy in his Sermon on The Mount but apparently no one listened. When you set yourself up to judge, well that's not really a believer's job, according to Jesus. If you don't adhere to Robertson's views on gays, find a different Christian interpretation that's more to your liking. There's no shortage of sects. But this whole discussion about Biblical injunctions presumes that the Bible should be the basis of secular law or morality. Unless and until you're ready to start stoning disobedient children or allowing men who rape unmarried virgins to make amends by marrying them and paying their father fifty shekels, you might have to admit that the Bible might not always be the best basis for a modern legal or moral system. 

Robertson's comments bothered me less than the hypocrisy of conservatives who sought to cast him as a free speech martyr even as many of the same conservatives did their best to harm the careers of other people with whom they disagreed. Do you remember the conservative rush to protect the free speech rights of Lupe Fiasco, Ward Churchill, The Dixie Chicks, Martin Bashir, Louis Farrakhan, Van Jones and Reverend Wright to say what they wanted without criticism or danger to their careers. Of course you don't. 
Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.
-Palin speaking of Phil Robertson
"Those with that platform, with a microphone, a camera in their face, they have to have some more responsibility taken," she said on Fox & Friends.
-Palin speaking of Martin Bashir
All we learned from the Robertson and Sacco incidents is that money talks and bs walks.
Robertson is an integral part of cable's top show. His family backed him up. A&E and its advertisers, business partners and other corporations made the financial decision that they didn't want to lose millions in revenue. Sacco was not that valuable to her employer so they let her go and kept it moving. So if you're going to say something controversial or even outright vile, make sure you either work for yourself or are extremely valuable to your employer.


blog comments powered by Disqus