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Only the Media Can Make Fred Phelps Go Away

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Most Kansans are familiar with the name Fred Phelps. Most Kansans wish Fred Phelps wasn’t a Kansan. Kansas senate candidates this year promised to “crack down on Fred Phelps’s protests.” I hate to tell them, but they can’t crack down on Phelps. Maybe they could restrict protests to a certain distance from a cemetery to create a larger buffer for mourners, but they can’t stop Phelps from spewing his ridiculous opinions because, like it or not, he is protected by the First Amendment.

On more than one occasion Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka have made the national news and prompted friends to ask me (a Kansan) about him. I calmly explain that he’s a minister with unusual and repulsive opinions who frequently protests military funerals and anything else that will get him attention. I tell people they can find out more about Fred Phelps at his website.  And then I tell people my honest opinion: Fred Phelps is a jerk.

Recently a Florida church gained a lot of controversial attention for planning to burn copies of the Quran. Phelps and his daughter were mad and were interviewed in the newspaper. They weren’t mad because the other church planned to burn the Quran or because of the potential international backlash of doing so. They were mad because they had already burned the Quran at their church and nobody cared.

Here’s the tricky part of the whole issue. If anyone tries to pass a law to restrict Phelps’s ability to protest, I’d have to vote against it. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop Phelps from preaching his filth without limiting everyone’s freedom of speech. But fortunately the freedom of speech that protects Phelps also protects me when I say that in my opinion Fred Phelps is an un-Christian lunatic doo-doo head. The only think anyone can do to stop Fred Phelps is to stop giving him media attention and take away his forum. Just because he holds up signs and yells a lot doesn’t mean you have to put him on CNN or put his photo on the front page; that’s what he wants! He’s like a stray dog; if you keep feeding him, he won’t go away.

Perhaps the best response (in my opinion) to the Westboro Baptist protesters took place in McAlester, Oklahoma this weekend. According to the Tulsa World, 1000 counter-protesters showed up and drowned out the handful of Westboro representatives with revved motorcycles and chants of “U.S.A!” Afterwards, the Westboro protesters found two of the tires on their minivan slashed and a town unwilling to help repair them. Smells like Karma.

The reality is that Fred Phelps has a tiny little church of misguided people who really don’t have a large span of influence unless the media gives them a forum. Without the media’s help, they’re just a pathetic little group of people waving pieces of poster board. Let’s stop making them more than they are.

About Jessica Lada

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Re #48: I directly addressed Roger Nowosielski, who like me is an American. I suggested how we ought to treat Ruvy, an expatriate countryman who is now an Israeli citizen.

    What you or other Brits may think is therefore beside the point. I imagine that King George III considered Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) to be inflammatory and irresponsible. Fortunately, enough men with printing presses gave not a hoot what the King thought and distributed Paine’s pamphlet in spite of any Royal paine in the arse. Hundreds of thousands of Colonial Americans acquired Common Sense and made up their own minds as to its inflammatory and irresponsible qualities. They acted accordingly. I am their descendant. (My mother traced her ancestry back to a pre-Revolutionary Protestant clergyman, of all things.) So I too act accordingly.

  • Baronius

    Come on, Ruvy. Do you really think that the reason that most people think your comments are insanely violent is because you’re prophetic? Every serial killer has a mental list of targets and justifications, but when he devolves he’ll kill anyone for any reason.

    You won’t burn a Koran, unless there are Korans in Iran, which you’d incinerate completely.

    You wouldn’t hurt a bad Muslim, but when the chaos starts, you’re running out into the street with your knife, and you’re going to start making sound judgements about who deserves to live.

    You’d never disturb a funeral, but you want the bodies of those who betray Israel left hanging in the town square.

    If these comments of yours are true, are you really sure that you have any compunctions about anything at all?

  • Ruvy

    Ruvy’s view, if I understand it accurately, is that he can comment on any and all USA or other nation’s issues as he sees fit but that only people in Israel (and possibly not even all of them, just the right kind of Jew) can comment on it.

    My view is that one should comment on what he truly knows. I grew up in the United States and was active in American politics here, so I comment on American culture and politics (with certain limits – 9½ years does dull the blade of perception). I live in Israel, and participate to the degree that I am able to in civic life here, and do know the realities on the ground. So, I comment on the realities here, as I see them. And my perceptions do change over time.

    I rarely comment on events in nations other than these two unless I feel truly confident that I know what I’m talking about. And when corrected by a native or a resident, I usually defer to their knowledge – as they are there and I am not.

    As to Israel, Jews and Arabs who live here, or have lived here for a significant amount of time will likely have the same or better understanding than me. Whether I agree with them is another issue. But their standing to comment is something I would not question.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    True enough, but just because both of you are Americans doesn’t mean that is the only perspective involved, so what anybody else thinks, regardless of where they are from, is relevant.

    Also, the inflammatory remark that started this debate was in fact an insult aimed at two commenters, nothing so loftily irresponsible as your example…

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Ruvy, it doesn’t follow that just because you were in the USA for most of your life you truly know it.

    I know many people that have never developed a proper understanding of their country on many different levels and, in your case, where your perception of things is passed through your dogma for interpretation, it is possibly even more pronounced.

    I defend your right to believe anything you want to, but that doesn’t mean that it is either right or beyond challenge.

    On the other hand, I defend anybody’s right to have and express an opinion about anything they want to.

  • Ruvy

    Baronius, my comments contemplate violence because, unfortunately, this seems to be the necessary solution where others have been tried and have failed or where others have been tried half-heartedly and failed. So, my comments seem violent to you. When the situation in the States turns bad, you too will contemplate far more violence than you do presently. Be grateful that at present you do not have to contemplate violence and you can point at me and say, “he’s insanely violent.” The day will come when you will not. If you think of me at all then, you will either say, “Ruvy was right,” or you will feel sad that you have to contemplate violence as I do.

    Peace is a blessing. Enjoy it while you still have it. You will not have it for long.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    Alan, if free speech is truly your ideal, you should welcome the fact that this is an international site and that all voices are welcome. I may be swayed at my weaker moments to lash out against different personalities, but in the larger scheme of things, personalities don’t matter, the principles do.

    Indeed, we all should be grateful for all these diverse voices, especially as they articulate their views of our own culture and way of life. Think of de Tocqueville, for example, and his invaluable analysis of early American society. We need that kind of input.

  • Baronius

    That’d be fine if you weren’t talking about blowing up churches in Kansas. But seriously, Kansas? If you think that violence is the only solution for the chaos that is 2010 Kansas, what situation doesn’t call for violence?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    For some reason, Ruvy, I don’t ever imagine Baronius contemplating acts of violence, no matter what the circumstances. I might, because of my temperament, but I can assure you of this too: it’d never pass the stage of contemplation.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Peace is a blessing. Enjoy it while you still have it. You will not have it for long.

    Ruvy (#56), did I miss something? Has peace broken out in the United States? I thought we were a nation at war.

  • Ruvy

    As I said, Baronius, peace is a blessing. Enjoy it while you still have it. If you do not do what is necessary to maintain it, you will lose it more quickly than you are likely to otherwise.

    Do not delude yourself that a mere number on a calendar should make you a more civilized savage than you were 100 years ago, or 200 years ago or 3,000 years ago. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was not “thoroughly modern” in 1922 – she was just more of an obvious sex maniac than her mother.

    In a time of economic uncertainty, extremists like Phelps will be flashpoints of mass violence. The tools of the internet, Twitter and Facebook, will spread that violence rapidly, as will pagers and cell phones.

    You will face economic uncertainty very soon. The American balloon of “prosperity” is about to burst – permanently. Have fun!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    I kind of look forward to times when we’ll be cut down to size. It might bring a requisite kind of humility to a nation known for its hubris. A new leaf for humanity, perhaps.

  • Clavos

    @#62:

    Not likely, Roger. Americans being who they are, they’ll just whine about the injustice of it all…

  • zingzing

    or wallow in oblivion.

    time to have a drink.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Although this site is hosted in the USA, it has never endorsed an American perspective per se.

    Re #48: Congratulations! You win the Easily Rebuttable Comment of the Day Award, hands down.

    Blogcritics is an American web site. It was founded by Americans. It is owned and operated by an American company (San Francisco-based Technorati). Its publisher (Jill Asher) is an American based in Silicon Valley. Its co-executive editors are Americans based in Chicago and New York, respectively. The overwhelming majority of its other editors, writers and readers are Americans. Most of BC’s commenters are Americans. The odd blog that attracts a cross-section from other English-speaking countries, such as “Unnecessary Pap Smears,” is the exception that proves the rule.

    Notwithstanding the fact that you, in your official capacity, have never endorsed it as such, Blogcritics is an American web site. To state otherwise is akin to me saying that there’s no water in San Francisco Bay because I have not endorsed it. Just have your trusted colleague Dr Dreadful drive over and jump in the Bay sometime (the sooner the better). He will, I happily predict, report getting wet.

    What is far more interesting is the number of anti-American commenters among BC’s regulars. These include nominal Americans such as Roger and Clavos, as well as foreigners such as Jordan, Ruvy and STM. All of these men, each in his own way, hates America as much as Osama bin Laden does. Perhaps regularly reading their comments in the course of your duties has skewed your own view of what perspectives Blogcritics conveys. But they are merely the loudest squeaking wheels and by no means represent the vehicle as a whole.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    I do resent, Alan, calling me a “nominal American.” I am a naturalized citizen, that’s true, but that doesn’t make me “nominal” by any stretch, unless you’re inventing a nomenclature of you own. I paid my dues, served in the armed service, paid my taxes for a stretch, been here since 1961 as a matter of fact, a far longer span than the natural lives of many BC commenters, including Dreadful and Chris Rose.

    So my question to you is – on what grounds do you call me an American by name only? Because I’ve become critical of late of our government, it’s imperialistic policies, etcetera etcetera? I would have thought that the notion of civil disobedience and distrust of the government are as deeply ingrained in the American psyche as freedom of speech, indeed, even more so, for those are those proper occasions for responsible if not obligatory speech, and action. So what is it really that you are proposing? A kind of acquiescence whereby we keep on congratulate ourselves on a job well done?

    I’m sorry, but I don’t by this brand of patriotism, nor do I buy the notion of American exceptionalism to which you apparently subscribe. And let me assure you of this, it’s precisely because of this that I’m not a nominal American but more of an American than you’ll ever be.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Perhaps we really ought to strip this notion of free speech of its ideological and Orwellian bearings and start thinking in terms of responsible speech for a change. (#44)

    The charade of freedom continues while in reality, we’re in chains. Indeed, I view the notion of free speech as one of the greatest accomplishments of bourgeois ideology. (#49)

    I kind of look forward to times when we’ll be cut down to size. It might bring a requisite kind of humility to a nation known for its hubris. (#62)

    Roger Nowosielski (#66), I called you a “nominal American” only after reading the above statements from your preceding posts on this thread. Rest assured, I do not question your citizenship. But your words express anti-American sentiments. So wrap yourself in the flag if you wish, but your “Americanism” is nothing more than a legal fiction.

  • zingzing

    you can be an american and be critical of america. a lot about this country is shitty. but have a look around. you can say that about just about any country. maybe not finland. they’re pretty cool. except their treatment of the saami. bastards!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    zingzing (#68), I was careful to exclude you from “the number of anti-American commenters among BC’s regulars.”

    It’s one thing to say, as you do, that “a lot about this country is shitty.” But you wisely stop short of advocating, as Roger does, “stripping this notion of free speech” to “start thinking in terms of responsible speech” (#44) or writing, “The charade of freedom continues while in reality, we’re in chains” (#49), or saying that you’re “looking forward to times when we’ll be cut down to size” (#62).

    To the contrary, your comments #24, #28 and #32 on this thread place you firmly within the very American tradition that Roger, Clavos, Jordan, Ruvy and STM so despise. Like it not, you’re a better American, zingzing, than you’d probably feel comfortable admitting.

  • Baronius

    Roger isn’t being critical of America; he’s rooting for America to take it on the chin.

  • Baronius

    The first guy I ever heard use the expression “9/12 Republican” told his story this way. He said that if you meet for lunch with a friend of yours and he always talks about how he hates his wife, you think that’s just the way he talks. But one day the two of you look across the street of the restaurant and see his wife getting robbed and beaten, and he starts cheering. That’s when you realize he really hates her.

    I don’t know if Roger meant his comment #62 or if it was bluster, but if he did mean it then he’s an American in name only, a nominal American.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    You’re misquoting, Alan, to suit your purposes – I said, stripping the notion of its idealogical bearings.

    Yes, Baronius, taking it on the chin, if need be, whatever it takes, to find our way again. For me, America is an idea, not the present reality.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    USA USA USA

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    I wasn’t wrapping myself in the flag, Alan, if that’s how you construed my response. And it’s sorry to see that you find it necessary to invoke such metaphors. As I stated a post ago, America is and ought to be an idea in the tradition of Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer. Shall I go on?

    It’s you who is displaying a narrow vision of love of country, not I.

    Remember the good Germans. Many turned out to be Nazis.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Jesus, Roger, now you liken good Americans to “good Germans,” who “turned out to be Nazis.”

    Does anyone wonder why I call you anti-American?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    U haven’t, Alan, just a cautionary tale where blind patriotism can lead.

    If you doubt my sense of allegiance, I invite you to read some of my earlier pieces on BC, on American Exceptionalism, and The Disappearing Americas – only a year or so old. Sorry to say, though, my thinking has since evolved. You may believe we’re still in Paradise; well, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve been expelled.

    Pleasant dreams.

  • zingzing

    f. scott fitzgerald? hrm. there are a few of his books i haven’t read, but i’d say he’s pretty critical of the american dream at times. or liked to display its emptiness at least.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    One of the first prophets of doom and gloom and the loss of the American Dream – The Great Gatsby, The Last Tycoon.

    Even Hemingway and the “lost generation,” Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, etc, could well be included.

    Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls aren’t exactly pro-American novels.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    “America,” writes Roger (#74), “is and ought to be an idea in the tradition of Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer.” He subsequently expands on this (#78) by calling Fitzgerald “one of the first prophets of doom and gloom and the loss of the American Dream.” He also cites Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls “aren’t exactly pro-American novels.”

    America, then, is and ought to be a place of doom and gloom where the American Dream has been lost and where literary giants are revered because their works are not pro-American.

    If that is Roger’s ideal America, no wonder he hates his adopted homeland, believes “we’re in chains” (#49) and looks “forward to times when we’ll be cut down to size” (#62). What a dismal, unrealistic view of the United States by an embittered outcast.

  • zingzing

    well, i don’t think we should be fooling ourselves. fitzgerald wrote a perfect novel. and his critique of the american dream is purely because it is a dream. it’s fleeting and ultimately less than fulfilling. but it says something that it’s called that. it’s a self-critical notion. which, i would hope, makes it very american. it’s just too bad that sometimes that’s not true.

    nationalism is a curse and always has been. it’s as responsible for as much death as religion or any other ism.

  • zingzing

    just out of a little curiosity, i looked up who coined the phrase “the american dream.” surprisingly, at least somewhat, it was an american. from brooklyn. in fucking 1931.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    What could be more American than a guy from Brooklyn, right, zingzing?

    As for your preceding comment, though, aren’t you confusing nationalism with jingoism?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    Wow, we’re getting melodramatic here, Alan. Is this for your benefit, to convince yourself of your rightness, or for mine.

    Hate was a word I never used. Nor do I consider myself an outcast. But tell you what, friend, I’d rather stand with the literary giants – you must have used this term pejoratively though you had good enough sense not to put it in scare quotes – then with the small-minded, petty people such as you.

  • zingzing

    alan: “aren’t you confusing nationalism with jingoism?”

    not really. jingoism is an extension of nationalism. without the latter, the former would not exist. i can be proud of my country, like during the olympics or hopefully, one day, the world cup. but nationalism’s dark side includes things that jingoism does not. jingoism, supposedly, is about foreign policy, but nationalism can cause its own excessive pride, including ethnic cleansing.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    Right, my disenchantment with America is part and parcel of the evils of nationalism, but it had come first. It’s only later that I traced it, conceptually and emotionally to nationalism.

    I think your insights about Fitzgerald are spot on.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Ethnic cleansing! Are we still talking about America?

  • zingzing

    no, nationalism. a racial or ethnic conflict that results in cleansing would be an utter clusterfuck in america. luckily.

  • Clavos

    “Nominal American,” eh? Nobody’s ever called me that before, but I must admit it has a certain ring to it…

    And yet…all the libruls hereabouts accuse me of being a conservative…

    Go figure.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    all the libruls hereabouts accuse me of being a conservative…

    Not all.

    I have in the past accused you of being a liberal: a charge to which, as I recall, you confessed.

  • Clavos

    Ah, Doc. As is so often the case, you are absolutely right…

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/an roger nowosielski

    Well, I’ve accused you of being a closet intellectual, and I haven’t heard yet a direct rebuttal.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Well, of course. Clavos isn’t really a redneck: he just plays one on TV…

  • Clavos

    …And plays him well, even if I do say so myself…

  • Gayle

    Everyone is trying to treat Phelps like he treats everyone. The best weapon in this case is prayer. We need to be praying that Phelps comes to recognized the love and mercy of Christ and he can turn his ministry to one of love and mercy.

  • Lucas

    The WBC is full of sick minded people! In my opinion, THEY are the ones going to Hell. How can anyone have the nerve to hold up a sign displaying utterly vulgar trash such as “God hates F—” or “God hates soldiers” or whatever and tell the families of those soldiers that their son or daughter is going to Hell?

  • Jamaica

    Quote- “Afterwards, the Westboro protesters found two of the tires on their minivan slashed and a town unwilling to help repair them. Smells like Karma.”

    Smells like money to me. This is exactly what Phelps and his family want to happen. When they hold up one their hateful, provocative signs designed to create fury in passers-by, they want violence and they want people to physically attack them. Then they can sue the town for failing to provide proper adequate protection from the mob just because they were exercising their rights to free speech.

    Phelps is not a religious man at all, he’s a fraud who uses his phony church to dodge taxes, that’s all. He has a gripe to pick with the gov’t and this is how he gets back at them for being disbarred years earlier.

    Kansas needs to take Phelps religious license away, and force him to pay taxes.

    The media should definitely ignore him, refuse to give him the soapbox and attention he craves. He is not newsworthy in any sense of the word.