The Dishonest and Hypocritical Assault on “Moral Relativism”

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A few days ago I was leafing through an old issue of Reader’s Digest when one particular article leaped off the page and smacked me in the head. Now mind you, this issue was published in 1994, before the magazine underwent its transformation into a reasonable, fairly balanced compendium of reading material.  In those days, it still had one foot stuck in the muck of the John Birch fantasyland it had been mired in for decades. This same issue denounced those evil “trial lawyers” for defending citizens against corporate malfeasance, praised regressive Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, and trashed President Clinton — the latter action a more or less recurring feature at the time.

But the essay that especially rattled my noggin on this occasion was much more insidious: it was a classic embodiment of the ill-informed and highly disingenuous war that is often waged against what is commonly called moral relativism. Without presuming to analyze the ramifications of relativism itself (a task that would be far beyond the scope of this discussion or this blog), it’s instructive to examine this 24-year-old screed, because it employs tactics of propaganda that still are very much in use today, and are likely to be 24 years from now.

The piece is a condensation of a speech by the late Michael Novak, who was a frequent contributor to National Reviewwhich is already at least a couple of strikes against him. The title, as conferred by RD,  is All Things Are Not Relative, which is somewhat ambiguous. Did the editors mean to say “Not all things are relative”? If so, that makes sense: two plus two is always equal to four, no matter what the commodity. But if taken literally as written, the statement implies that nothing is relative, which is patently false.  The heat of a person with fever is very different from the heat of a cup of coffee, which is very different from the heat of molten metal.

But of course Novak was addressing morality in particular. His point was that some actions are always right and others always wrong. He was professing to be a moral absolutist. But the thing is, those who claim to be moral absolutists really aren’t; or at least, there are possible circumstances under which they wouldn’t be. More to the point, their denunciations of moral relativism are generally misguided, dishonest and/or hypocritical — as Novak’s address so potently attests.

Ominous Warnings

But before we get to the meat of the matter, let’s pay attention to the ominous signals he sends out, as many propagandists and polemicists do. We don’t have to wait long. The alarm bells start resounding right from the get-go:

Many enlightened people love to say that they are cynical, that ours is a cynical age. They flatter themselves: they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Ours is not an age of unbelief. It is an age of arrogant gullibility.

Wow. That’s quite an impressive series of false equivalences. Apparently equating relativism with cynicism, he then equates cynicism with skepticism and skepticism with passionate conviction and passionate conviction with gullibility. You’re half expecting him to equate gullibility with bestiality. And he’s just getting warmed up. The very next sentence gives an example of this “gullibility”:

Think how many believed in fascism and socialism.

This is a technique I call yoking, which means that you casually link something your audience will know is bad (fascism) with something you want them to believe is bad (socialism). It’s a good bet that Novak, like many “conservatives”, didn’t really get what either fascism or socialism was all about. And that he equated socialism with communism with totalitarianism. Note also the use of the past tense — believed — as if under the impression that both fascism and socialism are obsolete.

And what else are people “gullible” about?

Think how many people, today, believe in global warming or a coming ice age — and think how many believe in both!

This is a twofer. First, he’s trying to discredit legitimate science that he doesn’t care for (global warming) by yoking it with pseudoscience (“a coming ice age”). He’s also pushing a myth: contrary to what anti-sciencers often claim, the scientific establishment has never embraced the concept of “global cooling”. And in all likelihood, literally no one has ever believed in both at once. Novak has a valid point about “arrogant gullibility”, but he is quite confused about who is being arrogantly gullible.

It is the next two sentences that provide the most disturbing signals of all:

One thing our “intellectual betters” never lack is passionate belief. “There are as many truths as there are people”, these ardent intellectuals preach.

This sneering contempt for “intellectuals” is no mere fluke. He repeats it at least once more (“The people know this, while the intellectuals do not” — nice touch, contrasting intellectuals with people), in addition to his already expressed smug presumptions about climate science and “enlightened people”. Anti-intellectualism is a chilling trait of right-wing extremism, including the very fascism that he professes to abhor. The frequent claim is that by teaching students facts that do not support right-wing ideology, professors are “indoctrinating” them into “liberalism”. Just recently, Fox “News” declared that colleges are “literally destroying the country”. There is nothing new about such a sentiment. It was all the rage in America during the McCarthy era. It was trendy in Nazi Germany. And in other repressive societies before that. At this writing, such a tide of anti-intellectualism has engulfed America that millions of people believe an extremely shallow, infantile reality TV personality makes a suitable world leader.

The meat of the matter

And what heresy of the “poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism” are these nefarious thinking people guilty of spreading?

“Follow your feelings. Believe what seems right to you. Do as you please.”

This is a glaring straw man, one that is used quite frequently to attack relativism by those who profess to know better.  Nor is it limited to American ideologues. The year preceding the publication of the RD article, England’s National Curriculum Council Chairman David Pascall, discussing what children should be taught in school, stated:

(T)here is a difference between right and wrong. That is an absolute…We’re also saying that there is a series of moral absolutes which sets out a basic framework of how we live in a civilised society. And these are unexceptional things [i.e., there are no exceptions]…Too often there has been the attitude in the 70’s and the 80’s that these things are a matter of opinion, that we shouldn’t hinder the child’s self-expression. I’m saying that’s not good enough.

Here the straw man is expressed in terms of suggesting that moral relativism is tantamount to declaring that morality is a mere matter of “opinion” and “self-expression”. By the way, it’s common, and always has been, for professed absolutists to ascribe blame for the supposed current state of moral corruption to the supposed excesses of a previous generation — its most frequent incarnation at present is the popular game of Blame The Sixties.

It’s certainly true, and always has been, that there are many people (all too many of them in positions of power) who do as they please without regard to consequences. It’s also true that there are many people (all too many of them in the media) who are willing to substitute opinion for fact. But neither of these behaviors is moral relativism. The former is just amorality, the latter is demagoguery. And both are quite often indulged in by people who present themselves as moral absolutists.

Moral relativism, in a nutshell, is the recognition that specific circumstances influence what course of action is right or wrong. It does not automatically negate the concept of moral absolutism, because it theoretically would be possible to compile a list of the most moral choices for every possible type of situation — though it would be a lengthy and detailed list, to be sure. The point, however, is that contrary to what the supposed absolutists claim, virtually all of us exercise relativism in our moral judgments.

Take what is perhaps the most basic rule of conduct of them all: the taboo against taking another human life. That’s a universal and timeless tenet. Rumor has it that it was even engraved in stone once upon a time. And yet nearly everyone would make an exception to it under the right conditions — even those who insist they wouldn’t don’t really know for certain until the crisis arrives.  Most of us would be willing to take a life if our own lives were in jeopardy. At the very least, we would be willing to exonerate someone who does — the legal system has long made allowances for justifiable homicide.

More proactively, there is the classic hypothetical scenario of having an opportunity to assassinate Hitler, and thereby preventing millions of deaths. Even if you couldn’t personally bring yourself to pull the trigger, chances are you would excuse someone who did. (See also the classic philosopher’s thought experiment known as the trolley problem.)

Many people also believe taking a life is justified on grounds of mercy. But avowed moral absolutists generally frown on this. At the same time, many of them support capital punishment. Even worse, they support aggressive warfare that kills and maims thousands of innocent people, including children.

The best policy?

Another solid rule of conduct is honesty — David Pascall mentions it as one of the absolutes that should be stressed to children. We all know that honesty is the best policy, right? But while there may never be a justification for being dishonest in your deeds, there often are justifications for minor verbal lies.  (It’s still a good idea to encourage kids to tell the truth, because they have not yet developed the faculties for determining exceptions, and rarely encounter incidents when exceptions are warranted.) There are evil and malicious lies, there are self-serving lies, there are defensive lies, there are little white lies, and there are lies that are not only harmless but merciful and benevolent. As the poet William Blake put it:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

Sometimes telling the absolute and literal truth is cruel and unnecessary. I recall reading about a soldier during World War II who came upon the body of a friend of his who clearly had been captured by the enemy, then tortured and mutilated before they killed him. Later, he volunteered for the difficult task of informing his buddy’s parents that their son had died in combat. When he did so, he told them that the death was quick and without suffering. To have done otherwise would would have been to compound their already immense anguish. What kind of person would consider it the moral high ground to give those grieving parents the grisly details when they asked how their son died?

Or to return to Nazi Germany, suppose you, living there and then, were asked by the authorities if you’d seen any members of a certain family. You know that this family is Jewish. You know they are hiding. You know exactly where. And you know that they’ll all be killed if discovered. Would you tell the truth? Or save their lives?

In cases such as these, two moral directives come into conflict; thus logic dictates that the more moral choice is the one that does least harm — which in both these instances is, by far, to tell the benevolent lie. If you chose to tell the truth instead you might well be called an absolutist at following rules. And perhaps you would maintain that since lying involves more direct agency, you would be a moral absolutist as well. But that’s evasive and delusional. In both cases, you would have chosen the course of action that clearly resulted in the greater harm by far, and declared it to be morally superior. If that isn’t relativism, there’s no such thing.

It might be difficult or impossible to come up with a set of circumstances under which, say, adultery would be the “right” thing to do. But it’s a lapse of weakness that happens to the best of people, rather than an offense of calculated malice; and unless you truly believe that it should be dealt with as harshly as cold-blooded murder, then I regret to inform you that you too are a relativist. Likewise if you do not believe that an individual who succumbs to the temptation once and regrets it is just as guilty as one who does it repeatedly and willfully with no remorse.

Big truths?

In contrast to what he presents as the toxic fog of relativism, Novak presents his version of three eternal and immutable truths.

First, truth matters.

That’s rather tautological, but certainly accurate if we’re talking about Truth with a capital “T” — as mentioned, there are times when telling verbal lies is not only excusable but preferable in the interests of Truth. Trouble is, avowed moral absolutists, while touting truthfulness, often support political figures who not only lie flagrantly and inexcusably, but are quite dishonest in their actions as well. These have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and most egregiously of all, the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. All big heroes of “absolutists”.

Second, for all its faults, democracy is always better for individuals and minorities than dictatorship.

Absolutely. But again, the irony is that while preaching this, “absolutists” frequently lend their enthusiastic support to those (see above roster) who undermine democracy and try to eliminate checks and balances, through such dictatorial means as nepotism and cronyism, vote suppression, gerrymandering, court stacking, propaganda, and trying to squelch free media.

And third, for all its deficiencies, capitalism is better than socialism for the poor…

This is blatant revisionism. Capitalism has had millennia to state its case; but for all its benefits, it has been very frequently accompanied by a severe and oppressive economic caste structure, with poverty and misery at one end and greed and exploitation at the other.  The concept of socialism is also rooted in antiquity — it’s even strongly hinted at in that Bible that so many “absolutists” claim to live by. But socialism as we know it is a rather modern development. And while it isn’t perfect, it already has had some impressive successes, whether viewed in terms of prosperity, equality, liberty or opportunity. Moreover, it’s a false dichotomy even to contrast socialism and capitalism. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, many societies have adopted elements of both, including the U.S.A., which has applied certain socialistic principles since its inception. None of this is particularly relevant to a discussion of moral relativism, except that Novak’s evocation is yet another illustration of how “absolutists” are willing to distort and even invent facts.

Gems in the dung heap

Although Novak’s little oration is mostly awful and gets so many things wrong, he also manages, somehow, to sneak in a few words of wisdom. This passage in particular is spot on:

Humans are the only creatures who, by instinct, do not blindly obey the laws of their nature. Instead, humans enjoy the ability to master their passions, their bigotries, their ignorance. Where 250 million citizens are guided by an “inner” policeman — a conscience — the number of real policemen can be few. Among people without this inner policeman, there aren’t enough policemen in the world to make society civil.

Bingo. Yet “absolutists” often seem unable to grasp that this “inner policeman” truly is of inner origin. Every healthily functioning human has this conscience, fueled by empathy, and guided by another human faculty, the power of reason, that enables us to apply the so-called Golden Rule, which is the only moral principle you’ll ever really need.  (The Golden Rule itself must be interpreted in relative terms; you have a right to be a masochist, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to be an undiscriminating sadist.) That is, assuming you have empathy, a conscience, and the power of reason. Unfortunately, some people don’t. Which is why societies need behavioral codes. I would suggest to Mr. Pascall that the school teachers in England and elsewhere should be less concerned with hammering rules into the skulls of children, and more concerned with instilling in them those character traits that will render such rules superfluous, and cause those children when grown to be less likely to violate said rules.

“Absolutists” often operate on the apparent presumption that our “inner policeman” is installed in us by an outside source — e.g., legal and/or religious authority. But the law sometimes goes astray. Religion does so rather frequently. Both have been used to defend bigotry and discrimination of every conceivable variety, and even slavery and genocide.

It is evident both from Novak’s background and his remarks in this address that he regards Christian dogma as the ultimate source of moral guidance. Which is especially preposterous considering that Christians can’t even agree among themselves about such mundane matters as whether it’s morally defensible to work on Sunday. Or is it Saturday? They preach honesty and integrity and yet they revere a Sacred Text that makes a hero of a character who swindles his own father and cheats his brother out of a “blessing”. They frequently lend their enthusiastic support to political figures (see above roster) who lie frequently and maliciously, and commit many acts of low character — even while excoriating Bill Clinton for fibbing about his sex life. They even lie rather often themselves; among other things, they spread many untruths about abortion, which they just know to be evil, and which they just know everyone else should be forced to believe is evil too, even though their Sacred Text reports that on at least one occasion God instructed somebody on how to induce one. Novak specifically was a member of the Catholic church, which has denounced women as immoral for using birth control, while being systematically complicit in the sexual abuse of children.

In short, when “absolutists” rail against moral relativism, they aren’t really railing against moral relativism. They are relativists themselves. And they are choosing to attack people for being relativists of a different flavor. Or more accurately, they are choosing to attack people for other reasons, and are just using relativism as a pretext. And in doing so, they are not above distorting and lying. And flaming hypocrisy.

The Age of Anti-Intellectualism: Facts Are Officially Obsolete

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These are plague years in America. The pestilence is as far-flung as any that ravaged Europe centuries ago – and potentially just as deadly. It’s not an affliction of the body, but of the mind. And unlike other diseases, the afflicted do not run from it or try to heal it; on the contrary, they embrace it wholeheartedly.

It isn’t stupidity; many of its victims are bright enough. It isn’t ignorance. Ignorance is simply an absence of knowledge; but this disease, anti-intellectualism, entails a willful avoidance of knowledge and a substitute of anti-knowledge. It isn’t just that many people no longer can distinguish between reality and fantasy; they no longer even have any concern that the distinction exists.

Half of Americans believe that Christianity came before Judaism, 30 percent believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks, 30 percent don’t know what year 9-11 occurred in, 5 percent don’t know the DATE 9-11 occurred on (seriously), 30 percent of Democrats believe George W. Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks, 30 percent of Republicans believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, 20 percent of Americans doubt that the moon landing actually occurred, 25 percent don’t know what country the U.S. won its independence from (many say it was China), 37 percent believe that climate change is a hoax, 35 percent believe that homosexuality is a choice, 25 percent don’t believe in evolution, 25 percent believe the sun revolves around the earth, and 71 percent don’t know where the Pacific Ocean is. (These percentages may vary from survey to survey, but the high insanity quotient is a constant.)

We have reached the point in American history at which facts officially have become obsolete. The corner officially was turned with the election of Donald J. Trump, a man who literally lies more often than he tells the truth.

Mind you, the plague is not of a solely political nature. And it has been incubating for quite a while. But its inception point arguably can be traced to another presidential election, and the apotheosis of another delusional demagogue: Ronald Reagan.

The Gipper was a prolific fibber even in a field proverbial for prevarication (though he pales beside Trump). Yet his admirers extol him as a “strong leader” of impeccable honesty and “character”. Why? One reason is that Reaganauts, like Trumpsters, are individuals who are willing and even eager to be deceived. In Reagan’s case, however, we also must give credit where it is due: he was a highly skilled liar, an acumen no doubt honed by his years in Hollywood. But there’s another, more chilling factor: he seems actually to have believed his own lies. His habit of recounting movie episodes as if they were real-life anecdotes apparently stems from his own confusion of one for the other.

When he claimed, more than once, that he filmed the liberation of prisoners from Nazi concentration camps (he never made it out of California during the war), he gave the impression that he had vivid memories of the fictional incident, and even offered to show nonexistent film he’d shot. Hell, he probably even suffered from PTSD from firing the camera. 

He lied repeatedly about selling weapons to a hostile nation and then using the proceeds to fund drug-running terrorists in Central America. Then, after denying he’d sold the weapons, he insisted that all the weapons he didn’t sell would have fit on the back of a small truck. He didn’t seem to notice the discrepancy, and neither did his fawning fans.

In fact, inspired by his highly successful rape of reality, they began doing for the media what Reagan had done for government – Rush Limbaugh was one of the earliest to jump on the bandwagon and is still going strong, churning out an endless stream of toxic falsehoods attacking The Others. Eventually the movement gave us Fox “News”, which for the past two decades has been feeding suggestible viewers an alternate reality around the clock. These folks know that the public will not bother to do any fact checking if you tell them what they want to hear and appeal to their emotions. 

We now have a society in which any belief or opinion, no matter how kooky, is considered on equal footing (at least) with solid fact; and all you have to do is say “I disagree” to make an unpleasant fact vanish is a wisp of smoke.

This has been going on for some time. But now, anti-intellectualism is officially national policy. It’s going to have a figurehead in the Oval Office. It’s going to have a high priest with his finger on the button. We came very close to this situation before with the “election” of George W. Bush — a man who spoke in an incoherent flux of grotesquely mangled English, and didn’t know the respective duties of the three branches of federal government, or that Social Security is a federal program.

Now we’ve gone full-throttle, officially decreeing that knowledge is not only unnecessary but a handicap. The U.S. has elected a president who rarely if ever reads, has no government experience, has no knowledge of the Constitution or government policy, and whose only legal experience is in suing and being sued at least 4000 times. The U.S. is going to have a president who obtains a large portion of his “information” about the world from the loony conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, which he repeats more or less verbatim.

Jones, in case you’re not familiar with him, has suggested that the Sandy Hook massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing were staged; that 9-11 was an inside job; that airplanes use chemtrails to spread “weaponized flu”; that the government is using fluoride to control our minds; that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton smell like sulfur because they are possessed by demons; that Michelle Obama is a man; that juice boxes are engineered to make children gay; that Justin Bieber is planning to create a police state by brainwashing kids; and that the world is being controlled by lizards from another planet.

Trump was parroting Jones when he declared that Barack Obama is a Kenyan; that thousands of Muslims cheered in the streets on 9-11; that Clinton used drugs prior to a debate; that Antonin Scalia was murdered; that vaccines cause autism; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; and that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Does any of this bother Trump’s supporters? Why should it? After all, there must be something fishy about Hillary’s emails.

I just heard the umpteenth one of them say that Trump won the popular vote. Thanks to the miracle of Google, it would take only a few seconds to find out who really won. But why should they bother when their illusions are so comfortable?

And how many times have you heard them say that Clinton was responsible for the deaths of Americans in Benghazi? It would only take a few minutes online to learn that a highly partisan investigation spent months and millions trying to find evidence of some blunder by Clinton or Obama with regard to Benghazi; but in the end they were forced to admit that the administration acted properly and made no mistakes. Even Fox “News” reported as much, for Christ’s sweet sake. But millions of people would prefer to believe the lie.

Throughout the excruciatingly long campaign season, Trumpsters bombarded Facebook with bogus stories supporting Trump — or more precisely declaring that “Hillary’s a crook”. Many of these stories were concocted by teenagers in Macedonia who had no interest in Trump or the election or the U.S of A. They just wanted to make money. And they did — a ton of it. Some of them tried circulating fake stories promoting Clinton and Sanders, but they discovered that Trump was much more of a cash cow — which is to say, his supporters were much more gullible and misinformed.

A large number of Trump voters call themselves “pro-life” – a smug euphemism for “I believe abortion will go away if I sweep it under the rug”. It’s their hope and dream that Donald Trump will keep at least one of his campaign pledges and do what he can to make abortion illegal again. They choose to bury the harsh reality (as many did pre-Roe) that outlawing abortion just means that many women and girls will die horrible deaths from back alley procedures. And it’s entirely possible that some of them will be loved ones of “pro-life” voters.

And there’s another grim consequence of bubble-dwelling that is not only possible but absolutely certain. Trump has declared that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese (yet another nutty notion he cribbed from Jones) and this greatly appealed to voters whose favorite subject is not science. But we cannot ignore climate change forever; in the very near future, its effects are going to become so devastating that they will demand to be acknowledged. And that day probably will be hastened by the actions of Trump and company.

In the meantime, the denizens of alternate reality will keep on reveling in their plague, and turning their backs on the facts. Until the day comes when some pesky fact sneaks around and cures them by kicking them squarely in the nuts.

Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex: Ducking Responsibility

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By now you’ve surely heard more than you ever, ever wanted to hear about the whole Duck Dynasty flap (if you live in The United States). But chances are you haven’t heard anything at all about the important lessons to be learned from it. So here are a few observations for your consideration.

1. Disapproval is NOT censorship.

It’s become an automatic response of anyone on the receiving end of a backlash for expressing bigotry or general idiocy to say, “Hey, you’re trying to censor me”. Or “you’re trying to suppress my First Amendment rights.”  Poppycock, horsefeathers, balderdash and codswallop.

Duck Dynasty’s head mallard, Phil Robertson, expressed his mind (such as it is) and nobody tried to stop him. GLAAD and A&E expressed their disapproval. All were perfectly within their constitutional rights.  So was the network’s decision to suspend Robertson temporarily while reassessing its relationship with him.

The constitutional protection of the right to free speech was never intended as a shield against fallout if your speech is cloddish. If you call a guy a rotten sonofabitch and say his mother is a whore, he just might punch you in the nose. It’s not censorship. It’s not unconstitutional. It’s not intolerance. It’s Newton’s third law.

2. Overreaction has become the standard American reaction.

Let’s face it, we live in the Golden Age of the tempest in the teapot, an age in which any dumb joke or offhand whimsical remark triggers a hoopla of seismic proportions. The formerly innocuous neologistic verb tweet has become a synonym for “invite an avalanche of distortion and negative publicity”.

So did people overreact to Robertson’s crass self-righteousness? Maybe. After all, there was far less outcry to his comments in the same interview to the effect that he thought African-Americans had been perfectly content with their social status in the pre-civil rights South, and that a non-Christian outlook leads to Nazism and genocide.  (Hey, nobody ever accused him of being a history scholar.) And his remarks about homosexuality in the interview were really rather tame in comparison to his past sage utterances on the topic that also flew mostly under the radar.

But if the gay community and A&E were overreacting, their overreaction was blown to smithereens by the overreaction to that overreaction on the part of Robertson’s defenders.

Here’s GLAAD’s statement:

Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans – and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.

As you can see, it’s much more elegant and civil than Robertson’s. As is the statement issued by A&E:

We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series ‘Duck Dynasty.’ His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.

And it’s certainly far more elegant and civil than the over-the-top reaction from Duck-lings, as typified by Fox “News”:

A&E is apparently run by a bunch of anti-Christian, bigots. Duck Dynasty worships God. A&E worships GLAAD. If Phil had been twerking with a duck the network probably would’ve given him a contract extension. But because he espoused beliefs held by many Christians, he’s been silenced. Perhaps A&E could provide the nation with a list of what they believe is politically correct speech.  Maybe they could tell us what Americans can say, think and do. Should the U.S. Constitution be amended to prevent Americans from holding personal beliefs that others might not agree with?… It’s not about capitalism. It’s about driving an agenda and shoving it down the throats of the American public. And Hollywood is beholden to an agenda that is anti-Christian and anti-family.

Good grief. They forgot to mention the  “Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”.

You’ll notice that GLAAD and A&E (and most other people who objected to Robertson’s clueless crackerdom) limited their remarks to complaints about specific comments by a specific individual. They didn’t attack, insult, accuse or belittle him or anyone else. Not the rest of his family. Not duck hunters in general. Not Louisianans. Not guys who look like ZZ Top posing as GI Joe. And most certainly not Christians. But…

3. Americans desperately crave a narrative.

Have you noticed that people seem to find it increasingly difficult to view an incident as merely an incident? Everything has to be part of a trend, a movement, a plot, a conspiracy. Of course, the media do all they can to feed this attitude, and we could have an interesting chicken-and-egg debate about whether it’s more a matter of the media dictating or catering to the mindset; but in any case it’s pretty hard to deny that the mindset does exist.

In this instance, the overreaction to the overreaction tended to follow what has become a very popular narrative: that rejection of intolerance is more intolerant than intolerance itself. There was an explosion of rants about the oppressiveness of “political correctness”, whatever that is, on the part of the “Hollywood elites”. And always, such narratives absolutely and inevitably MUST lead to a scathing indictment of them librulz. This, the official spin goes, was another shining example of that ever-sought chimera, liberal intolerance. And oh yeah, it was a “war on Christian values”, as if all Christians were homophobic. (Quick, what did Jesus have to say about homosexuality?) But in fact some of them are actually too busy trying to improve the world to go around proclaiming that God is going to punish people for being the way He made them. And then there are the others…

4. Many Christians desperately want to feel persecuted.

They want it so much that they’re more than willing to pick a fight as often as possible in order to justify the paranoia.  One group they love to pick a fight with is gays. (See previous posts on Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex: “Playing Chikin“, “A Tale of Two Legal Judgments” and “The Kirk Cameron/ Anita Bryant Delusion“.) But they’ll settle for other groups as well.

Not long before the GQ story broke, another Internet narrative began circulating about Phil Robertson, to the effect that Duck Dynasty producers had asked him not to pray on the show, at the insistence of “atheists and liberals” — a claim which turns out to be quite unfounded . In another interview, he specifically mentioned that they frowned on his ending prayers with “in Jesus’ name”,  possibly because it could offend Muslims. There’s no substantiation of this claim either, nor any reason to believe that in fact Muslims would be offended by such a thing.

It’s also interesting to note that this controversy erupted at time of year when the Christian persecution complex was already operating at full throttle. Every winter, one of the most inane of narratives, the “war on Christmas“, is as predictably conspicuous as eggnog and candy canes. Whenever someone says “happy holidays” or anything else except “Merry Christmas”, it’s taken as a sure sign that they’re out to eradicate the holiday altogether and ship all Christians off to a gulag in Siberia.

At about the same time the Duck Dynasty brouhaha was brewing, a woman in Phoenix who was collecting donations for The Salvation Army (which, lest we forget, is itself a Christian organization) was allegedly assaulted for expressing good will in an unauthorized fashion to a Good Christian. Is that censorship? Persecution? Political correctness? We don’t know, because The Indignant Guardians Of Liberty And Tolerance tend to become eerily silent about occurrences of this type. But maybe if Christians really are at war with the rest of the world, it’s because they’ve fired the first 5000 shots.

5. Many Christians try to duck responsibility for their own beliefs.

As we discussed in the previous post, they try to blame God for their bigoted and unenlightened doctrines, and quote cherry-picked biblical passages to buttress those beliefs. But this doesn’t work because (1) it’s very difficult to know exactly what the Bible says or intends; (2) the Bible often seems to contradict itself, and (3) you can find something in the Bible to justify anything you choose to believe.

One scriptural snippet the gay-bashing fundamentalists love to dredge up is Leviticus 18:22. What they fail to mention, however, is that the same book also states some other laws issued by the Almighty that most Christians wouldn’t want to live by. (At least let’s hope not.) And the Bible devotes even more wordage instructing you to sell your daughters into slavery, for instance. It’s the believers themselves who pick some biblical passages to live by and ignore others. And if there is a Guy Upstairs, he’s probably getting mighty annoyed at taking the rap for so long.

6. Americans love the lowbrow.

Duck Dynasty Clean

The above photo depicts the Robertson family in its pre-DD days. Chances are they wouldn’t have created such a media buzz if they’d continued grooming themselves like this. But fortunately for them, they underwent a savvy PR makeover, relinquishing an image that suggested the stereotype of the Homogenized Yuppie for one that suggests the stereotype of the Inbred Goober. And subsequently, their popularity has taken off like a skeet.

Americans have a fondness for, an infatuation for, an obsession with, the severely unsophisticated personality — not just the non-intellectual, but the anti-intellectual. Most people (hopefully) recognize that pop culture icons like Homer Simpson and Archie Bunker are meant to be satirical rather than exemplary. But there are real-life characters who are almost equally satirical, and they often end up in positions of power and influence: e.g., Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, and Dan Quayle. And did we mention Sarah Palin?

Phil Robertson was hired to be a buffoon, so nobody should be surprised by his comments in GQ. Or comments like this:

Look, you wait ’til they (women) get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.

Really, Christians? You feel morally superior for standing behind someone like this?

It’s also no surprise that he was reinstated on the Arts and Entertainment network, though he is neither very artful nor, for may of us, very entertaining. His supporters rallied to his defense, and he probably picked up quite a few more troops along the way — which is one reason why it’s probably not a good idea to make such a fuss about his comments in the first place. In fact, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to learn that the whole thing was a publicity stunt cooked up by the Robertsons and the network.

But the real question is, why do so many people even give a shit at all about what someone like Phil says? That they do surely reveals something significant about contemporary American “culture” — something that, like the Robertson clan decked out in its waterfowl-slaughtering regalia, ain’t very pretty.