In the recent kerfuffle over the remarks of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, one salient fact has not been much remarked on: What he has been excoriated for saying used to be mainstream.
What he said, that homosexuality is sinful and abhorrent, and that black people were better off, and happier, in the Jim Crow era, would have been largely unremarkable a few years ago.
After all, the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant denominations continue to call homosexuality unnatural and sinful, and homosexual acts were within living memory illegal in several states.* And you can still find scores of Southern apologists for the era of segragation.
What has changed is that those views no longer find uncritical acceptance among the public.
The kind of openly racist language one could still hear in the 1960s is no longer acceptable in public. Overtly racist language surely still occurs in private conversations, but in public discourse racism now has to use coded language.
Similarly, now that gay marriage is legal in several states, with opinion polling indicating acceptance on a large scale, openly hateful speech about gay people is passing out of polite discourse.
All of this is happening as part of a major cultural and demographical shift in the United States that Mr. Robertson appears not to find to his taste.
The United States was originally settled by white, English-speaking Protestants, Nonconformist Calvinists in New England and low-church Anglicans in the South. Since then, the template for American has been white, male, and Protestant. (The Irish, vilified in the nineteenth century for laziness, drunkenness, and filthy popish religion, gradually wormed their way into the white establishment.)**
Now the Old Order appears to be passing away. Joseph Epstein, whose essays I once admired, has written in The Wall Street Journal to bemoan the passing of the WASP ascendancy. (It's not entirely clear to me whether he's disturbed by blacks, gays, women, and ethnics, or by downmarket whites, like Faulkner with the Snopeses.) But it's more than WASPs. It's that white male paradigm.
When I was in elementary school, before the Supreme Court finally figured out that the Constitution meant what it said, we started every morning with recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. That's the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer, Roman Catholics, Jews, and incipient freethinkers in the classroom notwithstanding. That was America: The president was white, male, and Protestant (until President Kennedy), and the country mirrored him as its identity.
Then, gradually, we decided that black people, and Asian people, and women, and gay people were also American, not all of whom were Protestant, or even Christian, and maybe the country should reflect them as well. This is what appears to be disturbing Mr. Robinson, but he cannot stop it.
Back to the main point. Mr. Robertson is entitled to hold his retrograde views, and to express them publicly. He has First Amendment rights to his beliefs and to expression of them, and those rights have in no wise been curtailed.
What he does not have is a right to a contract with a television program. If A&E should decide that his obnoxious views imperil their business, their business decision to cut him loose would have no effect on his First Amendment rights. (Say, Robertson defenders, would you be as enthusiastic about his rights if his sincerely expressed beliefs were that the Holocaust never happened and Hitler had the right idea? Or something equally offensive? He would still have a right to hold and express them.)
Multicultural America is already here, and it is not necessarily white, or male, or Christian. Some people are going to have to adjust their thinking.
Correction: In the original post I attributed to Mr. Robertson sentiments favoring slavery. I conflated Mr. Robertson's apparent affection for the Jim Crow era with the views of current apologists for slavery. That was a mistake, an outright error. I have adjusted the relevant passages, and I apologize fully and forthrightly to Mr. Robertson.
*The same acts were illegal for heterosexual couples as well, but we won't go there.
*By the way, have you looked at who is in Congress, or who runs the major corporations? It looks as if it's going to be some time before the White Male Ascendancy withers away.
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