Wednesday, April 6, 2011
April 6, 2011: Speaking Freely
For reasons unknown, probably even to them, a few members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church were doing their thing this morning across the street from the Jewish Community Center where my boys attend preschool. Roughly half of the signs were the ones with which I’m familiar when it comes to the Phelps clan, “God Hates Fags” and their link; but the other half were directed more specifically at Jewish Americans, whom God also apparently hates. To be honest there were more Newton police than protesters, and the latter were a ragtag and thoroughly unimpressive bunch; there was one kid who couldn’t have been more than 8, which is a damn depressing thought, but otherwise, nothing worth much comment there.
To the JCC’s credit, its institutional response to the WBC—both ahead of time, since as usual the WBC had notified everybody in advance, hoping I suppose for media coverage; and this morning itself—involved not only talking to parents about how they could handle things with their kids (I just told the boys to pay no attention to the very silly people across the street, and lo they did not) but also forthrightly stating their support for the First Amendment; the facility even hosted an Anti-Defamation League spokesperson to lead a discussion of the Amendment and why it protects even voices like the WBC’s. As my favorite (fictional) president, Andrew Shepherd, put it, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” Word. (He then goes on to advance the best argument I’ve ever heard for the constitutionality of flag-burning, a not at all unrelated point.)
But if I can speak freely—and if I can’t do so here, where could I?—I think that the WBC really represents a giant red herring in our national discourse. Because they put their messages in such ugly and transparent terms, and perhaps even more so because they protest at the funerals of American service members, folks across the political spectrum can agree that these guys are horrible bigots and kooks and deplore their actions and feel better about our own shared humanity and civility in contrast. But at the end of the day, I have to ask whether many of the people who (for example) oppose gay marriage or rights of any kind for gay and lesbian Americans do not, in some core way, believe that God hates fags. I know that most folks would not put it that way, but to be honest I have heard precious few logical arguments in opposition to gay marriage that are not based purely on the arguer’s religious beliefs—and what on earth do those religious beliefs have to do with gay people, if not to argue implicitly that (per a couple lines in Leviticus and then a couple more in the New Testament, as far as I can tell; with certainly no attention paid to the many other lines and laws and beliefs immediately adjacent to those lines in either case) God feels that way?
I’m tired and my younger son is once again having a rough, cough-y night, and I apologize for the blunter and less analytical than usual tone and focus here. But I’ve long felt that the WBC ultimately serves this red herring role, and allows us as a society to mask the rank bigotry toward and hatred of gay Americans that seems to motivate a significant portion of our political and cultural discourse. And if I’m going to support WBC’s freedom to speak their fucked-up minds, I should at least make sure that I’m speaking mine as well. More tomorrow, on the highbrow and democratic text.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text (and video) of Shepherd’s speech: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechtheamericanpresident.html
2) Speaking of fictional presidents, the Bible, and gay Americans: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHaVUjjH3EI
3) OPEN: What do you think?