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Brian McKnight column: Robertson makes me wonder if ignorance is really freedom of speech

January 2nd, 2014 7:15 am by BRIAN MCKNIGHT

Brian McKnight column: Robertson makes me wonder if ignorance is really freedom of speech

The Phil Robertson controversy has generated a great deal of debate and discussion during the holiday season  —  and for good reason.  For those of you who have spent the last couple of weeks under rocks, Phil, the patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” clan, was interviewed by GQ magazine and said a few things that people shouldn’t say when being interviewed by national magazines.

 The obvious observation is:  Why is Phil being interviewed for GQ?  He wears nothing but camouflage and has a beard much too long to be considered pleasing to the eye.  For all that he is, he isn’t what you normally see on the cover of GQ.  

 Most of the wrath directed at Phil resulted from his comments regarding homosexuality.  Really, what did they expect?  When you ask Phil Robertson, a self-proclaimed “Bible-thumper” from Louisiana, what he thinks about homosexuals, his expected response is not newsworthy.  What would have been newsworthy is if he had announced his wholehearted support for gay marriage.  That’s like asking a labor union leader what he thinks about Scott Walker.

 The second controversial element of his interview was his comments about blacks in the Jim Crow South.  He basically said that he never witnessed race-based mistreatment or heard any complaint from blacks about their place within the system.  OK, maybe he didn’t, but to deny it is surprising.  Even if he grew up completely ignoring the world around him and how it affected people other than him  — not a very Christian approach, I might add  — he is certainly aware of how crippling the pre-Civil Rights era was for blacks.  Maybe Phil needs to think about the world he was born into and appreciate how lucky he was to be born of the race that got equality and rights.  The legal state of his birth certainly gave him more opportunities than that of those black men he worked alongside in the fields. 

 If you read the full interview, you see that Robertson’s comment was politically colored.  The purpose of his statement was apparently to suggest that blacks were happy “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare”  — his words, not mine.  What was he saying?  Blacks are the only people on entitlements and welfare?  I know plenty of people on welfare, Social Security, and disability, all welfare programs of some kind.   Is he saying that blacks were happy before government intervention?  Tell that to the thousands of blacks who were lynched prior to federal protection.

 For me, the best part of this whole episode is how people have circled the wagons around Robertson in the name of free speech.  Yes, you are entitled to have an opinion, even if it isn’t credible.  A major problem in this nation is the widespread belief that all opinions are worthwhile, which they are not. Believe me, I hear a lot of them.

But getting back to my point:  I remember when the Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush over the buildup for the war in Iraq, but I don’t remember anyone coming to their aid because they were exercising their right to free speech.  Actually, the Fox News crowd encouraged people to destroy their CDs and essentially stifle their right to free expression.  Only a few months ago, a news commentator said some  disgusting things about Sarah Palin, and the same group encouraged his network to fire him, which it did.  So if the answer to exercising free speech at the risk of offending people is to destroy their careers, shouldn’t Phil Robertson be fired?  In reality, once the politicians get hold of an issue it loses its ethical base and becomes outright opportunism, which is how Phil Robertson gets defended while others who do the same things get vilified.

One of the central tenets of moral religion is empathy, but sadly it is one of the most conveniently forgotten.  Even today, you find Christian faiths which profess love and charity, but at the same time refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of social, political, and economic justice.  If Phil Robertson is to become the Christian he seems to want to be, he needs to learn how to view the world through eyes other than his own.

Brian D. McKnight is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. E-mail him at

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