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“An Unabashed Bigot”: Should We Go Picket Fred Phelps’ Funeral?

Now that the Rev. Fred Phelps is dead, decent people are being tested. The conundrum is, should we picket Phelps’ funeral?

Phelps, of course, was head of the Westboro Baptist Church – though it seemed less of a house of worship than a home for institutionalized hate – which is known for picketing funerals, especially those of fallen U.S. soldiers. Was he antiwar, and protesting the deaths (or service) of members of the military who lost their lives in war? Oh, no – there was not even the pretense of behaving badly in the name of advocating for a more peaceful world. Phelps was an unabashed bigot – and in his mind, according to the church’s own website, God was punishing soldiers and basically all of America for the nation’s increasing acceptance of its gay and lesbian citizens. Phelps and his cohorts picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man beaten to death because he was gay; the group picketed the funerals of Elizabeth Edwards (who surely went through enough stress in life) and of Michael Jackson.

But it was the military funeral demonstrations that were perhaps the most galling. There were families, understandably distraught over the loss of (often) very young people who died in the line of duty, and all Phelps could see were the rightful victims of God’s wrath. The picketers would carry signs saying “God Hates Fags,” among other appalling epithets.

The Supreme Court ruled that the picketing – in the case of a military funeral, at least – was acceptable under First Amendment tenets. It wasn’t an endorsement of the harassment (and it was, indeed, harassment), but a statement that we don’t quiet people who want to be heard in this country, no matter how offensive their views are.

It would be tempting to turn that concept back on Phelps and whatever loved ones he might have. It might feel satisfying to disrupt his own funeral, carrying signs that say “God, and people of faith, and people who have no religion at all, hate bigots.” It might be cathartic for people who believe in Hell to discuss openly, in front of mourners, what kind of accommodations Phelps will have in eternal fire. Phelps refused to let gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people live lives of dignity; he refused to let service members be mourned and buried with honor, and he interfered with the basic right of human beings to say peaceful good-byes to those they have lost. Why should he be given any of those considerations now?

The answer is because Phelps is dead, and with him, hopefully, is some of the poison he distributed. Behaving decently isn’t about the impact on people who may or may not deserve our decency. It is a practice that by definition must be exercised without discrimination. The reason we should not picket career hater Fred Phelps’ funeral is simple: because we are not Fred Phelps. We need not mourn his death. But neither must we endorse his bigoted and destructive tactics by continuing his tactics.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, March 21, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Bigotry | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Funerals Are Not About The Mourners”: Selfies and Handshakes Shouldn’t Overshadow Remembering Nelson Mandela

Being president or prime minister often involves partaking in such social niceties as handshakes and posing for photographs. And it’s a measure of how obsessed many have become with the style points over the substantive matters of being president that President Obama is being slammed for both.

At Nelson Mandela’s funeral – where Obama gave a very moving and sometimes scolding speech in front of world leaders there to mourn the civil rights leader – the president happened to run by Cuban leader Raul Castro. So he shook his hand. He didn’t embrace him, or hand over the keys to Blair House, or even say, “you’re doing a heckuva job, Castie.” He just shook his hand, which is what you do at such an event, since funerals are not about the mourners but about the deceased person being honored. For that, Obama is being accused of appeasing the Castros or somehow endorsing human rights abuses in Cuba (which indeed is a human rights violator, as are some U.S. allies and major trading partners – the latter status providing some affected blindness to such abuses).

Now, it’s true that handshakes are far more loaded when there’s a presidential hand involved. But so, too, is the pointed absence of any kind of tame expression of greeting. To deliberately rebuff Castro would have been a statement of its own, and not a productive one. Attempting to freeze out Cuba with an embargo and sanctions has done absolutely nothing to improve conditions in that country, which is not subject to a world embargo and (unlike other, bigger nations) is not as dependent on U.S. commerce. Sanctions can work when they are practiced by the world at large and truly damage the regime – they worked in South Africa, and brought Iran to the table for negotiations more recently. With Cuba, it is the U.S. that has isolated itself in imposing restrictions on trade and travel. Engaging with Cuba wouldn’t be an endorsement of human rights abuses there. It would be a way of helping bring about change in the island nation. Repr. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, sums it up perfectly: The worst thing to happen to the Cuban regime would be Spring Break. Americans can have a much bigger influence in Cuba by showing up than by staying (by law) away. It was only a handshake. But if it’s the first step towards a dialogue, is that something to denounce?

Obama was also criticized for a supposed selfie he took at the funeral with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. There’s a photo of the three, with Thorning-Schmidt holding the phone with both hands, and Obama helping out with one. First lady Michelle Obama is seen looking sternly ahead. The scene – which none of the critics personally witnessed – is being used to depict the president as some sort of misbehaving, self-centered child, and the first lady as peeved over his bad judgment.

Well, maybe she is. Or maybe, she just happened to be looking ahead, thinking about the funeral, or even just really tired after a very long flight. The point is, we don’t know, and it’s absurd to read a major family drama into a photograph.

Secondly, we don’t know Obama was behind the photo-taking. In fact, there’s more evidence that he was not. We’ve already been told that for security reasons, he can’t have an IPhone, only a Blackberry (and the device in question does not look like a Blackberry). And it’s the Danish prime minister’s two hands that are on the phone, suggesting that she was the one who initiated the picture. If that indeed was the case, what was Obama supposed to do – refuse to join in the photo? Tell the teacher? We also don’t know what was happening at the time. Yes, if someone was in the middle of delivering a eulogy, taking a photo of oneself would have been in very bad form. But if it was between speeches, and if people were talking amongst themselves on the floor (which is what it sounded like, even during Obama’s speech), it’s not quite so terrible.

Mandela is dead, and the U.S. and the world have an opportunity to forge the sort of reconciliation the South African leader advocated and practiced. We ought to focus on that, instead of a couple of gestures at the funeral.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, December 11, 2013

December 12, 2013 Posted by | Nelson Mandela | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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