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By R.J. Beaumia
It’s tempting to compare the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church to Kabuki theater; however, that would be insinuating that the group is a hyperbolic representation of the American right wing, when in fact its acolytes can be found daily in any Wal-Mart running around snagging synthetic-blend casuals with their shopping carts.
Until they are gathered together protesting all that is faggotry, Phelps’s followers are practically unrecognizable from anyone else in the trailer park. They’re behind the counter at the Dairy Queen, they’re sitting next to you during the demolition derby at the county fair, or they’re marrying Britney Spears. Just folks.
Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is alive and well, not in Argentina, but right here in the heartland.
While the William F. Buckley-and-Richard Perle wing of the American right would never take Phelps seriously in public, in private I’m sure they say, “He’s got a point, though.” As for Andrew Sullivan, he’s waiting to hear the reverend’s thoughts on cutting taxes before he makes a final judgment.
Despite all of his diabolical, OTT Christian performance art pieces – his jubilant protests at Matthew Sheppard’s death, picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, his deliciously abhorrent godhatesfags.com Web site – I have a modicum of respect for Fred Phelps. He hates “the gays” and doesn’t give a shit who knows it. This guy finds us so repugnant that when he and his disciples are in your town, you not only see and hear them, you can smell them.
Is Fred Phelps a symptom or a cause of homophobia? To be sure, he’s both. He’s definitely a symptom of organized religion, which is a conduit for all that is hateful and justifies its evil in the name of a supreme deity. There isn’t one thing that can be said about Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church that hasn’t already been said about the Spanish Inquisition.
All that aside, Phelps has every right to say what he wants, at least according to what’s left of the Constitution. Rather unfortunately, though, his right to freedom of speech is being taken away by the gatekeepers of morality, justice, and apparently, taste in Washington, and we all need to be alarmed.
On Dec. 7 (the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor; one can’t deny the right’s shameless use of symbolism) the U.S. Senate passed a bill called “The Respect for the Funerals of Fallen Heroes Act,” which, if passed by the full Congress, will amend “The Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act,” passed last May.
In essence, what the bills do is prohibit protesting at the funerals of soldiers by making it a criminal misdemeanor for anyone to make any sort of disruption within 150 feet of any military funeral or impedes access to or from the funeral within 300 feet of its location.
The Republicans sponsoring the latest bill say it’s to protect the dignity of the occasion and to respect the soldiers’ families in their time of grief. No one can argue that those intentions, as stated, are without merit.
If you keep updated on the behavior of Fred Phelps, you know that his latest cry for attention has been to set up protests outside of funerals of soldiers killed in Bush’s Iraq war. Why? Because those soldiers died defending a country that accepts the “homo-secks-ule lifestyle.”
The concept behind the protests is so revolting and so bizarre that it’s funny in a burlesque-sort-of way until you remember that there are families with dead children and dead husbands and wives caught up in the middle of another country’s civil war. I will eternally hate Phelps and his church for the rest of my life because of this and all of their other actions.
But if a Fred Phelps can be arrested for exercising his right to free speech, so can a Cindy Sheehan. Under this new law, spawned in the fear and uber-patriotism of 9-11, it is conceivable that a woman – whose son died to protect our democracy, who sacrificed his life so that others around the world could supposedly taste the same freedom – could be arrested for peacefully protesting, should she wish, outside of a military funeral.
The Respect for the Funerals of Fallen Heroes Act is yet another diminution of our rights to free speech as outlined in the Constitution. Can a country that holds protest “staging areas” outside of political conventions and spies with impunity on its citizens withstand one more blow to its Bill of Rights?
By the way, where were all the histrionics and righteous indignation from our politicians when Phelps was practically dancing on the graves of AIDS victims, many of whom died because federal funding for research for a cure was lacking during one the biggest health crises in the history of mankind? Where was all that fervor when Ronald Reagan refused to utter the name of the disease seven years into the crisis in the twilight of a two-term presidency?
Oh, I know where it was! Being used to drum up votes with anti-gay fear mongering. Now, that’s freedom of speech that demands protection!
While the American right wing tries to disassociate itself with Phelps, it also doesn’t really disapprove of him either. He does their dirty work, like Dr. Frankenstein’s grave robbers did for him. What better way to sacrifice one of their own so that ALL protest and dissent is quashed.
So, here’s my plea: Free Fred Phelps. Besides, if he disappears, all we’ll have left of true American culture is NASCAR.