Underrepresented

Underrepresented groups, I am told, are eagerly sought by academic institutions. The white male establishment has begun to develop a conscience, it seems. If I appear more credulous than an academic should be, it’s because I grew up poor. While I have no doubts that the entrenched power structures need to change, in an unguarded moment I wonder about the obvious overlooked financial demographic. What of the poor? I’m told by my friends with academic posts that universities are eager to find authentic poor folk—working class people who’ve worked they’re way up. To me, as one such person, this is another academic myth. Even a “white” man can struggle. If you’re born into an uneducated, blue-collar, paycheck-to-paycheck family, getting ahead is often sublimated survival. Those who’ve had me in class may not believe that I grew up with red-neck family values. Duck Dynasty? Well, in my case it was more a case of Deer Destruction, but I lived in a small, industrial, rust-belt town on the edge of the woods. From middle school on I worked to buy my own clothes for school which, I could always tell, were bargain rack compared to other kids who’s parents struggled less. In times of stress (and they are many) I find myself slipping back toward my blue-collar days and wondering just what is wrong with privileged America.

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I don’ t pretend to have grown up in abject poverty. My wife, from a middle class family, was, however, a victim of culture shock when she first visited the house I grew up in. (I still end sentences with prepositions from time to time.) And that was after the improvements. College was my choice and was paid for by my own work since parental contributions hovered somewhere around the zero line. Along the way I learned to act like others. I even became Episcopalian and most of my “peers” had no idea I didn’t really fit in. I say all this not for pity, but because of a deep conviction that the poor are the hidden demographic. We, as a society, need people to take away our garbage and plow the snow from our streets and dig our ditches. We don’t really want them educated since, well, they would be overqualified. Disgruntled. Our institutions may say they want to hire them, but they lie. The poor make the affluent uncomfortable even as they make them comfortable.

In my campus experience (which, all told, comes to over 25 years) I always found talking to the grounds or maintenance staff more comfortable than the academic staff. I understood where they were coming from. Even now as I wonder how I’m going to afford to get the car fixed, I recall conversations around the more practical matters of life with which I grew up: how to make sure poorly insulated pipes don’t freeze up in winter. Eating venison, or coming home to find carp that a neighbor caught swimming sluggishly in the bathtub were not unknown. While I didn’t go to bed hungry, the food available made me wonder what was in front of me in some fancy restaurants in San Diego. If academe is serious about understanding the poor, they’re going to have to start listening to them. And when they form a department of red-neck studies, they’ll hire someone from an established academic family with an Ivy League degree to lead it. I’ve always been more credulous than I should be.

Disco Duck

From the Roman Empire, Holy or otherwise, to the British Empire upon which the sun once never set, human endeavors are inevitably temporary. We like to think we’re making lasting contributions. Not so long ago Phil Robertson could make claims on vast amounts of media attention for his homiletical, gun-toting brand of family values. Despite not being a television watcher, even I was drawn into the drama as Happy! Happy! Happy! became a bestseller. Perhaps because my pursuit of religion has never earned me three such exclamation points, I read the book to find the secret of success. It is a combination of unquestioning belief and a willingness to blow the heads off of ducks in flight. Not that I would know about such things. The Dynasty made its way into Time magazine and other media outlets as the most interesting thing reality television, which is anything but, could throw at us.

Then Phil made a statement that set many viewers off. Mistaking intolerance for true religion—rather a constant in the algebra of faith—Robertson expressed his views on homosexuality and the ratings began to slip. Last year as I walked into a department store, I found Duck Dynasty bobble-head dolls and even fake Dynasty beards for those with no gumption to grow their own. Golf balls and beer glasses and all sorts of merchandise. Yes, you could partake of the good life without even cocking or pumping your shotgun. Other members of the family wrote books. (I have friends who produce quality literature who can’t find publishers.) We love the self-made genius of a simple guy and his make-believe world. Happy. Happy. Happy.

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It has been some time since I’ve seen Duck Dynasty mentioned in the media. I wandered into the same department store this year to find stacks of Dynasty merchandise drastically reduced. You could buy Phil Robertson’s memoirs for even less than Amazon prices. In bulk, if you desired. My historically inclined mind turned to the great empires of antiquity. Did Alexander, I wonder, really know what he wanted? What about when you finally reach the ocean? What is off on the other side? Once you’re out of sight of land, you’ve lost your control back home. Next thing you know, Diadochi have fractured everything. The gods of empire, it seems, don’t have it all together after all. Happy? Happy? Happy?

Asp and Receive

Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.

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According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.

Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.

Duck, Dynasty

The Fundamentalist mouth has no filter. I’m a bit surprised by the furor raised by Phil Robertson’s comments about race and sexuality. Did A&E not realize that it was dealing with a Fundamentalist family on Duck Dynasty? I’m frequently amazed at how Fundamentalism is exoticised by the media as some quaint, back-woodsy phenomenon. Do they not realize that similar views are held by several members of congress and the pre-Obama presidential incumbent? By the numbers, Fundamentalism is a powerful force, but, like our universities, the media can’t be bothered to try to understand religion until a large demographic is suddenly threatened. A&E supports equality across sexual orientations, and, as it should go without saying in the twenty-first century, races. Prejudices, however, run very deep. Perhaps it’s just not so surprising to me, having been raised in a Fundamentalist environment. There was nothing exotic about it. It was, as we understood it, simple survival.

Phil Robertson has been suspended from his own show for comments made off-air. Wealth does not necessarily make one a better person. In fact, the figures trend in the other direction all too often. If instead of just promoting books written by the stars of the anatine series, the studio executives read those books they might have foreseen something like this coming. The Fundamentalist mind, I know from experience, tends to see things as black or white. Despite the camo, gray is a loathed color. Rainbow is even worse. The Fundamentalist psyche is not encouraged to try to see things from the other’s point of view. There is only one perspective: the right one. And when asked a straightforward question, a straightforward, if misguided answer will be given. It’s the price of fame.

The Robertson family, according to CNN, has closed ranks with their founder, claiming he is a godly man. There’s no irony here, folks. Fundamentalism isn’t into irony or subtle possibilities. Religious rights and freedoms are being press-ganged to the aid of those who long to speak free. Not about ducks, or guns, or calls. But about the naturalness of white skin and heterosexual love. And the Bible as the only possible source of the truth. The media often treats Fundamentalism as if it were a game, turned on or off at a whim. In reality it is a comprehensive worldview in which the inmates are commanded to speak the truth. The filters are not on their mouths, but are in their minds. Until we can learn to take them seriously, no duck anywhere will be safe.

Even the Roman Empire didn't last forever...

Even the Roman Empire didn’t last forever…

Sunday Best

When my rural, northwestern Pennsylvania shows up in the news, I pay attention. An Associated Press story recently appeared concerning Rev. Chris Terbush of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the success of Duck Dynasty (which seems poised to overtake even Apple as the most popular purveyor of popular culture), Rev. Terbush has encouraged his congregation to show up on Sunday mornings in camouflage, ready to go forth and claim dominion over nature once the service is over. I’ve been ambushed by enough clergy that the idea makes me a little nervous, I’ll have to admit. But then again, I know where he’s coming from. I grew up in a town that celebrated the first day of deer season as a public holiday, with schools closed and the hills alive with the sound of muskets. Not being a hunter, I just enjoyed the day off school. This upbringing, however, gave me a profound appreciation for the Jeff Daniels’ movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight. But I digress.

Religious services evolve, just like any other social phenomenon. When I was young, just as the sixties were wresting the color of life from the black-and-white fifties, going to church was a formal event that demanded your “Sunday best.” Only the worst of heathens would show up before the Almighty in anything less than a white shirt and tie, a jacket and uncomfortable shoes. You had to show the divine that you were willing to go that extra mile and implicate that you didn’t intend to have any fun when it was over because the sabbath is a solemn occasion. I remember the weird feeling of walking into church during the weekday wearing jeans for the first time. It felt as if I were dissing the rules of the club. It was an exclusive affair.

The “theology of dress” has become an area of scholarly investigation with the growth of embodiment issues. What we wear says something about our beliefs, and the fact that we wear clothes at all is sometimes even traced back to Genesis 3. The origin of “good clothes,” clearly, was a status issue. Those who could afford to keep some surplus clothes unsullied by labor wished to strut their stuff on occasion. And who better to impress than God? All of this has eroded over the years with many churches as casual as any man cave. Now you can camouflage yourself in church. There may be more going on here than meets the eye, both literally and metaphorically.

What happens in the woods stays in the woods

What happens in the woods stays in the woods

Just Ducky

An innocent trip to Kohl’s. I was really just along for the ride since buying clothes is not really my thing, but I’d been spending quite a bit of time at home alone, pondering my fate. We’d just changed the clocks, so we had an extra hour and my wife needed a few things. Once there popular religion gave me the old Joab-and-Abner treatment, if you know what I mean. I’m not completely naive about movie tie-ins—they are big money for all kinds of products, especially food (both fast and slow). As if eating that burger will somehow make you more like Captain America than will a few brisk minutes on the treadmill might. In any case, I’ve known Kohl’s to support charitable causes in the past: buying a children’s book or plush animal for a donation to a wildlife conservancy or some such socially conscious promotion. I was a bit perplexed to find a tremendous amount of Duck Dynasty gear in the store on my recent trip. Being outside New York City, we are hardly rural. I mean, Kohl’s sells clothes, right? But there were Duck Dynasty bauble-heads, Duck Dynasty fanny packs, and even a whole stand of Duck Dynasty books. From conserving animals to shooting them.

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I realize Duck Dynasty items are big money. At a local store just before Halloween I spied a Duck Dynasty costume—fairly simple; a ZZ Top beard and you’re good to go. While getting a haircut the other day the girl, young enough to be my daughter (literally), said “You gonna keep the beard?” I told her I hadn’t shaved since 1988. Her response? “Well, at least you don’t look like those Duck Dynasty guys.” Like Rip Van Winkle (whom I understand also sported an impressive beard), I feel like I’ve been asleep for quite a long time. When did facial hair come to equate home-grown evangelism and love of shotguns?

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To calm my nerves, I signed onto Amazon.com. Prior to becoming dramatically unemployed, I used to treat myself every once in a while to some reasonably priced reading material from our Seattle savior. Naturally, they want you to buy more, so they suggest other books, based on viewing patterns, and, more importantly, purchasing records. That’s where I saw the Duck Commander Devotional, complete with a duck-themed camouflage cover. Now I think I finally understand. Reading the Bible for yourself (like Phil Robertson does) is too much trouble. It is easier to have the hirsute heroes of Louisiana tell you what the good book says. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like religion might be going to the birds.

Quack, Quack, Honk

HappyHappyHappy Although I’ve never hunted, there is an undeniable sense of power involved with shooting a shotgun. Maybe it’s the harsh kick against your shoulder as a clay pigeon many yards away explodes in mid-air and a trickle of gunpowder scent tickles your nostrils. It is a temptation, however, I think most people—present writer included—should avoid. I don’t own a gun and I don’t watch television. I suppose that makes me a kind of pariah in my own country, but when I heard about Phil Robertson’s book Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander, I knew I would eventually read it. I’ve never seen Duck Dynasty, but like Phil Robertson, I grew up in a family that middle-class folks would consider poor. Even now, many decades and degrees later, I’m still playing catch-up, unable to afford a house. Worried excessively about college payments. So how did Robertson do it? How did he become a millionaire and find a publisher? According to his book the answer is simple: Jesus Christ.

Happy, Happy, Happy is an engaging memoir. While I disagree with most of what Robertson says, it’s hard not to like him. A simple, self-made man from humble circumstances. He hides his master’s degree well. Like Augustine, however, it was only after a misspent youth that he insists others don’t do the same. “God grant me chastity,” Augustine once quipped, “but not yet.” Robertson found Jesus, or the other way around, in his mid-twenties. He, not unlike many victims in recovery, gives the credit to God. His answers are simple: read the Bible, live by it, kill ducks, and everything will be fine. Interestingly enough, two of his four sons, raised on the Gospel, also went astray before seeing the light. This is not schadenfreude on my part: I have personal experience with family “on the wild side” and I would never wish it on anyone. It’s just that the law of averages isn’t so great here. For half the boys the Gospel wasn’t enough, at least at first. The darkness pushed them toward the light. Simple fixes almost never lead to viable long-term solutions.

Phil Robertson is another of those reality TV phenomena of the “plain folk” that so fascinate media types. They can’t seem to get enough. Some of us authentically paid that price below the selective eye of the media. For some of us, the answers are much more complex, if not distressing. Hard to put that up on the screen and guarantee your advertisers that people will watch. We only want complexity knocked down. Even the fun Big Bang Theory wouldn’t be nearly so popular if the smart guys didn’t get their comeuppance week after week. I am moved by Robertson’s story. His devotion to the Gospel is admirable and it is clear that it makes him happy (happy, happy). If I ever met him I would probably nod politely in agreement, although my experience has diverged from his. We would probably have to eat at separate tables, despite my good will. The fact is, he has lots of guns and I have none.