The Victim Complex of Bigots

Paula Deen likens herself to gay NFL prospect Michael Sam while defenders of Arizona’s anti-gay bill see themselves as proverbial Christians being thrown to the lions.

Frazer Harrison

Paula Deen, the erstwhile maven of Southern cooking—or at least, a lard-laden caricature of it—is in trouble again, this time, for comparing her legal plight to the actual plight Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay prospective player:

“I feel like ‘embattled’ or ‘disgraced’ will always follow my name. It’s like that black football player who recently came out. He said, ‘I just want to be known as a football player. I don’t want to be known as a gay football player.’ I know exactly what he’s saying. I’m fighting to get my name back.”

Deen isn’t known for her self-awareness, but there’s a huge difference between fighting for respect as a football player, and defending yourself from accusations of racism. Especially when the accusations come from a lawsuit where you’re accused of discrimination and racist speech, including use of “nigger” and other slurs. Indeed, if Deen were trying to clear her name, she would do well to refer to Michael Sam by his name, and not as “that black football player.”

Normally, incidents like this aren’t worth a mention—going after Paula Deen is a bit of a cheap shot. But Deen’s self-pity coincides with recent developments in Arizona, where Governor Jan Brewer just vetoed a bill that would have enshrined anti-gay discrimination into state law, in the name of “religious liberty.”

There’s not much to say about Brewer’s veto statement—it’s a straightforward list of concerns, along with a dig at the Obama administration—but there is a lot to say about the conservative reaction to her veto, which ranged from resignation to apoplectic rage.

Now, like a similar bill in Kansas, the Arizona law was incredibly expansive. As Adam Serwer notes for MSNBC, “it was written in such a manner that essentially any religiously justified discrimination could be permissible.” Under the bill, as written, any discrimination could be permitted, as long as it came with religious sanction. Are you a gym owner who belongs to the white supremacist Church of Jesus Christ-Christian? Then, under the proposed law, you could bar minorities from using your facility.

To veto this isn’t to strip rights from believers, who are still protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the First Amendment and established custom. If you’re a conservative Christian in Arizona, you can still reject same-sex weddings at your church, keep gays out of your organizations, and fire them for their sexuality. But, if you’re working in the open market, you can’t deny them service on the basis of their identity.

To most Americans, this is fair. To conservative pundits, it’s a step away from feeding Christians to lions. “CNN led full court media press to take away rights of Christians,” wrote John Nolte of Breitbart on Twitter, “Just the beginning. Using tolerance as weapon against us. Wake up.” Likewise, said conservative columnist Ben Shapiro, “[I’m] not sure what the GOP stands for when it stands against religious freedom out of pure fear of political correctness.” The National Review’s Rich Lowry complained that Brewer’s veto “shows that poorly informed hysteria works,” and Todd Starnes—of Fox News—declared that Brewer “makes Christians in her state second-class citizens.” He continued: “It’s not a war on religious liberty. It’s a war on Christians.”

What, if anything, does this have to do with Deen?

In both cases, you have reactionaries—people who stand with either racism (in the case of Deen) or homophobia. What’s more, they are “attacked” for their positions. Deen has to face a former employee who wants compensation for her unequal treatment, and right-wing pundits have to deal with opposition from LGBT Americans who want equality under the law.

And how do they respond? By trying to turn the tables. Paula Deen isn’t a powerful media figure, she’s an embattled minority—“that black football player”—fighting to free herself from the burden of being accountable for her racism. Likewise, conservative pundits aren’t defending the legislature of Arizona and the still-influential beliefs of a large, socially conservative minority—they’re the targets of a “war on Christians,” where “Christian” is narrowly defined as people who share their particular views.

Ben then, this isn’t new. Whenever the powerful are challenged, they present opposing demands as “special rights.” OF course, if gays in Arizona—and nationwide—are asking for a “privilege,” it’s the privilege to be treated like everyone else. There’s nothing “special” about it.