You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good . . . Joan Crawford is dead. Good. — Bette Davis
David Feldman the comedy writer, podcaster and host of the new Ralph Nader Radio Hour on KPFK, looks at Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church a bit differently.
He thinks that Westboro gave people a way to focus on an issue as a counter protest. For example, sending out a notice that “The Westboro church are going to protest ‘X’ so let’s all line up to protest their protest” was useful because it gave the media something to see. TV cameras love interesting visuals and conflict. Westboro provided both.
One friend of mine used Phelps and Westboro as a villain to raise money when he came to campus to protest. Others used him to get the press to show up with cameras at an event that might otherwise been ignored.
Showing the views of nutballs like Phelps helped normalize the things he was protesting.
Because the media always does X vs. Y stories, Phelps and his clan provided the worst possible “Gays are bad” spokesperson. I know there are people who agreed with his anti-gay views who thought, “Stop being on our side!” They wanted to be “reasonable” anti-gay religious people and Phelps made those views seem crazy.
Back in the 1990′s I was talking with a friend studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley about the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuals. He said it’s basically, “You can be a dog, but don’t bark.”
Next I asked him to show me the parts in the bible that condemned it and what the context was. Four hours later I stumbled out of his house more intellectually informed but not emotionally transformed. That took more time and exposure to actual gay people. Then when I saw Phelps’ anti-gay protests I got to see the cartoonishness of those views from the Old Testament.
As Katie McDonough said in Salon, Phelps’ “rabid homophobia inflicted a lot of pain and anguish on a lot of people.”
So if there is something good that can be said of Fred Phelps, it is he provided a useful focal point for the media when covering an event or an issue for their standard “X vs. Y” stories. It’s too bad he added pain to other’s lives in the process.
UPDATE: I’ve been informed that by lordgoogoo ”that quote is actually from Charles Pierce imitating Bette Davis and was never spoken by Davis herself.” I also corrected the spelling of her name. I regret the error. I blame the ghost of Joan Crawford and the Internet.