The religious right has many potent weapons in its arsenal—sanctimony, bigot-pandering, and dishonesty rank right up at the top—but lately, pretending to be victimized seems to top the list. We have a soundbite-driven, points-scoring political culture that resists deeper analysis of the issues, making it perfect for bad actors to muddy up the issues. All you do is accuse your opposition of doing what you, in fact, are actually doing. If you want to oppress people, claim you’re being oppressed. If you want to deprive people of their rights, whine about how your rights are supposedly under attack. The idea is to confuse audiences about who is actually oppressing who long enough that they give up actually bothering to learn the truth. Unfortunately, it can be devastatingly effective propaganda.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s commencement speech at Liberty University was a masterpiece in this type of dishonest projection. Posing as a champion of free speech and freedom of religion, he actually made a chilling argument in favor of stripping both of those freedoms away from ordinary Americans, businesses and anyone who might disagree with turning this country into a theocratic state. He started by defending Hobby Lobby for trying to strip contraception coverage out of their employees’ own healthcare plans. “Under the Obama regime,” he argued, “you have protection under the First Amendment as an individual, but the instant you start a business, you lose those protections. And that brings us to the second front in this silent war: the attack on our freedom of association as people of faith.”
It’s all nonsense, of course. In fact, Hobby Lobby’s intention here is to reduce religious freedom by forcing their employees to adhere to certain religious rules in order to get the benefits they already earned. (They have a history of trying to impose their religious dogma on non-believers through other means as well.) The only people in any real danger of losing freedom are women, who are in danger of losing their freedom to use their insurance benefits in a way that fits their personal beliefs.
But Jindal was just warming up, claiming the “Obama administration” was gunning to decide “who can preach the Gospel.” This outrageous conspiracy theory was justified, in his opinion, by supposed other attacks on “free speech,” namely that TV networks are reluctant to house the opinions of open bigots. “The left no longer wants to debate. They simply want to silence us,” he said of Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty, who was never silenced and has, to this date, been allowed to say any fool thing he wants. But he was briefly suspended from A&E, leading conservatives to decide that “free speech” means you have a right to your own TV show.
Jindal worked this entitled-to-a-TV-show argument in by referencing the Benham brothers, who lost a show they were working on for HGTV when it came out that they are hateful homophobes. Jindal called this a “demonstration of intolerance from the entertainment industry.”
The strategic projection was all over the place here. The intolerant people in this equation are the Benham brothers, whose intolerance of gay people leads them to support stripping gay people of actual rights, such as the right to marry. HGTV was instead making a show of their tolerance and their unwillingness to create a hostile environment for LGBT viewers and employees. Nor are any liberals opposing freedom of speech here. On the contrary, Jindal and his fellow conservatives seem to want to strip free speech rights from A&E and HGTV by compelling them to host speech coming from anti-gay bigots. Just as they define “religious freedom” as the ability to force others to use their own insurance policies the way you want them to, now they’re trying to define free speech as compelling companies to play host to speech they disagree with.
At this point, conservatives have gotten so good at projecting that the second they feel an urge to oppress someone, they just start squealing about how oppressed they are. Witness the aftermath of Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. Obviously, conservatives dearly want to oppress Sam by censoring the kisses he shared with his boyfriend, and ideally, preventing him from becoming a football player in the first place. But the rhetorical tactic was to undermine Sam’s victory by posing like victims and whining about how his very existence was somehow oppressive to conservatives.
Donald Trump led the way by claiming there’s a “double standard” because so many people are celebrating Sam while Tim Tebow is a routine object for mockery. Of course, the situations aren’t comparable in the slightest. Tebow wasn’t the first out Christian in the NFL and there has never been even a whiff of pressure on football players to conceal their Christianity. Tebow is a ripe target because he’s sanctimonious and because he openly holds nasty opinions about women’s rights and gay people. Sam doesn’t want to oppress anyone or take away anyone’s right to live their own lives. He just wants to live his life openly. Tebow, on the other hand, did a Super Bowl commercial trying to pressure the government to strip women of reproductive rights. Sam seems like a nice guy. Tebow comes across as an arrogant prick. If there’s a double standard, it’s that people tend to like nice people more than they like bullies.
That’s how the right rolls now. They see a story where they look bad, usually because they’re trying to oppress someone, and they try to pre-empt that narrative by claiming they’re the real victims. The object isn’t to convince anyone, but to change the conversation. As long as everyone’s debating whether or not religious bigots are entitled to a TV show or to be sanctimonious in public without mockery, we’re not talking about how conservatives always seem to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to things like gay rights, feminism and civil rights. No wonder they’re eager to keep us focused on these sideshow issues. They can’t win when we’re talking about the real ones.