Friday, March 21, 2014

When Your 'Enemy' Dies...

From the  BBC:

The Reverend Fred Phelps Sr, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, died on Wednesday evening at 84.  

The church, made up mostly of his family, rose to international notoriety with its practice of picketing funerals of fallen US troops.   It claimed their deaths were punishment for America's tolerance of gay people. Their signs read "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Thank God for 9/11" and the like, and bore messages offensive to gay and lesbian people.

Born in Mississippi in 1929, Mr Phelps was raised a Methodist and was selected to attend the US Military Academy.  He was ordained a Baptist minister, though Westboro was not attached to any mainstream denomination.

Mr Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964, but was stripped of his licence to practise in Kansas in 1979. The Kansas Supreme Court said Mr Phelps made false statements in documents and "showed little regard" for professional ethics.


I only met Fred Phelps once. It was in 1998. Phelps and members of his "congregation" (family members) had come to Chicago to protest at the  Broadway United Methodist Church. 

The church on Chicago's North side, is located in the Lakeview neighborhood, which is known as the center of Chicago's LGBT community. Phelps targeted  the church  in response to news that the Pastor, Greg Dell performed a  service of Holy Union for two men in his congregation that September.

In response, members of many of the surrounding churches in the neighborhood, including  Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where I was member;  turned out and formed a human  "ring of love" that moved in a circle around the entire building, effectively  cutting  the Phelps clan off from access to the church or anyone attending  that Sunday's services.   

Purely by chance  I found myself  standing in a position in the ring,  directly opposite Phelps for about  ten minutes.   While he screamed right into my face of how much God hated me,  how much I was to blame for all the evils  befalling  America, how I was "most assuredly" going to die from AIDS and  would burn forever in hell.

Then the ring started to move again,  I smiled  and said ; "Nice to meet you Mr. Phelps, thank you for your time." (I made a point of not calling him "reverend" hoping that would offend him,)  and moved away hearing Phelps still ranting off into the distance.

For  a good part of the rest of that day  I felt pretty good, and rather proud of myself.  In my brief interactions with the infamous Fred Phelps, I kept my cool , didn't take the bait and try to argue with him, or  get angry and  rant back  how  he was the one who was behaving in ways that God would find offensive. I was polite,  cheerful and  confident.

 I had only  weeks before, come out to my own family.  As I walked the few short blocks back up Broadway to my apartment, I felt  flush  with my new-found courage and pride as an out Gay Man.   I would even  go as far as to say I was feeling  slightly superior, maybe even a  little smug.

Yet as the day went on,  I  found myself  getting  angrier and angrier.  I started wishing I had yelled back  at Phelps.  I  regretted not calling him out as a sad bitter, twisted evil pathetic waste of a human life. I so wished that I  had told him that  the God I know bears no resemblance to the one he claimed to speak for.  That God was going to send HIM to hell for his horrific protest at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, only weeks before.  

I stood looking out at the skyline of Chicago through my living room window seething  at the lost opportunity.  While glorious images of  myself raging at Phelps in righteous indignation while he cowered behind a trash can,  flooded my mind. 

Then I realized, in that moment,  by letting myself  get so angry, I was letting Phelps win.  

I sat down, opened a can cherry coke,  and took a deep breath.   As I calmed down,   I  knew that Fred Phelps  was not someone to be hated, this was a man to be pitied.   As  I thought about that,  all that anger faded away as quickly as it had come.   After that day I really didn't give  Phelps or his Westboro Baptist clan much thought.   Aside from a passing item in the news about  Phelps' despicable protests at  the funerals of  dead American service personnel, Fred Phelps, like the anger I felt that day, faded from my memory.   Until this week. 

A number of people have emailed me, asking if I was happy to hear  of Phelp's death.  Or did  I feel that  the LGBT community should picket his funeral and subject the Phelps family to  same sort of torment and disrespect that he inflicted on so many other families  over the years.  As tempting as it is to  say yes to that,  cathartic  even.   The answer is, and must be... No.    

The fact is,  we all owe  Fred Phelps a  tremendous debt.   His  irrational hatred of others provided the greatest argument in favor of LGBT equality  that anyone could have ever wished for.   His vile rants and heartless acts of disrespect for people different than him,  did more to advance the cause of diversity and equality than any court ruling or  protest march  ever could.  

The  brilliant, and chilling HBO original movie  "Conspiracy", depicts the actual events  at the Wansee Conference  outside Berlin. Where officials of Hitler's Third Reich planned what history would come to know as the Holocaust. In one of the final scenes, Nazi SS General Reinhard Heydrich, shares a story that one of the other participants at the meeting told him about the dangers of allowing hatred of one group of people to consume your life.

I wonder what the surviving members of the Westboro Baptist Church will do after the rest of the world finally does leave them  behind. Or now that the driving force that pushed them on their journey of bigotry and hate is gone.  The greatest irony of Fred Phelps' life, is as he saw equality for LGBT people as the greatest evil imaginable, he may have done more than any other single person to help move the fight for that equality forward.

Fred Phelps'  true legacy is that he was, a one-man Gay Pride Parade.
So was nice to meet you Mr. Phelps,  thank you for your time.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

When Bubbles and Echo Chambers Become Prisons...

In the days following  the   2012  election, there  were no shortage of  "post mortem"  segments on cable tv news  as to why  the  GOP lost  so  spectacularly.   Most  focused on the  over confidence and key missteps made by the  Romney campaign.   Yet it was the ever-insightful  Rachel Maddow  who focused on the  real  issue facing the Republican Party...

Political writer Brian Beutler has an interesting piece in the current issue of Salon Magazine that examines  the effects of  the Republican Party's complete  inability to heed  Maddow's very  sage and  relevant advice.   Now a year and a half on from their 2012 humiliation, the  GOP has  instead, doubled down on the bubble.  Having circled their conservative media wagons around their  rapidly  shrinking base,  the  Republican Party  has decided  that facts  clearly have a liberal bias, so  the GOP simply won't worry about them.

Inside the  ever more tightly sealed echo chamber of  conservative media and  Republican politics,  there are  no Facts, just  articles of faith.  These include:  Reagan = Good,  Obama= Bad, Very, Very, Very, Bad.   Any Republican who works with, supports ANYTHING done by, or  even speaks nicely about  Barack Obama is a  RINO. (Republican In Name Only).  Poor Americans = Lazy, "takers",  Rich Americans  = Hard Working "job creators".  

Any government involvement in Health Care = Bad, Bad, Socialism!  Medicare = Good , for well and better-off  Seniors, (figure that one out.)   Medicare = Bad,  for poor Seniors.  Libyan, Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian  and Iranian poor Muslims = Bad Terrorists.  Saudi, UAE and Qatari rich Muslims who fund the terrorists = Good.   The Affordable Care Act = Worse than the Holocaust.  9-11 = Happened before George W. Bush was President.   Benghazi = Worst Terrorist Attack on Americans EVER.  The Deficit = is going up.. WAY UP, (any numbers that say differently  are lies put out by Obama and his accomplices in the liberal media.)

I guess it is time I come clean and make a small confession. I used to be a republican.

(I will pause here to allow for gasps of horror and disbelief.)

Feel better? Ok, moving on...

Yes I was a card carrying member of the GOP. I even was an elected officer in the College Republicans. I campaigned for Reagan-Bush as a Young Republican and for Bush-Quayle '88 as a College Republican. In a box in my closet are framed photos of yours truly with the likes of Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Dan Quayle, Bob and Elizabeth Dole and even the late Lee Atwater. (Former Chairman of the GOP).

The GOP I belonged to wasn't a big bucket of crazy, it was the party that stood for individual freedom as well as individual and collective responsibility. So what happened? Simple, in 1992 the Republican Party lost its mind, and then its soul. The GOP went nuts and truth, became negotiable. Pat Buchanon stood before the National Convention and declared the GOP must fiight a "Culture War" for the soul of America. 

Now in 2014 we see the full bloom of the rancid weed that was planted during that speech.

I didn't  leave the  GOP,  the  Republican Party as  it had existed since the  election of  President Lincoln ceased to exist in 1992. Let's be very clear  when I talk about the Republican Party, or  the GOP of today, it not just the political party itself anymore.  I am referring to both the Party itself, and the conservative media bubble that  has encompassed it, creating  a hermetically sealed bubble.  An echo chamber of  talking points  that only support one narrative;  Bipartisanship is bad.  Obama is evil,  and you can only trust  FOX News, WorldNet Daily  and  Rush Limbaugh.

Abraham Lincoln believed in freeing the oppressed, uniting the nation, and punishing War Profiteers. Today's  GOP ignores oppression in countries that don't have Oil or where the leaders are family friends. While ignoring the needs of  soldiers and veterans in favor of the greed of  war profiteers.

Dwight Eisenhower viewed war is always a last desperate resort, and an unchecked military industrial complex is a threat to democracy. Today's GOP sees an unchecked military industrial complex as more important than the health and welfare of the American People.

Richard Nixon understood that we live in a world of interconnected global relationships. Constructive engagement and detente' are always more successful than direct conflict. Today's GOP blusters "You are with us or against us". To seek the cooperation of Foreign Leader or even to have respect of citizens of other nations is ridiculed as a sign of weakness.

Gerald Ford truly believed in duty, and that the interests of the nation are more important than polls or elections. He was a living example on how accepting responsibility for the actions you take in office, is a president's first obligation.  Today's GOP sees transparency as a threat and can never under ANY circumstances admit a mistake.

Ronald Reagan saw that to achieve PEACE through strength, America's allies were the key to America's security. He knew that Big Government is never a substitute for American Ingenuity, and he understood that Faith is a private matter not a poltical platform. Today's GOP uses faith is political tool. America's historic allies are disposable, and big Government is the greatest evil there is,  EXCEPT  when it can make the GOP base happy.

George HW Bush said it best in his inaugural address; "In crucial things, unity, in important things diversity, and in all things generosity... When America says something, America means it. Whether a treaty an agreement or a vow made on marble steps." He used Personal diplomacy to build a grand coalition of nations the likes of which had not been seen since World War II.

Today's  GOP thinks that the Geneva Convention is "Outdated and quaint", "public" meetings should only be open to hand picked supporters. And has given us a nation more divided than at anytime since the civil war.  Eager to start wars for ego and money, with no thought to the costs either monetary or in human terms.

My Grandfather's Republican Party fought for smaller, less intrusive Government.  Today's GOP fights to amend the constitution to regulate the bedrooms and bodies of American Women. Along with a pledge to make the Federal Government  the most intrusive entity into the private lives of Americans in History.  My Grandfather's Republican Party sought to make the US the leader of Strong Global Alliances. Today's GOP loves to bash the UN, and loves to demand that the United States act unilaterally and recklessly, and trashes diplomacy calling it weak.

My Grandfather's Republican Party understood fiscal responsibility, and that Jobs are the engine of the American Economy. Today's GOP,  gave us massive Debt and deficits. Policies that tax the Lower and Middle Class to pay for tax breaks for the most wealthy, resulting in the loss of more jobs on their watch than any time since the days of Herbert Hoover.

This past week at the  annual  Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) we heard  a great deal about the GOP's "respect for life", an easily packaged label for a zealous push to eliminate reproductive rights for American women, and achieve theologically based government regulation of how life begins and ends.

"Defending families" is the GOP  the code phrase for a zealous push to deny any and all, rights, to Gay and Lesbian Americans no matter what the cost.  There was lots of talk about the importance of the 2nd and 1st  Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, (in that order).  Yet in the minds of the CPAC faithful, the Bill of Rights stops there,

 Heath Care for  the millions of  Americans  left uninsured and ignored for decades, is  decried as an attack on the very fabric of the Nation.  Families living in poverty ridiculed as  "takers"  for  needing  food stamps to help  feed their children. Veterans who served with honor and distinction are discarded as being part of a "Culture of Entitlement"  for wanting the respect of and help from the nation they served.   Americans who have lost loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan are seen as annoying reminders of  past blunders, and distractions from the new drumbeat  for war with Iran.

Rather than stand for the principles that  guided  the Republican Party for over 130 years,  in 1992 the GOP embraced not the better angels of its nature, but  the darker demons.  For Today's GOP, facts are their own  inconvenient truths, so they are  overlooked  and decried as a plot to discredit Conservative ideas by the "liberal lame stream media".

For today's GOP the "culture of life" ends at the prison door. The Neo-Conservative Right, may hate abortion, but they love capital punishment. Today's  GOP will rush to defend the lives of the unborn. Yet after you come out of the womb however, you get to join the GOP's  "ownership society" - meaning you are on your own.

In 1989, George Bush's Father lamented that we were in a time  in our nation where "not each other's ideas are questioned, but each others motives." Twenty-five years later, the party his Son Jeb seeks to lead, has embraced that model,  making  its legacy in 2014,  one of division, rancor and politically expedient hate.

We live in a time when the Republican Party seeks to define "American" as only those people who conform to a particular limited , fearful view of the world.   It is a political party that history will remember for a legacy of "fifty percent plus one."

It is a Party that sees  the key to victory, as  being able to divide people as much as they can, then prevent any who oppose them  from having equal access to the political process. Be they people of color, people who don't speak English, or people who are not Conservative Evangelical Heterosexuals.

Today's GOP likes to talk about the need to "Save America", when  the hard truth is the Republican Party needs to save itself,  from  itself.   The Republican Party  has discarded  its grand legacy of  principled American Exceptionalism, and embraced a sad  mixture of  angry ignorance, fact-free arrogance and heartless apathy towards all who don't fit into their gilded mold.

I look at the Party calling itself "Republican", and I don't recognize it, at all.  What's more,  I don't think any of those aforementioned great men would recognize it either.