An evil man has departed the Earth, but not before inadvertently making it a better place.
Fred Phelps, founder of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, is dead.
Over the past several years Phelps distinguished himself as one of the most vile people in America, which is no small feat given the high profiles our society has accorded Hall of Fame hatemongers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
As he has lingered on his deathbed in recent days, we’ve had a chance to ponder this moment and discuss what the proper response might be. My own pot shot – “may his funeral be well attended” – paled compared to some of the (justified, it must be admitted) rage against the man’s legacy. At the same time, we saw altogether more noble comments from people like Facebook’s First Citizen, George Takei, who reminded us that hate is conquered not by more hate, but by love.
In the end, I find myself considering the possibility that Phelps may go down as one of the single most important figures in the battle for marriage equality in America. I’ve always been a student of popular culture and media, and history provides us eons of epic storytelling that teach all kinds of occasionally counterintuitive lessons. Like this one, which never occurred to Phelps.
Smart historians are like the folks who wrote the Passion cycle plays, the most successful Hollywood writers and directors, and even professional wrestling creative teams: they understand that great stories need villains. It’s rare to find a hero – whether real world or literary – who wasn’t opposed by an equally menacing black hat. Jesus doesn’t work nearly so well without Satan. Batman was nothing without The Joker. Sherlock Holmes was vexed by Moriarty. Mr. Glass realized that he and David Dunn needed each other. And with WrestleMania XXX nearly upon us, we have to note that WWE’s breakthrough success owed as much to Andre the Giant as it did to Hulk Hogan.
Think about the Civil Right movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero for the ages, but a nation grappling with upheaval and change was perhaps almost as compelled by the heels: George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor and the cracker thugs wielding clubs and firehoses on peaceful demonstrators in places like Birmingham and Selma – all as the cameras rolled. Those people likely did nearly as much teaching about right and wrong as King did thanks to the fact that the human brain thrives on contrast: we can see justice more clearly when it’s standing next to injustice.
The thing that Fred never quite grasped is that nothing united a community quite like a visit from his people. The progressives were energized. The moderates couldn’t help moving left, even if it was ostensibly only to ease away from him. And conservatives spent a few days waging war with their own cognitive dissonance. Nothing an organizer or campaigner or advocate could do to raise awareness and promote social justice for gays could touch the benefit they got from being targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church.
One day, and hopefully one day soon, equal rights for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation will be a dead issue. We’ll look back and wonder what the hell the fuss was about. And we’ll have a long list of icons, heroes in the struggle. Some will be political activists, some media figures, some simply normal people who paid the ultimate price for being different. We’ll note the battles that were fought along the way.
We’ll also remember the bad guys, and few will merit a longer chapter than Fred Phelps. I can only hope that before he died, he came to understand that not only did he fail, his efforts ironically benefited the “gay agenda.” His willingness to be a caricature, a stock central casting, over-the-top comic book villain, helped a society in transition more clearly understand the inhumanity of homophobic hate politics.
As weird as it may sound, we owe Fred Phelps a debt of gratitude. That day of full equality will arrive sooner and more certainly than it ever could have without him.