An offensive logo loomed behind the many New Orleans-hating conservatives who addressed the Republican Leadership Conference here earlier this month: a dancing elephant holding a camo umbrella in its trunk.
I was relieved when the commentator I was watching on TV failed to make the connection between the umbrella and New Orleans second-line traditions. New Orleans is a city that twice voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and that has no Republican in city government. A Republican at a second line is like a Taliban mullah (or Southern Baptist preacher) leading a prayer service in nothing but a jockstrap and a feather boa.
The reason the umbrella was camo was to honor keynote speaker and aptly titled “patriarch” of the “Duck Dynasty” reality TV series, Phil Robertson. “Duck Dynasty” is a new chapter in an old story, the conservative movement’s effort to politicize cultural identity in the South. It uses the classic strategy of casting elites as victims, of portraying establishment insiders as rebels. Such political tactics date back to the Confederacy, but it’s always interesting to see the new bottles the old Kool-Aid is poured into (for those with a stomach for bile).
The first step is to fabricate easy and narrow markers of cultural authenticity. The Robertsons are from Louisiana, so it wouldn’t appear necessary to accessorize their legal residency with the numerous cultural icons they have worked into their public image. The problem is that other people are from Louisiana, too, people who don’t wear camo, who don’t hunt, and who even, God forbid, may be gay vegetarians.
The political right has long assailed what it sees as identity politics on the multi-cultural left, insisting that race, gender, ethnic background, sexual preference, and religious difference are overemphasized at the expense of a common national identity. Yet “Duck Dynasty” proves that today’s most avid practitioners of identity politics are in fact conservatives.
As reality show stars, the Robertsons are supposedly “just being themselves,” though the beards they grew before the cameras were turned on suggest that their natural, authentic selves needed a bit of a tweak to be ready for prime time.
Before Phil Robertson made the ugly politics of the Robertson clan more explicit, first with a provocative GQ interview, and, most recently, by delivering the keynote address at the Republican Leadership Conference, the family’s main claim to fame was in the world of design and fashion. This, too, shows how today’s conservative movement appropriates values of that vague cultural enemy they’re always so fired up about. Duck Dynasty fashion is now to white Southern rural conservatives (young ones, anyway) what hipster fashion is to many blue state urbanites. “We’ve got style, too!” their outfits shout from the marshes. But the more important message sent by their camo, beard, and bandanna ensembles is that “we too are marginalized by the mainstream!”
Public disgust with Robertson’s “deeply held beliefs” lets him posture as a victim of cultural bias — no matter that conservatives usually decry just this kind of sympathy bid by traditional “minorities” (African-Americans, gays). But Dynasty’s carefully designed casual wear also makes a self-contradictory statement.
Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” in 1970 to denote how the world of fashion sought to absorb some of the verve of radical political movements without sacrificing comfort. The Robertsons sell a similar product, a Southern variant we might call “Rebel Chic.” It, too, has its roots in the 1970s, among Southern rockers like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Molly Hatchet.
These guys helped distance the white South from the longhair-bashing cultural politics of George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, and it seemed that the white South, still voting Democrat in those days, might finally transcend the burning cross it so long had to bear. On the other hand, Confederate iconography features plenty of glorious longhairs, too, so identification of hirsute hairstyles with hippies was always historically short-sighted.
Whatever the politics of Southern rockers, their lifestyles fit the “rebel” mystique implied by their tonsorial style much better than the straight-laced squares of Duck Dynasty. Far from being rebels, in terms of money, ideology, and lifestyle these millionaires are scions of the status quo. As such, they reflect the need of the Republican Party’s libertarian wing to steal some of the glory of American anarchism, a far more colorful and less contradictory political sensibility. Before Phil Robertson identified the usual suspects as the enemy, Jase Robertson’s ejection from a New York hotel (for looking like a rebel) was their greatest claim to outsider cred.
The Duck Dynasty role as conservative tastemakers fits well with GOP wooing of young libertarians. It’s an effort to fashion a kind of Southern conservative hip, a visibly countercultural style as a reflection of supposedly embattled mainstream conservative values.
The key to the Robertsons’ role in the broader cultural irruption on the right is not to be found in the antics of the carefully crafted “rednecks” in front of the camera, but in the political commentary surrounding them, which is essentially a form of marketing. Phil Robertson tells GQ of his principled aversion to gay sex and his memories of happy African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era. Clearly he intends his comments to be incendiary, but he plays innocent. The ensuing uproar is first branded as “controversy,” then as “persecution.” With that foundation laid down, Willie and Korie Robertson can show up on the cover of Us Weekly with the headline “Defending Our Beliefs” — as if anyone was threatening those beliefs.
Of course there has to be a threat. That’s the crux of right-wing cultural movements, driven as they are by fear. Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is still the go-to text for deciphering conservative cultural politics in the U.S.
Hofstadter nailed it with his description of the ever-present enemy of America’s cultural conservatives: “a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.” This “cosmopolitan intellectual,” in the mind of the cultural conservative, also “controls the press.” Finally, Hofstadter identifies that secret longing of the cultural conservatives to become like their enemies. This is the tendency that the Robertsons — media and fashion moguls, themselves — best exemplify.
Identification of the enemy is easy on one level: Barack Obama. But whose interests does this evil mastermind from Hawaii, Chicago, Harvard, and Kenya represent? The rhetoric on the right works better if that’s left quite vague. Phil Robertson put it this way in his Republican Leadership Conference speech: “We’re up against evil like I’ve never seen in my life.” But he didn’t specify what it was.
Bobby Jindal’s comments placing “Duck Dynasty” in the broad context of American pop culture were more revealing. Defending Phil Robertson’s views, Jindal slammed the “politically correct crowd” (a favorite, pointedly vague designation roughly analogous to Hofstadter’s “cosmopolitan intellectuals”). “Miley Cyrus gets a laugh and Phil Robertson gets suspended,” Jindal quipped.
The suspension, of course, was not much more than a ratings stunt, since the “liberal media” had soon found another place at the table for the Robertsons. (Jindal should be so lucky when his governorship ends year after next.) What’s interesting is how he singled out Miley Cyrus, presumably for sexually suggestive dancing. Toleration of overt sexuality would seem to have been renewed as an omen of the coming cultural apocalypse — as it has been since Mata Hari, indeed, since Eve.
I found another clue to the political subtext in a meme shared on Facebook last year. It showed a charming picture of Phil and Kay Robertson with the caption: “The world needs more Phil and Kay and less Kim and Kanye.” But what do Kim and Kanye have to do Phil and Kay? Obviously they’re the “them” to help define the “us” of the Southern family-values crowd. But what “evil” American future do Kim and Kanye portend? And why does a choice between second-rate pop culture celebs have any larger significance at all?
Ask Chris McDaniel. Mississippi’s narrowly defeated Tea Party candidate for U.S. Senate has singled out hip-hop as a mortal threat to America’s moral fiber.
Like Phil Robertson, but with slightly greater specificity, he declares it “the evil we’re up against.” Here’s why: “There are millions of us who feel like strangers in this land, an older America passing away, a new America rising to take its place,” McDaniel laments. “We recoil from that culture. It’s foreign to us. It’s alien to us. … It’s time to stand and fight. It’s time to defend our way of life again.”
OK. This “foreign” menace is the world of Kim, Kanye, and Miley, but what does Washington have to do with it? Phil Robertson’s nephew knows. Not content simply to endorse candidates, the Duck Commander machine is now fielding its own. Zach Dasher, running for the Duck Congressional District (Louisiana’s 5th), has vowed to take the fight to the “intellectual elitists in Washington.”
These are the snobs who sneer at Duck Dynasty but enable Kim, Kanye, and Miley. It’s a twisted version of the old Southern populist notion of the Bourbon coalition, which posited an economic symbiosis between the planter class and poor blacks, at the expense of white working people. Re-applied to cultural taste, our righteous Duck Commanders now imply that “intellectual elitists” celebrate African-American urban culture and lewd young women, while snubbing the banal caricature of white Southern culture the Robertsons try to pass off as representative of us all.
Fifty summers ago, Lyndon Johnson, a white Southern Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Today no Democrat dares even sign up to run for Congress from Louisiana’s 5th District. I wish I could just laugh at the frightened dumb yokels making another spectacle of themselves “down South.” Being a white Southerner myself, I can’t do that. For me, the phony innocents of Ouachita Parish are more depressing than cute.