Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fred Phelps, accidental gay activist

     Fred Phelps died this week, the patriarch of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, which is basically his extended family, and whatever other sick individuals feel moved to latch on. When I heard the news — the adjective "welcome" strains forward in its seat, waving its hand, going "Oh! Oh! Oh!" wanting to modify "news," but we'll ignore it — I thought a moment, then sent this Tweet:
     "Noted gay rights activist Fred Phelps died today. Ostensibly leading a hate group, he encouraged tolerance by showing where bigotry leads."
     I truly believe that. When the definitive history is written of the incredible progress gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people have made over the past 10 years, there should be a paragraph or two about Phelps because he, better than anybody, drove home in a public and unmistakable way the ultimate expression of anti-gay bias. He was like one of those guys smoking a cigarette through the hole in his neck in the American Cancer Society TV commercials. Something loathsome you couldn't stop looking at. Fred Phelps' inadvertent message to the world was: You can fool yourself all you like, but here's where you end up. With me.
     I've long known that racists and bigots, while inflicting undeniable harm on others, hurt themselves most of all. Hatred is a symptom of ignorance, of confusion. They live stunted, unhappy lives, locked in cathexis, concentrating on the thing they dislike most. Who would want to live like that? Fred Phelps and his sorry, abused and misguided family are Exhibit A for tolerance. The only reaction is sympathy and love — if you hate them back, justified though you would be, you're missing the point, a little, and playing their game. And they play it better.
     This is not a new idea. I've been urging this for a while but, alas, it's a notion that retains its utility over time. This was written about a different odious bigot and published in the Sun-Times 16 years ago, but the concept holds true for the Westboro Baptist Church which, unfortunately, cannot be expected to die along with Fred Phelps:

     We're making the same mistake we always make about the Ku Klux Klan. 
     It looks like they'll be speaking in Cicero next Saturday. And the reaction, as always, falls into one of two camps. First is the head-in-the-sand approach, summed up by Judge Ellis E. Reid who, in allowing the Klan to speak at the town hall in Cicero, suggested that residents "go to Gurnee Mills, go shopping" during the KKK rally. 
    The second response comes from those organizing protests, painting signs, hoping to show that unbiased Americans can scream louder than a bigot with a bullhorn.     
     I would like to suggest a third approach: Just go and listen. Watch the Klan members closely. Hear what they are saying and squirrel the images away for future reference. You might learn something.     
     I don't mean "learn something" to suggest that there is anything valuable in the insane race ramblings of the Klan. Their appeal, as always, is strictly limited to marginalized losers desperately trying to blame their own inadequacies on some outside force.     
     Rather, I think that people, particularly those who have experienced prejudice — blacks, Jews, other groups — should go hear the Klan. Because racism is usually so maddeningly abstract; it prowls the halls of schools and companies, it shows up as a pamphlet, as a shout from a passing car. It is a rare opportunity when someone such as a Klan member stands up, still, in a public place, and provides a face to such evil, a face that can be studied, closely.     
    Let me tell you the story I have in mind: When Jonathan Haynes was on trial for murdering a plastic surgeon for giving patients "false Aryan beauty," it came out that Haynes had written a letter to a Bridgeport racist named Joseph Dilys. I was dispatched with a photographer to Dilys' home to see how he fit into the squalid tale.     
    I'll be honest: I was afraid. I had never met Dilys, but I had heard of him — he was a notorious anti-Semite. He was somehow involved with Haynes, this murderer. I sat in the car outside his house on Union Street and screwed up my courage to go in.     
     Just as I was walking up to the door, two Chicago cops were coming out. I told them who I was and what I was there for. "Do you think it's safe to go inside?" I asked. One of the cops gave me a long look I wouldn't understand until later. "Oh, I think you'll be all right," he said.     
     I rang the bell. A young woman — Dilys' granddaughter, or niece or something — answered it. In a moment, there he was, and he ushered me into the living room.      
     He was an old man, in his underwear — a strap T-shirt and boxer shorts. He was missing a leg, and hopped around on a crutch. He had a big, open sore on his neck. It was not a good look.    
      One wall of the living room was given over to shelves, crude bays each holding a stack of photocopied fliers. Dilys gave me a variety, denouncing Israel, denouncing Jews, praising Nazis, the usual.     
     He proudly showed me a series of rubber stamps he had made up. "THE JEWS KILLED KENNEDY" read one. He was smiling at me. He didn't even realize that I am Jewish and I didn't tell him. 
     I felt as if I was getting a glimpse into a secret world. You see this kind of garbage shoved under the windshield wipers of your car, set on the ledge of a urinal in a bus station. You wonder where it comes from. I looked around the living room, and at Dilys, with his open sore and his faded underwear, and thought, happily, "Of course, this is where it comes from. It comes from places like this. From people like him."     
     It was a very liberating thought, one that has come back to help me again and again over the years. I'm not saying that professional racists are harmless — there is always some weak-minded person who reads this stuff and suddenly feels the eternal truth has been revealed.     
     Rather, they are tiny and marginal, both compared to the mainstream and compared to what they once were. When you see a photo of the pathetic handful of Klansmen who will no doubt be at the rally, think of the thousands of Klan members who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1920s. Today, they are a feeble shadow of themselves, a dying breed.     
     If I ran things, junior high school civics classes and church youth organizations would take field trips to Cicero to see the Klansmen. They would time history projects around the rally, take photographs and bring box lunches. They would sit cross-legged on blankets, listening attentively while the Klan leader and his three or four teenage sidekicks, looking ridiculous in their white outfits and Iron Cross shields, ranted and raved about white purity and the evil Jewish conspiracy and race mixing and the waves of untermenschen ruining our country.     
     Afterward, there would be questions. A 9-year-old girl would ask about their upbringing — did their parents feel this way? A boy in a Cub Scout uniform would ask whether they felt their unkind beliefs about other races were not at odds with their profession of Christian love. People should study these Klansmen while we can; it isn't as if they'll be around forever.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 8, 1998:

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