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O’Connor Knows the Robertsons (Sort Of)

December 23, 2013

Because I refuse to pay $600+ a year in order to watch television, I live largely unaware of the programs which are only available by cable television subscriptions. Thus, though I’ve heard of Duck Dynasty, I have never seen an episode. This past week, of course, my awareness has grown exponentially. It is truly impossible, right now, to be unaware of Duck Dynasty. Because the Robertsons are identified culturally as the “anti-Kardashians,” I’ll note that even though I’ve heard of them too, I would not recognize a Kardashian if I had seen her. But no one can miss a Robertson. They have those ZZ Top beards.

Change the Robertsons to the Greenleafs and you would have exactly the kinds of people who populate Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “Greenleaf”: zealous, prosperous, prolific, and thought to be ignorant (though not as dumb as they look). In O’Connor’s short story, the secular Mrs. May thinks of herself as superior to the Greenleafs, ultimately to her own destruction.

On the other hand, in another O’Connor short story, “Revelation,” Mrs. Ruby Turpin thinks of herself as pious, zealous, and superior to black people and “white trash.” In that story, a secular college student named Mary Grace (as obviously a symbolic name as O’Connor has ever created) knocks Mrs. Turpin in the head with the textbook Human Development. Mrs. Turpin later has a vision, the revelation of the story’s title, of black people, white trash, and everyone else entering heaven ahead of her, all of them with “even their virtues … burned away.” In her vision, Mrs. Turpin does get into heaven, as I think O’Connor herself would have it so, but with far, far less vanity about her own righteousness.

In this cultural moment, the two O’Connor stories may represent two sides (of the several sides there are) of the reaction to Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ magazine. To the supporters of the Robertsons, we are in the world of “Greenleaf,” in which the cultural elites, represented by Mrs. May, are confronted and (they hope) defeated by the proliferation of Robertsons and their supporters. But Phil Robertson himself seems to me to be in the position of Mrs. Turpin, too sure of his own righteousness, and too ignorant of other people’s experiences.

Think again about these excerpts from the GQ article:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

In the first passage, Phil Robertson’s racism is upheld by a well-guarded ignorance. The fact that he has never seen the mistreatment of black people can be explained by a refusal to look and to listen. If Robertson (or anyone else) wants to know about the lives of African Americans in Louisiana during the time of his own upbringing, I can recommend the novels of Ernest Gaines as a strong witness. Or I can recommend just paying attention.

The ignorance which guards the racism frequently masquerades as innocence, a subject Flannery O’Connor has also written about. In context, she is discussing the Christian reader who wants his literature too pure, so much so that the reader himself slips into heretical Manichaeism:

If the average [Christian] reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be more of a Manichean than the Church permits.… [H]e has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. (Mystery and Manners 147-148)

Here’s the problem: the guarded ignorance which protects Robertson’s “innocent” racism is also on display in his comments about same-sex desire: “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me.” Conservative Christian commentary about Robertson’s comments seems to overlook the fact that Robertson is treating one physically-oriented lust as morally superior to another lust, and it has mostly ignored his racial ignorance (as if it were irrelevant). Robertson does not acknowledge here that lust itself is a manifestation of human fallenness. Does he acknowledge the similarity of heterosexual lust to homosexual lust elsewhere? To his credit, I think he does, though in an exceedingly clumsy fashion.

Flannery O’Connor may lead us to consider a better way to address the differences. O’Connor developed a friendship with a woman who began to correspond with various writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Betty Hester is identified as “A” in the letters collected in The Habit of Being. Some of Hester’s and O’Connor’s letters had been withheld from publication for decades, but since Hester’s death, a few letters have been made public. Hester had been a closeted lesbian. The following passages come from a letter O’Connor wrote to Hester on October 31, 1956, after Hester came out to O’Connor and explained that she had been dishonorably discharged from service in the Air Force:

“Compared to what you have experienced in the way of radical misery, I have never had anything to bear in my life but minor irritations. But there are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worse affliction not to be afflicted. And Job’s comforters were worse off than he was, but they didn’t know it. If in any sense my knowing your burden can make your burden lighter then I’m doubly glad I know it, you were right to tell me. But I’m glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. Well you were wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.”

“It would be impossible for me to let you [thus disappear]. You have done me nothing but good and you have given me the present you wanted to, but the fact is, above and beyond this, that I have a spiritual relationship to you; I am your sponsor, self-appointed from the time you first wrote me and appointed by you afterwards, which means that I have a right to stay where I’ve been put.”

“I can see how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter. What is necessary for you to know is my very real love and admiration for you.”


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