The World

If It Happened There: In Dispute Over Duck Kingpin’s Comments, a Society’s Faultlines Are Revealed

Heir to the dynasty.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

This is the fourth installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

SOMEWHERE IN THE LOUISIANA REGION, United States—The daily lives of a clan of bearded, well-armed, religious fundamentalists in one of this country’s most remote and least-developed areas might seem like unlikely source material for a heartwarming television comedy, but over 10 million Americans regularly tune in to watch the antics of the Robertson family of the rural Louisiana State. In recent weeks, however, remarks made by the family’s charismatic patriarch have drawn controversy and exposed a growing cultural rift in American society.

Reality shows have been a staple of U.S. television since the early 2000s, when Americans enthusiastically adopted European imports like Survivor and Big Brother. But recently a new breed of these shows has emerged centered not around staged competitions, but around the prosaic daily lives of such unexotic figures as crab fishermen, pawn shop owners, and truck drivers. An odd nostalgia for blue-collar and rural pursuits has caught on in this rapidly urbanizing country in which most people are now more typically employed in offices or service jobs.

But none of these characters have caught on to the same degree as these manufacturers of duck hunting paraphernalia, whose weekly hijinks—including the confusion of one older member of the family exhibiting obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder from America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia—have delighted millions of Americans who more typically get their duck in a takeout box. The family have parlayed their distinctive facial hair and homespun aphorisms into a vast business empire, but do they have larger ambitions?

This month, comments made by clan elder Phil Robertson in a popular men’s magazine about his disapproval of homosexuality have given the group notoriety of a different kind, sparking days of both outrage from opponents and vehement defenses from supporters on the microblogging service Twitter, America’s equivalent of Sina Weibo.

Though the views he expressed were perhaps not unexpected from a conservative religious manufacturer of hunting supplies in his region, the network that hosts the program moved quickly to suspend him. (Oddly, comments made in the same article expressing the view that America’s ethnic minorities had been better off living under a system of legally enforced white supremacy did not receive much attention.)

In the final weeks of this year, Robertson’s fate became an unlikely political flashpoint with members of America’s anti-regime opposition quickly flocking to his defense. The former governor of Alaska, perhaps under pressure from her own state’s thriving reality show industry, quickly aligned herself with Robertson’s movement. The governor of Louisiana, a figure who has attracted snickers from capital elites in the past for claiming to have witnessed an exorcism, even advanced the novel legal argument that the country’s constitution protects not just free speech but an individual’s right to regularly appear on television. Experts on the country’s legal system have expressed skepticism.

Under pressure from thousands of Robertson’s enraged followers, the television network has now backed down and will return him to air soon. The question now is how the family will follow up its victory.

“When the show runs its course and the production trucks drive off the Robertson property for good, there will be nothing keeping Phil from his greater mission,” wrote the journalist who originally reported Robertson’s comments. Given the political figures and powerful media interests who have been forced to bow to the duck-hunting populist and his followers’ whims, international observers might be wise to keep an eye on just what that mission is.  

Robertson’s low-brow public image might make him seem an unlikely leader, but after all, this is a country where a professional wrestler can become the governor of a populous Northern state, and an actor who once co-starred with a chimpanzee could become president. The events of the past month could be an indication to the nation’s elites that this backwoods insurgent with a massive popular following and extensive access to firearms may now have become too powerful to stop.