Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church died Wednesday.
Who will picket the funeral of the man who picketed so many?
Let’s hope no one.
First because there probably won’t be a funeral to picket and second because, well, we’re better than that.
I know the urge to celebrate his passing is strong. But as Funny Or Die quipped, “Feels weird to celebrate Fred Phelps’ death considering that sort of thing was basically his favorite hobby.” Instead, let’s celebrate all the good he accomplished in his life — completely inadvertently.
It’s a fitting conclusion to the life of someone who, in the course of committing himself so loudly and grotesquely to hate (it was even on his bumper stickers), wound up proving again and again how much love there is in people. He would show up at a funeral with his family and their hideous signs, and others would rally. Even the KKK showed up. When a KKK Imperial Wizard comments that, compared with you, he is not a “hate-monger” and says he “thinks that it’s an absolute shame that (members of the the WBC) show up and disrupt people’s funerals” — well, need you say more?
A lot of people who set out to do good and advance the cause of love don’t accomplish this much. So thank you, Mr. Phelps, in a strange, strange way, for proving us right. Hate is well-publicized but small. Love is bigger. He showed up with his signs, and people responded with a Wall of Love. He kept achieving the opposite of what he set out to do. He faxed tons and tons of complaints — and a law was passed against fax harassment. He showed up at funerals with his hateful signs, and people gathered to shield the mourners, or the Patriot Guard Riders showed up, or the KKK. He tested our commitment to free speech, even extreme and ugly speech, and — yup, it is still strong.
The best arguments against some causes are their adherents.
Phelps became the face of hate. The face of hate was protesting funerals and forcing children to hold up big odious signs. It wasn’t good PR for hate. Phelps made hate look hateful.
“Gee,” you thought. “If these are the people who think being gay is wrong, maybe thinking that is wrong. This is horrible. Can you direct me to where there is tolerance? I don’t want to be on the same side of history as these folks.”
And look at what tolerance and love have achieved since Phelps began drawing attention in the 1990s: most notably, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the spread of marriage equality to 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Admittedly, Phelps proved that there are more good people than not, in much the same the way that somebody smashing a pane of glass proves that there are a lot of good window-repair shops in the world. You wish you didn’t have to bother. But it’s good to know.
So, despite the understandable urge, don’t dance on his grave. Don’t cheer. Instead:
• Stop picketing funerals, at all, ever. It is a terrible way of getting attention.
• Play with a child. Do not hand that kid a hateful sign. This should go without saying.
• Love someone.
• Send a thank-you note.
• Call your grandmother.
• Take a nap.
• Make a big colorful sign that says something polite. Take it to a place that is not having a funeral.
• Love your neighbor.
• Stand up for someone who is being shouted down.
• Treat people like people.
• Make a sandwich.
Feel the urge to say something hateful. Don’t succumb. Know you’re better than that. You are.
If Phelps’ life kept proving anything, it was that.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.