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12/30/2013

'Duck Dynasty' takeaway: Stop letting anti-gay far-right set up false stakes, fake 'victims'

by Jeremy Hooper

I keep hearing people talk about who "won" or "lost" the whole Duck Dynasty fiasco. This is truly bizarre to me. I do not and never did see this as a game to "win" or "lose."

A man came out and said things that offended many, then people responded to those comments. In a perfect world, the subsequent discussion would've been all about the words and the merit (or lack thereof) attached to them. Some would take issue with Phil Robertson's views about gays and African-Americans of the Jim Crow era, some would've defended his beliefs on either or both topics, and others would've fallen somewhere along the spectrum. The dividing lines would have no reason to follow any sort of partisan path; the debate would be about beliefs and tone and a paid TV contractor's press image.

Honestly, I never even saw clear "win" or "loss" lines. With only one member among a cast of many involved in the controversy, there was no reason for people who were upset with Phil's words to seek cancelation of the show. With the network only putting him on a hiatus (rather than an outright firing), it wasn't easier to decipher who was mad and who was happy with the cable channel, and for what reasons. And with a complicated setup in terms of merchandising and profits, it wasn't even clear who wanted to boycott which items and why. Were LGBT people happy that the show was airing as a Christmas Day marathon? Did anti-LGBT people want Cracker Barrel to re-shelf merchandise from which A&E profits? The whole thing was kind of a weird blur.

For me, someone who is pretty much always seeking the "teachable moment" above all else, the only real hope was that Mr. Robertson would realize why his comments were hurtful and have some sort of "eureka" moment that would lead him to make a positive statement in support of LGBT (and especially LGBT youth) protection. To be frank, I couldn't care less about the TV program Duck Dynasty. All I knew was that (a) Robertson was a popular TV personality with a major platform and (b) his comments about LGBT people and African-Americans in the mid-20th century's deep south were highly offensive. That was the discussion I expected to have.

Enter the far-right. Within seconds of people like me seeing Mr. Robertson's comments and seeing a need to say something about them, the usual suspects on the far-right began beating the usual drums. Todd Starnes, Bryan Fischer, Erick Erickson, Sarah Palin, Dana Loesch—Twitter began lighting up with conservatives talking about "free speech" and "fascism" and whatever other buzz words they thought could help them yet again play the "victim" game. Keep in mind that this began long before the A&E network even announced any sort of penalty, as limited as it was. The far-right knew that this was going to blow up, so they were eager to blow it up in accord with their own preconceived script.

The fact that virtually every one of these folks who beat the early drum also happen to be overtly anti-LGBT themselves is a point that should not be lost. The anti-LGBT movement in America is on the defense and they know that they have to do something—something, anything, seriously—to flip the script. You didn't see these constant "victim" acts during the Bush era because they were "winning." Back then, they were just like, "American doesn't support you gays so buzz off." The anti-LGBT movement was, by and large, a very self-assured movement that was quite full of itself. Sure, they said things like "protect marriage" and "defend the family" as a way to make their cause seem like the positive rather than the negative one, but we didn't see this nonstop slew of fake, contrived, deliberately drummed up stories designed to make gays seem like the big, bad, tyrannical bullies.

This has changed. With so many monumental losses forever attached to their cause, the anti-LGBT far-right is in no hold barred mode. As strategy, they have decided that the "victim" costume is the most sellable of their potential ruses.

So back to day one of the DD drama: The anti-LGBT movement laid the "victim" groundwork early and loudly because they knew that, if focused an on-message enough, they could sell it to the American media. By starting a "free speech" whisper campaign the second pro-equality people had the audacity to use their own speech to ask "WTF?!" of Phil's words, they knew they could start building up a Twitter army of sorts. From there, they'd get the usual crap stirrers (Palin! Santorum! Huckabee!) to start working the "free speech" angle, convincing conservatives who are already pissed off at our President, our gains, and our diversity to once again take a stand. They then sent the smoke signals to friendly outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh until, voila—a fake narrative was born.

This is especially easy for them to do when the "ask" is so low-bar. Think back to Chick-fil-A, which was the same exact setup involving a movement that wanted to talk about a rich man's supposed "silencing" rather than what that rich face of his company actually said (that gay people bring God's judgment, to remind you). For that one, they simply told people to show up an buy a fried chicken sandwich. In this DD fiasco, the far-right rainmakers told followers to simply embrace a reality TV family and maybe sign a petition or two. These "least you can do" actions are always very effective, as they make disempowered people feel like they are accomplishing something. The truth is that most of the time, the people who push the petitions are really only exploiting the folks who sign up, be it through collecting their email addresses or using them to raise funds. But if it feels like a rally, it makes some people feel good and right and virtuous.

And guess what? It worked. All of a sudden, those of us who saw this as a really clear-cut situation involving one man's hurtful words, every American's right to reply to said words, and every company's right to make determinations based on a paid employee's behavior during press appearances became a completely contrived and intellectually dishonest discussion about the First Amendment. In reality, this situation had about as much to do with the First Amendment (which speaks to government stifling of speech, not corporate decision-making or the right to appear on and make millions of dollars off of reality TV) as it has to do with the Twenty-First Amendment. But never mind that. A receptive media, perhaps already feeling a little lazy due to the holiday season, eagerly bought this wholly contrived setup and began rehashing it for viewers.

The far-right played the media. And because they did, and because so many outlets allowed themselves to be part of this fake debate, Mr. Robertson's reinstatement did, in fact, play out like a "win" for the anti-LGBT side. All over social media, the same people who told me they hoped I'd "jump off a fresh cliff" or "drown in a pool of AIDS" after I went on Fox News to talk about this whole thing began crowing about how they had done some sort of noble thing on behalf of their "team." And honestly, I get why they feel that way. If you follow the false script that the far-right's rainmakers so deliberately and deceptively sold for political purposes, it does seem like they "won."

But they didn't really "win" anything and we didn't "lose" one inch. So he's going to be back on the show? So what? I always suspected he would be. For all we know, A&E is planning on turning this whole thing into a special episode that really does make some sort of positive statements. Reality TV is so set up to begin with, the producers could likely do this without their stars' consent or even full knowledge. Plus the network has already said it will launch some PSAs about respect and tolerance. I wouldn't be surprised if pressure (especially in light of some of Mr. Robertson's more recently revealed comments) leads to some real action.

But even if there is no such episode, what changes for the anti-LGBT far-right? The only difference between Duck Dynasty now and Duck Dynasty in November is that we all know that one of the show's top-billed stars says truly terrible thing about LGBT people and truly ahistorical things about segregation era Blacks (among others). Those who are buying into their fake idea that scrutiny of speech equals stifling of speech were pretty much there to begin with. Sure, Mike Huckabee and NOM added a few names to their mailing lists, but what, exactly, does the average practitioner of the anti-LGBT arts get out of this whole thing.

The answer: squat.

In fact, I actually see an unintended plus here, in that this whole thing has sparked a new conversation and, ideally, understanding of the First Amendment, which remains of the most misrepresented notions in American civic life. Just like the tragedy of Prop 8's initial passage led to a new and open discussion about why we don't vote on people's civil rights, ultimately open previously uninformed and/or unconcerned eyes, I'm seeing more and more people start to have an "a ha!" moment about what is and is not a "free speech" matter. I truly believe people like Sarah Palin (who admitted she didn't even read Phil's comments before speaking out in support of them) overplayed their claim here. They have prompted actual First Amendment lawyers to come out and say, "um, no—that ain't what this is." That's a win for those of us who value the free exchange of ideas and a loss for those who think only anti-LGBT conservative evangelicals deserve limitless expression of their views.

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