Why ‘Duck Dynasty’ was the Biggest Story of the Week

Phil Robertson’s firing from A&E found emotional resonance by confirming liberals’ and conservatives’ worst suspicions of the other side.

(L-R) Willie Robertson, Phil Robertson and Si Robertson of Duck Dynasty attend the A+E Networks 2012 Upfront at Lincoln Center on May 9, 2012 in New York City.
National Journal
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Alex Seitz Wald
Dec. 21, 2013, 9:39 a.m.

If you’re con­fused how a duck-hunt­ing en­tre­pren­eur’s dis­par­aging com­ments about gay people be­came the biggest news story of the week, you’re not alone.

There were plenty of oth­er things to talk about, from Ir­an and Syr­ia, to Obama­care and the NSA, yet Duck Dyn­asty star Phil Robertson’s sus­pen­sion from A&E com­manded by far the most in­terest, as any­one who mon­it­ors traffic for news web­sites could tell you. The story has stayed atop the news rank­ing site Memeor­andum‘s lead­er­board for the past three days and ab­so­lutely dom­in­ated Google searches com­pared to oth­er stor­ies:

Why? You could blame a slow news week, our in­fatu­ation with celebrity cul­ture, the me­dia’s love of inan­ity, etc. But I’ll haz­ard an­oth­er guess: The story provided pro­found psy­cho­lo­gic­al sat­is­fac­tion for both sides in the cul­ture war by con­firm­ing deep, ugly sus­pi­cions of the oth­er side.

Take two of the most cited columns from the right and the left, which gen­er­ally en­cap­su­lated the re­sponse from either side.

Matt Lewis wrote at the con­ser­vat­ive Daily Caller that the con­tro­versy ex­posed that “there really are two Amer­icas” — a con­ser­vat­ive, rur­al, Chris­ti­an Amer­ica that feels un­der at­tack from a cos­mo­pol­it­an, blue Amer­ica.

Re­spond­ing to Lewis from the left, Busi­ness In­sider‘s Josh Barro agreed, but ad­ded that “one [Amer­ica] is bet­ter than the oth­er.” There’s the one where it’s OK to de­hu­man­ize gays as sub­hu­man and claim that blacks were hap­pi­er un­der Jim Crow than they are today, as Robertson sug­ges­ted, and then there’s the bet­ter one where it’s not OK to say those things, Barro ar­gues.

Each column eli­cited a chor­us of “amens” from their re­spect­ive side, and therein lies the ap­peal of the Robertson saga.

For urb­an lib­er­als, it’s hard to find a more car­toon­ishly dis­tilled ste­reo­type of the Amer­ic­an South and mod­ern con­ser­vat­ive mas­culin­ity than Phil Robertson, with his ZZ Top beard, cam­ou­flage everything, and molasses Louisi­ana drawl. So Robertson’s com­ments were seem­ingly con­firm­a­tion of the urb­an lib­er­al’s worst sus­pi­cions about South­ern White con­ser­vat­ives: They really are all as big­oted as I thought!

Of course that’s not en­tirely true, but it’s much easi­er to think of the oth­er side as a car­toon than as a com­plex, nu­anced hu­man, so this kind of ap­par­ent con­firm­a­tion provides deep sat­is­fac­tion that the way you think you un­der­stand the world is ac­tu­ally true and has been all along.

For con­ser­vat­ives, it’s the in­verse. A&E’s (read: the lib­er­al me­dia) de­cision to fire Robertson and the Left’s glee at his re­mov­al is con­firm­a­tion that your world and everything you hold dear really is un­der at­tack. Urb­an lib­er­als really do hate my Chris­ti­an, tra­di­tion­al, rur­al val­ues. This coun­try really is slip­ping away.

As Lewis wrote, the Right sees it as “an at­tack on ‘un­soph­ist­ic­ated’ coun­try folks as much as it is an at­tack on or­tho­dox Chris­tian­ity.” Amer­ica is be­com­ing a coun­try con­ser­vat­ives no longer re­cog­nize, and when a guy like Robertson gets fired for es­pous­ing a deeply held re­li­gious be­lief — a view shared, by the way, by al­most half of Amer­ic­ans — that is ter­ri­fy­ing. Mark Steyn wrote Fri­day in the Na­tion­al Re­view that the fir­ing pres­ages an “age of in­tol­er­ance” against Chris­ti­ans.

Of course, both sides’ re­duc­tion­ist views are in­com­plete. But the sat­is­fac­tion of feel­ing like you were just giv­en li­cense to con­tin­ue hold­ing that in­com­plete view — and to re­main in­side your com­fort­able bubble — is what drove so many clicks and Tweets and com­ments on the Robertson story.

It’s li­cense to con­tin­ue mis­un­der­stand­ing the oth­er side.

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