On March 19th, 2014, Reverend Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church passed away. Made infamous for his anti-gay rhetoric and picketing the funerals of US soldiers that were casualties of the Afghan and Iraq War, Phelps was reportedly excommunicated by the church he helped create for supporting a “kinder approach” towards church-members. The machine of hate that he concocted turned on its designer, taking away his reason to live.
When word of Phelps’ passing away hit the news, there was a brief period of time in which the entire US paused and contemplated on what this meant for progress. Some asked for revenge for his years of homophobic activism and with a simple status update on Facebook they found instant liberal smugness. Some took it as an opportunity to remember the importance of returning hate with love, but even then exercises like this tend to turn into a thought experiment about how good we all are. Neither you nor I greeted the remaining members of the Westboro Baptist Church with a sign that said “sorry for your loss”, so we shouldn’t pretend that it’s proof of our collective moral fortitude.
Others, as few as they may be, have realized the very archetypal role Fred Phelps played in modern US politics: that of the insane street protester that embodies the zeitgeist. Despite how hateful Fred Phelps was, his persona perfectly personifies the absurdity of modern US politics. There are an array of characters that fit this archetype but one of the most memorable is Rorschach, the moral absolutist from Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.
Rorschach is a quasi-fascist that fights against the moral degenerates of society. He is incredibly misogynistic, homophobic and socially conservative, but, upon a deeper investigation of his psychology, it is revealed that Rorschach is more than the sum of his parts; he is a foil of the moral decay of society. As paranoid and conspiratorial as he may be, Rorschach was correct about his assertions that there was rampant foul play afoot.
Phelps’ stance on homosexuality was horrendous, but the inner angst he had was reflective of US society. It’s easy to dismiss Phelps as a typical religious fundamentalist, but this ignores vast parts of his story. Phelps was an organizer for the Democratic Party up until the 1990s, was even a civil rights attorney in the 1960s, and at least he had the balls to say SOMETHING about the wars. When activists and civil organizations are increasingly marginalized, outlier figures such as Phelps are sure to arise. Their psychologies are the emergent properties of system that promotes absolute obedience.
Much like focusing on the moral depravity and paranoia of Rorschach, being fixated on Fred Phelps without describing the machine that created him will cause analytical mistakes. The simple fact is that the US suffers from bourgeois decadence and is a military super-power that bombs entire countries back to the Stone Age. While the US populace praises Phelps’ passing away, the longest war in US history still wages on. Phelps was insane… but so is everyone else. If you seriously think that Phelps represents evil incarnate, you may need moral reexamination. There are far bigger monsters out there.