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Phil Robertson’s Effective Lesson in Freedom

Before the holidays, there was a good deal of public backlash against Phil Robertson, the backwater Louisianan patriarch of A&E’s Duck Dynasty. In case anyone tuned out, the recent salvo of much warranted criticism directed at Robertson has its basis in an interview he did with GQ magazine, in which he equated homosexuality with sinful behavior, going so far as professing that homosexuality is a slippery slope descending towards bestiality. No less egregious, he tried to whitewash the injustices of Jim Crow, telling GQ that black Americans under Jim Crow had nothing to complain about, that Jim Crow was never really a problem because, well…here is his absurdly unintelligent reasoning, inspired, of course, with a discernible dose of that Antebellum racism typical of country bumpkin bigotry: “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy […] Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Now that the lion’s share of backlash to Phil Robertson’s indiscretion is, for the most part, behind us, we have just the right amount of critical distance needed to reflect on it, to pry a little deeper into the matter and ask the following question—Wherein lies the actual lesson here?

Why not begin with a popular way of thinking; that which is borne in upon today’s proverbial liberal. For instance, a friend of mine recently shared his opinion on Facebook, writing: “The issue I [had with the whole Robertson thing] is that there is political uprising all over the world. Protests, economic collapse, mass murder in African nations… Yet you turn on American news to see what is happening in the world and this is all you see: some backwoods cousin-humping hillbilly thumping his bible too hard. This is why the rest of the world sees Americans as ignorant buffoons.”

Not bad. Although this is a fairly legitimate point my friend makes, one that is quite common among intelligent, socially aware individuals, the problem with this sort of response is that it is too simple, too easy. For one, by focusing exclusively on the injustices happening elsewhere, one nonetheless runs the risk of effectively disregarding or playing down the antagonisms and injustices occurring in one’s own country. Thus today’s authentic leftist must respond not only to the plights abroad, but to the critical issues internal to one’s own country as well. So reasoned, we can now properly assess my friend’s reaction, and perhaps see how he could have followed the logic of his criticism a bit further. For what if we can find good reason for the amount of mainstream press behind Robertson’s idiotic, naïve, hateful, and, for the record, utterly un-Christian gaffe?

It is true: there are millions around the world right now eager to fight, if not fighting already, to actualize their dreams of liberation, to establish a civil society, one which will confer freedoms otherwise suppressed by the oppression of regressive regimes, and so on. And it is precisely for that reason that one should make the following claim: In terms of the media hype that surrounded Robertson, rather than scoffing at America’s mainstream media for giving so much air time to such a “vapid,” “trivial” news item, it would fare better to take a good contemplative look at this media event, and take it seriously. By doing so, we can see that its ascribed triviality merely serves to gloss over its essential cautionary thrust—an invaluable political message if ever there was one. In other words, Phil Robertson, and the rest of his rightwing/libertarian admirers who have come out of the woodwork to support him, is teaching the rest of the country, and the world, a valuable lesson about freedom and the social contract that guarantees us our basic human rights.

After A&E’s decision to “indefinitely” suspend Robertson for his remarks, the harebrained response by his supporters to this is that Robertson is the victim of discrimination, that his criticism of homosexuality and comments about Jim Crow are grounded in free speech, and that, therefore, his penalty is merely part and parcel of their dwindling Constitutional freedoms. Thus another gesture of the same old radical right/libertarian/Tea Party rhetoric: Robertson qua victim embodies the stripping of our Constitutional rights, and blah, blah, fucking blah…

Here it is important to recall Lenin’s admonishing lines regarding the notion of freedom: “Freedom yes, but for whom? To do what?” Can we not, in a sense, play with Lenin’s words here, and suss out from them the irrational agenda behind today’s American right? Not only, as in the case of the Tea Party agenda, does much of America’s rightwing advocate protecting the rights of the hard-working (often white) American—by way of honoring the “exploitative” rich (which, obviously, counters their own interests), but their notion of freedom (which is constitutive of the latter agenda) is just as confused, just as illogical and groundless; so much so that it, too, counters their own interests. In other words—and here is where our valuable philosophical lesson begins—the very notion of freedom being advocated by Robertson’s die-hard supporters is that of ‘pure freedom’, which, paradoxically, equals the lack of freedom.

In order to fully grasp what this means, one should consider Freud’s insightful claim that the basis of our assent to the law lies in the envy of the satisfaction of others, which, without the law, radically disfigures all social arrangements. So, with this in mind, let us now return to those famous lines of Lenin’s regarding the notion of freedom. The appropriate response one should direct toward Robertson’s rightwing supporters and their baseless complaint that freedoms are being taken away is: “OK—freedom yes, but for whom? To do what?

The crucial point here, is that, following Freud’s understanding of the law, were we all to have the freedom to do and say what we want, when we want, to whom we want—in effect, society would be lawless, and, accordingly, this pure, absolute freedom would result in no real freedom, since one’s absolute freedom to do and say whatever one desires would only bring about considerable harm, exacerbating an unregulated envy of the satisfaction of others, thereby encouraging either: (i) the (imbalanced) freedom for only some to do whatever they choose at the cost of others; or, not that dissimilar from the latter: (ii) the elimination of one’s (absolute) freedom by dint of another’s.

In other words, even freedom itself is not without its limits. Without any law to regulate our human predilections, everyone would be living under the constant threat of being hurt and/or maligned by one another; hence, essentially, no one would be free from the oppression of another. It is precisely in this sense that pure, absolute freedom equals the absence of any real freedom.

To name drop, this is precisely what the German idealist, G.W.F. Hegel, meant by his claim that real freedom consists in the subjects’ very acceptance of the laws and principles, which are their own nonetheless. And as T.M. Knox wrote in the “Translator’s Foreword” to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “So long as men regard freedom as freedom to pursue selfish whims, society is possible only if external checks are placed on this freedom; government [the whole of civilization, even] is then an external organization to meet men’s necessities.” That is to say, one’s freedom can emerge (and is thus enjoyed) only against a background of explicit rules and regulations. Without these rules and regulations there is no real freedom; the social fabric begins to fray. Take for example our gun laws as they exist in the US. Under the Second Amendment, citizens are given the right to bear arms. But this privilege exists against the necessary background of an obligatory framework: one can possess a firearm insofar as one follows the rules for doing so; to wit, one is not to fire a gun within city limits, one mustn’t aim or shoot a gun at another person, and so on and so forth. The same also applies for the privilege of driving an automobile; sure, one can freely drive a car or a truck or a motorcycle, insofar as one possesses the adequate training and necessary license to do so, the required insurance, and so on. In the same sense, one’s freedom of speech is also exercised against the background of explicit rules and regulations: one has the right to speak freely, insofar as one’s speech is not hateful, discriminatory, bigoted.

The point, of course, is that freedom (of choice, of speech, of…) can only be adequately exercised against a thick background of rules and regulations, shaped and informed by a rich and complex network of legal, educational, ethical and economic conditions. These conditions are indeed subject to change; but then, in that case—should those conditions undergo any change—so too will one’s ‘freedom’. And so, if the very framework that regulates and governs the desire to be free always contextualizes one’s notion of freedom, then clearly the notion of freedom that Robertson (and the regressive culture he represents) promotes and defends—the kind of perverted freedom under which homosexuality is conflated with bestiality and Jim Crow is considered progressive legislation under attack by demagogue liberals—is none other than a sort of “anti-freedom” freedom: an oppressive, hateful freedom that ultimately amounts to the freedom to be racist, homophobic, and so on; which essentially equals the lack of any real freedom for everybody; which amounts to none other than a regressive inclination to an era when some people had rights while others did not.

Therein we can now see how the objection that placing restrictions on free speech is anti-Constitutional is thus an aspect of contemporary racism. As Sara Ahmed argues in her unpublished manuscript, “‘Liberal Multiculturalism—It’s an Empirical Fact’—A response to Slavoj Žižek”, the subject who is represented as easily offended by one’s denigration is, in the eyes of the denigrator, the one who causes the injury, and it is therefore this other’s “offendability” that stands in the way of one’s free speech. In other words, the reproach that restrictions on free speech equals an attack on our Constitutional freedoms is none other than a hallmark of supremacist thinking: “It is the Other who stands in the way of our freedom.” And most of us know what sorts of social horror this way of thinking gives rise to when put into practice, widespread or not.

It is precisely in this sense that, despite all the rhetorical platitudes concerning “democracy” and “Constitutional freedoms,” much of America’s radical right stands for the exact opposite of real freedom. Thanks to Robertson’s disgusting display of regressive impropriety, and the wave of support that has swelled in around him, we now have a deeper understanding of just what sort of (un)freedom his followers desire: the freedom to wantonly tear to pieces the very social contract that has united what are otherwise dissonant states. In fine, what Robertson and those elected officials who have come to stand by his side have effectively revealed is that they are unable to see the way in which the social contract actually works; thus “when the blind are leading the blind, democracy is the victim.”

Frank Smecker is a veteran of the underground hardcore and indie-rock music scene, and a philosophy student at UVM. He is working on his first book about ideology.

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