Sympathy for the….Phelps?
It would appear that prolific hater and bigot Fred Phelps is dead.
I’m not affected by it much. Maybe it’s because I explored the nature of such a man so thoroughly when I portrayed him in The Laramie Project, and am now done with being swayed too much by such people. Maybe it’s because I’m not that shocked by what people do anymore. Or maybe it’s just my personality. Whatever the reasons, as much as I despise Phelps and people like him, I’m not planning a party. Nor am I building a website that shows images of him in hell with his flesh burning off, similar to the one he created for his website depicting murder victim Matthew Shepherd. I’m certainly not going to spend time and money I don’t have to picket his funeral and applaud, laugh and celebrate loudly enough for his grieving family to hear as his body passes by on the street, in much the same way he and his Westboro Baptist cult have done for years.
But you know what? I’m not holding anything against anybody who does any of those things.
I won’t be doing any of those things because I don’t feel Phelps and his scumbag ilk are worth my time. But ever since his estranged son announced that his father was near death a few days ago, the internet as has been filled with calls to “not sink to his level”, and proclamations that “I’m going to be a bigger person than him, and not applaud.”
To begin with, people need to skip the “it tolls for thee” horseshit. Saying absolutely nothing at all about the death of Fred Phelps would be the best, most effective way to take a stand against responding. Posting about his death and than reminding the world just how moral you are by not being as bad as he was in celebrating a death is passive-aggressive sermonizing the likes of which makes nobody anywhere look any better. I’d rather someone throw a kegger to mark Phelps’s passing and show no shame for doing so. At least that position does not smack of being disingenuous.
Furthermore, I’m not sold on the position of silence as moral high ground in the first place. Phelps and his family have dedicated their lives to causing as much pain as possible to as many people as possible. They invite, thrive even, on the hatred they receive as a result of their actions. Whether they actually believe what they say or not, they have been a gangrene in the leg of civilized society for quite some time. If someone (like myself) chooses to feel next to nothing about his death, fine. If there are a few who choose to pray for his soul, and seek to shed love on his survivors in hopes of a prodigal son moment of redemption, that is fine. But are we really going to tell people that find the world is a bit of a better place today because the man who advocated genocide is dead that they have no leg to stand on? Dare we preach to someone who had to attend a funeral picketed by Phelps that they should mind their moral P’s and Q’s before they react to this news today?
I can tell you that I’m not going to do so.
Hitler. Saddam Hussein. Jeffrey Dahmer. Timothy McVeigh. The 9/11 hijackers. Adam Lanza. Dylan Klebold. Countless others. All of these people who committed atrocious, violent crimes against human beings are dead. I grant that there were probably people who felt neither remorse nor joy at the passing of these specimens either. And there were those who tolled that bell and mourned each of those souls. But far more vocal and visible were those who smiled a bit when it happened, and considered the world a better place after the fact. Are any of the people who felt relieved at those deaths of lesser moral standing? Were they scolded for “stooping to their level”?
What about the Italians who actually hung their dead dictator’s corpse up by the ankles for everyone to come take a look at? Was that stooping to Mussolini’s level? Were those that went to view the scene less moral Italians than those who stayed home that day?
You can say that that was during a time of war. Or you can say that McVeigh was a terrorist and that Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer. Fred Phelps, one may counter, did not actually kill anyone, start a war, institute a genocide. Both of these positions are correct. But if we are to take his speeches, pamphlets, actions and legacy seriously, Fred Phelps’s utmost desire from the depth of his soul was a hell on the face of the earth- a world filled with death, hatred, fear, bigotry and violence. An oppressive regime under which people who are outside the mean, or in any discernible way different from himself ought to, for the sake of moral purity, be sought out and slaughtered wholesale in the name of god. Sound familiar? Does he get different consideration at the end of his life simply because he lacked the resources and manpower to actually initiate his vision, as compared to others who for a time were able to do so?
More than that, are we truly committed to the declaration that someone who walks around saying, “good, it’s about time” is actually stooping to the level of Fred Phelps? From where does anyone summon the temerity to proclaim that he who so much as whistles a happy tune as a result of this news today is no better than a man who jeered at parents he never met as they tried to mourn and bury their children? A man who did it over, and over and over and over and over again.
Many people are called, by either their religion or their own personal morals, to rise above celebrating the death of any human being, and that is commendable. Perhaps it is even a goal to which we should all aspire. But then again, maybe it isn’t for everyone and the truly moral high ground for now, while the news is still raw, is to concede that though we personally choose another way, those that are happy today and throw a smiley face up on their blog or Tweet may just be well within their rights as moral people to do so.
At least for a few hours.