Saturday, March 22, 2014

On the passing of Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps, the antigay pastor who made a name for himself demonstrating at the funerals of soldiers by holding signs that say "God Hates Fags."  His "argument" was that the US is too tolerant of gay people and that god punishes the US by killing its soldiers.  He didn't limit himself to soldier funerals.  He also demonstrated, for example, at Laramie in the wake of Mathew Shepard's death.

Mr. Phelps's peculiar ability to unite social conservatives, pro-gay activists, and everyone in between in opposition to his offensive tactics makes his death something few people mourn.

His death has also been the occasion for some to demonstrate a remarkable charity.  George Takei has written:
I take no solace or joy in this man's passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding "God Hates Freds" signs, tempting as it may be.
He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.
And, as one commenter at Popehat, where I found Takei's quotation, said:
I’d rather there was a huge silent line of people along the route to the cemetery holding up signs that say “God Loves Everyone”.
And again, as commenter Zane said at a post over on OT:

When I think about Fred Phelps, his legacy, and his death, I’m only sad.
He wasn’t an effective messenger of his hate. He alienated those who might have looked at him as an ally. I’m certainly grateful for that. The end of his life seemed especially pathetic if the reports are true.
At the end of it all, he was another person with deep flaws. His obsessions spoiled his potential and ruined his family. His vision of god was the one I feared as a child–the angry, unreasoning and omnipotent abusive parent. He brought pain to others in the bizarre belief that he could save people from the eternal torment that such a god would surely bring.
He died, apparently, an outcast from his church, estranged in one way or another from his children, and without having made things the least bit better from his perspective.
I can’t but feel sad for the misery he caused among his family, his followers, his neighbors, and among his targets. I also feel sad for the misery and fear he likely felt. The world and he are both probably better off for his death, but what unhappier thing could ever be said about anyone?

These statements testify to goodness of certain people who hate everything Phelps stood for, but who nevertheless choose to express some sympathy toward a fellow human being on account of his human being-ness.  I believe such sentiments make the world a better place for having been uttered.

But I can't leave it at that.  The charitable response, while in my opinion the right one, is also the expected one.  Mr. Takei, for instance, would have faced some criticism had he not found it within him to be charitable about Mr. Phelps's death, had he decided instead to choose to indulge hate, or had he not had the wherewithal to rise above whatever personal feelings he might have had against the man.  If Mr. Takei had expressed joy or had offered a witty remark that reminded people of the way Mr. Phelps and the people he represented harmed people, he would have in my opinion and from a public relations standpoint made a tactical error.  Whatever he's like in real life, Mr. Takei has publicly cultivated the persona of passionate, but kind spokesperson for gay rights.  And taking the vindictive path would have lessened others' respect for him.

And not all people have taken the path that Mr. Takei has.  Russell Saunders at the OT says the following:
I do not regret the happiness I feel knowing I no longer share an oxygen supply with him.  I do not believe in the existence of a hell, even for the likes of people like him.  If there is a judgment that awaits him, let his loved ones hope it is before a judge more merciful than the one he worshiped.
I have never met Russell in person, but I do have a lot of respect for him.  I love reading his posts and his comments over at the OT.  His presence at that blog helps make it the great site it is.  Therefore, as I go on to disagree with the argument behind his statement, I do so with respect for him.

I can't, don't, and won't say Russell doesn't feel what he says he feels.  And inasmuch as he is stating his feelings on the matter and not making a larger argument for how one should feel, I haven't much to say against what he wrote.  And to be clear, his blog post ("read the whole thing," etc.) is not really what I'd call vindictive.  He does stipulate that he doesn't believe in a hell "even for the likes of people like" Phelps.

But there seems to be an implicit argument in what Russell is saying.  It seems to be that certain people have hurt others so much and caused so much harm, that their death doesn't deserve to be mourned. 

But I think I see it a bit differently. I would like to believe that in our better moments, even the worse person has some redeeming value as a person and is not completely lost.  Or if he or she actually is completely lost, then that fact is to be regretted.

On some level, that idea comes from the hope I have in other people or in human nature or in the possibility that there is such a thing as ultimate goodness or god or goddess or the immortal soul.

On another level, the idea comes from a certain confusion that I entertain about myself.  I have never done what Mr. Phelps has done or targeted people or gone out of my way to spread a hate-filled agenda.  But I'm not entirely innocent of such matters, either.  I have said and sometimes continue to say (not merely think, but sometimes say) culturally and racially insensitive things.  I arrange many of my actions and make many of my judgments based on my arbitrary and prejudicial views on other people.

Most--probably all--of the examples I can think pale in comparison to the things Mr. Phelps has done.  In comparison, in fact, they seem trivial.  These include some jokes I've told, or some moments on the blogosphere where I have been unnecessarily hostile to another commenter based on what I know to be certain prejudices.  But I have a hard time seeing the distance between Mr. Phelps and me that I'm supposed to be seeing.

When I die, will people have some reason to toast to my death and not my life?  I doubt people would be so inconsiderate, but that's not the question.  Would they have any good reason to?  Knowing what I in my most private moments might be capable of, I'm not sure they wouldn't.  I'm not saying I'm unique on this score, either.  In fact, I strongly suspect--and perhaps on some level I hope--that I'm all too typical in this regard.

I feel inconsiderate saying what I've said about Russell's post.  As I said, I value his contributions at OT.  I did not comment there because I did not want to interject a preachy note to what he said....and because saying what I'd want to say takes such a long time (as in this blog post), and even then I'm not sure I've made the point I want to.

I also must acknowledge that I am not of the demographic that Mr. Phelps targeted and with very rare, minor, and trivial exceptions I am not generally of any of the demographics that America's hate mongers tend to target.  I have the privilege of disinterested and thoughtful reflection on the matter.  Mr. Takei's, the Popehat commenter's, and Zane's charitable remarks are in their own way remarkable.  But my "plus one!" addendum is, while not bad, just not all that impressive.

The old cliche that charity begins at home is true.  It would be more impressive if I forgave and expressed charity toward those people who made minor slights toward me or sometimes one-upped me in a blog post discussion or made me look foolish.  In that case, the stakes would be much lower, but my charity would be more sincere and more costly to the sense of entitlement that helps me carry a grudge.


Russell Saunders said...

Hello, Pierre. Glad I clicked through.

I think the only thing I would say to quibble just a tiny bit with this otherwise excellent and thoughtful post is this -- I am not saying that Phelps was so awful that no right-thinking people can or should mourn him. If others are inclined toward charity and grace as they consider the terribly broken life he lived, I commend them sincerely.

I am merely saying that I cannot do so.

Gabriel Conroy said...

Hi Russell,

Thanks for the correction (and it's more important than a quibble). And thanks, also, for reading my blog post.

I do agree with what you said over at Jonathan McCleod's post about forgiveness being very cheap from someone who hasn't directly been harmed by whomever forgiveness is asked for.

Russell Saunders said...

It is my pleasure to read your writing. I regret that I do not do so as often as I should.