Rot in hell, Fred Phelps (1929-2014)
Thanks, Hank Fox! I too am struggling to be a bigger person about the (now) death of Fred Phelps, just as Alexandra Petri suggests -- see below. But it's hard.
So don't dance on the grave. Don't cheer. It's an understandable urge. Instead:
• Stop picketing funerals at all, ever, full stop. It is a terrible way of getting attention.
• Play with a kid. Do not hand that kid a hateful sign. Again, this should go without saying.
• Love someone.
• Send someone a thank-you note.
• Call your grandmother.
• Take a nap.
• Make a big colorful sign that says something polite. Take it to a place that is not a funeral.
• Love your neighbor.
• Stand up for someone who is being shouted down.
• Treat people like people.
• Make a sandwich.
• Feel the urge to say something hateful. Don't succumb. Know you're better than that.
-- the end of Alexandra Petri's washingtonpost.com post
"Better things to do than picket the Fred Phelps funeral"
I'm afraid I've already violated both the spirit and the very letter of Alexandra Petri's sensible prescription for commemorating the death of Fred Phelps in her washingtonpost.com post. After all, one of her suggestions above would seem to cover a post like this: "Make a big colorful sign that says something polite. Take it to a place that is not a funeral." I believe, indeed I hope, that there's no way of mistaking "Rot in hell" for polite expression.
And while I'm inclined to agree with Alexandra about that "stop picketing funerals at all, ever" idea (picketing funerals? what is that?), if this includes a ban on dancing or spitting on the grave, I'm afraid I can't go along. I've never done either of these myself, but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone else from doing so. Oh well, so much for trying to be a bigger person.
As I hope I've made clear, I have quickly become a big fan of Alexandra (it's kind of scary that someone that young is that smart), and I'm awash in admiration for her take on a healthy response to the passing of that vile sack of filth Fred Phelps, now-departed master of the Westboro Baptist Church of Hate. (Darn, "vile sack of filth" probably also violates the prescription to say something polite. It seems to represent an almost textbook failure to not succumb to "the urge to say something hateful." Shucks!)
"Who will picket the funeral of the man who picketed so many?" Alexandra asks at the top of her post, and she answers, "Let's hope, no one."
First because there may be no funeral to picket, and second because — well, we’re better than that.Now this seems to me an excellent argument, and Alexandra makes it very well. What it comes down to, as we'll hear her say in just a moment, is: "The best arguments against some causes are their adherents. . . . He became the face of hate. The face of hate was protesting funerals and forcing children to hold up big odious signs. It wasn't good PR for hate. He made hate look hateful."
I know the urge to celebrate his passing is strong. But as Funny Or Die quipped, "Feels weird to celebrate Fred Phelps' death considering that sort of thing was basically his favorite hobby." Instead, let's celebrate all the good he accomplished in his life -- completely inadvertently.
Or, at full length:
It's a fitting conclusion to the life of someone who, in the course of committing himself so loudly and grotesquely to hate (it was even on his bumper stickers) [note that this link is to the WaPo Phelps obit -- Ed.], wound up proving again and again how much love there was in people. He would show up at a funeral with his family and their hideous signs [this link is to a Jonathan Capehart post], and others would rally. Even the KKK showed up. When the KKK Imperial Wizard comments that, compared to you, he is not a "hate-monger," and says he "thinks that it's an absolute shame that [the WBC] show up and disrupt people's funerals" -- well, need you say more? It's like a twist on the old Churchill analogy about Hitler invading Hell.
A lot of people who set out to do good and advance the cause of love don't accomplish this much. Thank you to Mr. Phelps, in a strange, strange way, for proving us right. Hate is well-publicized, but small. Love was bigger. He showed up with his signs, and people responded with a Wall of Love. He kept achieving the opposite of what he set out to do. He faxed tons and tons of complaints about -- they passed a law against fax harassment. He showed up at funerals with his Hateful Signs, and people gathered to shield the mourners, or the Patriot Guard riders showed up, or even the KKK did. He tested our commitment to free speech, even extreme and ugly speech, and -- yup, it is still strong.
The best arguments against some causes are their adherents.
He became the face of hate. The face of hate was protesting funerals and forcing children to hold up big odious signs. It wasn't good PR for hate. He made hate look hateful.
"Gee," you thought. "If these are the people think being gay is wrong, maybe thinking that is wrong. This is horrible. Can you direct me to where there is tolerance? I don't want to be on the same side of history as these folks." Since he began drawing attention in the 1990s, look what tolerance and love have achieved: the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the spread of marriage equality to seventeen states and Washington DC -- and the list goes on.
Admittedly, he proved that there are more good people than not in much the way that somebody smashing a pane of glass proves that there are a lot of good window-repair shops in the world. You wish you didn't have to bother. But it's good to know.
ON THE OTHER HAND --
Something nags at me. There are always those who say, wisely and eloquently, that when it comes to loudmouths of the extreme extremeness of our Fred, it's best to ignore them. And I understand the impulse. We're just giving them attention, the very thing they want.
But there's also an extent to which merely allowing the spewing of extreme hate filth to go unanswered gives it some sort of seal of okayness. Oh sure, the thought process might go, the WBC characters went too far, but were they completely wrong? Notice that in this case we have the KKK on the side of the angels. That can't be right, can it?
I can't help thinking that our public discourse is in the debased state it's currently in at least in part because the Right has learned to pile it on, without cease or inhibition of any kind, and the higher the level of ignorance, insanity, and filth pumped into circulation, the more of it seeps into everyday standards of acceptability. We humans come equipped, through long indoctrination, with a host of buttons to be pushed, and the forces of darkness on the Right have spent decades learning how to push the nastiest buttons to rally people to the basest causes.
I go back once again to the point Dana Milbank made in a January 2013 WaPo column ("A House radical is now in the mainstream") that both Howie and I have referred back to, chronicling the return of Texas crackpot Steve Stockman to Congress after a nearly two-decade interval. In the '90s, Dana noted, Stockman was quickly and generally recognized as a nutjob. Now, saying if anything even crazier stuff, "What’s frightening is he no longer sounds like an outlier."
Just think of the litany of Obama abomination, from birtherism on -- stuff with no factual basis, spun entirely out of ignorance, delusion, and free-floating rage. Not that I now how to counter the filth, and I would certainly agree with Alexandra that for some segments of the public, the grotesqueness of a specimen like Fred Phelps and his posse of loons is the best answer there is. But there's so much filth being spewed that I don't know how we keep a dangerously significant portion of it from sticking.
So by all means, let's all do as many as possible of the alternative activities Alexandra proposes. At the same time, though, let's not kid ourselves that decency and reason are bound to win out.