Nobody tests the limits of free expression more than idiots. “Idiots,” of course, are not ordinary, garden-variety fools. Throughout history, fools have been so plentiful and omnipresent they’ve managed to get their ideas on the table, even during those brief, golden periods when they weren’t actually in charge of the discourse. No, idiots are very special people. There are only a few born in each generation with the will, the drive, and the means to become complete bastards.
Take, for instance, Fred Phelps. The self-styled reverend of a nominally Baptist church based in Wichita, Phelps has made a blip for himself on the culture-war radar by picketing funerals of people who have died of AIDS. More famously, he and his flock'composed mainly of his own descendants'picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, the gay Wyoming kid brutally murdered by two homophobes in 1998.
Placards at such demonstrations typically hold such sentiments as “God hates fags” and “thank God for AIDS.” Here we have a man of God who advocates the death penalty for gays, lesbians and'um, Swedes. His hatred of homosexuals is based on a mistranslation of some ancient text written by people who aren’t his ancestors. His hatred of Swedes is just whimsical, as though he threw a dart at a map one day.
Phelps hates and hates. There seems to be no limit to it; people have tried to plumb the depths of his hatred and have gotten lost in it. Safety barriers with reflective tape ought to be erected around the pit of hate he has constructed. And, oh! the clucking of tongues that has come of it.
Public outrage has fallen along the expected lines. Pissing off gays is always a good way of generating colorful and creative protests. Swedes, in their cold, northern latitude, are more brooding and philosophical'they spend their time thinking darkly upon abstract concepts like death and redemption. They couldn’t care less about some crazy American preacher.
It takes a special person to dream up the idea of picketing funerals. Lately, though, Phelps seems to have grown tired of the usual outrages'same old, same old. Now, he’s directed the attention of his minions toward yet another minority: American soldiers.
After exiling them indefinitely to the Middle East, the Bush administration is graciously allowing them to come home'in body bags. This gives Phelps an opportunity to do what he does best: dishonoring the dead. Having repurposed the old inflammatory placards to read “God hates America” and “thank God for dead soldiers,” the Phelps clan is spending August picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.
It’s a strategy sure to garner the public’s attention, although the wisdom of making Gold Star Mothers cry in front of large groups of burly Marines is debatable'the Westboro congregation would be wise to avoid dark alleys.
His obvious goal is to create converts to his church, although it’s hard to imagine this strategy will increase his flock. According to sensibly estranged family members, the few followers he has were gained only through a program of brainwashing, bullying and abuse. Like the Manson family, his is not a growing denomination.
So the question remains: Is there such a thing as bad publicity? Obviously, Phelps doesn’t think so. By striking the most tender nerve in our body politic, he stands to gain a wider audience'but he can only force the conclusion that right-wing fundamentalists are not just harmless wackos, but media whores who deserve only condemnation.
Brandon Burt is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City.