A few days ago, I read an obituary which filled me with joy. As someone attempting to be a decent human being, I suppose I should be ashamed of such feelings, but there it is. After a long career spanning many hateful acts, Fred Phelps Senior is finally dead.
For all that he was a publicity hound, the world will little note nor long remember him. He was one of those people who remain on the fringe of the news simply because no group other than his own wishes to damage its credibility by supporting him. But I will remember him for the rest of my life because he and I were tangentially connected, and from Fred I learned several valuable lessons.
Before I continue, I should remind anyone who happens to be reading this for some other reason who Fred Phelps was. Fred Phelps was a pastor who lived most of his life in Topeka Kansas, who was most famous for the message “God Hates Fags” and for his tactics of picketing at funerals. I don’t want to spend too much time describing things for which he’s already well known, so here is a Wikipedia Link where you can read all the “noteworthy” news about the man.
I remember things about Fred that most people don’t remember. I remember his pre-teenage and teenaged daughters, out alone late at night in bad neighborhoods, selling candy to raise money for his “church”, terrified to go home until they’d sold it all. I remember bartenders and bikers and whores who’d buy the candy just so these kids could go home without getting beaten, wait until they were gone, and quietly dump the candy in the trash, because it was bad candy in the first place. It was a paradox; the kids learned to go to the really awful neighborhoods because if they stayed in safe areas nobody would be concerned enough for their safety to buy their candy. I remember one of his sons occasionally not showing up for school for a few days, and when he did show up he’d have purple and yellow bruises all over his body, maybe a few bloody bandages here and there, and difficulty with simple things like walking. I remember his wife, with tears running down her face because she’d done something to upset Fred and her beautiful long hair was gone, replaced by a badly-done buzz cut. If one was in certain places at certain times, one began to understand that there was something profoundly wrong there.
And this is one of the first valuable lessons I learned from Fred. I learned how victims of abuse behave in ways that support their abuser. I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time, but these children, and his wife, were always quick to defend him, quick to say he was right whatever he’d done, quick to aver that whatever indignities or injuries he inflicted were for their own good. And when they did so they always spoke just a little too fast, and their eyes were just a little too bright, and their postures were just a little too closed, and there were a dozen other little tells that I’ve been able to recognize ever since. So, thanks Fred. Thanks for showing me how to understand something about human beings which I’d had no experience with up to that time.
Fred became a minister in the Southern Baptist church, but was eventually defrocked. But because this is America and we have Freedom of Religion, anybody can start their own denomination and call themselves the high priest of it if they want, and that’s exactly what Fred did. He took all the stuff he was preaching anyway, made it religious doctrine, called the new denomination “Westboro Baptist”, and filed the paperwork for tax-exempt status. Insofar as religion goes, his doctrine was unrelentingly neo-Calvinist – it did not resemble anything else called any flavor of ‘Baptist’ elsewhere in the country. Which is probably why the Southern Baptist denomination asked him to leave in the first place. Fred believed in predestination – that people were predestined by God to be damned or saved, that they were accordingly predestined to be evil or good in life, that there was nothing anyone could or should do about it, that the damned deserved no sympathy nor any attempts to help them, and that the role of the righteous was to do God’s work of punishing them here on earth, in preparation for their respective roles after death, and to learn to take joy in that work.
Being a hateful heterosexist bigot, of course he concluded that homosexuals were among the damned. But, mostly, homosexuals were an easy target; if you were paying attention you’d have noticed that he believed almost everybody was among the damned — that is, everybody outside the tiny Westboro Baptist Church. So he set up a church that was, according to its own lights, the singular tiny community of the righteous in the middle of a world the rest of which was hellbound. And then set about impressing on all of the “righteous” that they were supposed to learn to delight in the suffering of the hellbound, and to cause such suffering whenever possible.
And that, I suppose, was the second important lesson Fred taught me. Freedom of religion isn’t just for sane people, nor just for nice people. People who are crazy and mean have freedom of religion too and just because an organization is religious is no reason to conclude that it’s good.
Fred had earned a law degree, and was for a few years licensed to practice, but was disbarred after a long series of hateful courtroom stunts. The fact that he was a lawyer had always been a sort of protection for him — nobody wants to sue a lawyer, right? If your opponent can work for himself effectively for free while you’re paying for legal representation, he can run you into the ground before your case even gets to court just by continuing to engage your lawyer’s expensive time with delaying tactics. Having lost this protection, Fred found himself vulnerable. But, he had thirteen kids, and that gave him the opportunity to get protection again. Nine of them eventually earned law degrees and were licensed to practice. And for a very long time, people did their level best not to engage Fred, or the Westboro Baptists, in court because, with nine licensed attorneys effectively ready to work for free, what chance did anyone have? Which meant the Westboro Baptists got away with a lot of stuff that was in fact clearly illegal.
But when he tried to engage other churches in spreading his message of hate against gays, they instead condemned him and his message, as contrary to their belief in a loving God. And there wasn’t a darn thing Fred could do about that.
So that was another important lesson Fred taught me; if you can keep people intimidated enough that they won’t stick up for themselves, you don’t even have to fight them. But when people do stand up for themselves and what they believe in, you can’t stop them.
The fight against the world that Fred and company fought escalated over the course of years. At first they contented themselves by picketing at Gage Park, a local park that had occasionally served as a hangout for gays. But when that stopped getting them noticed, they stepped it up a notch. They picketed businesses that were owned by or employed gays. They grabbed some headlines by picketing the funerals of people who had died of HIV. Of course they didn’t limit themselves to homosexuals. People who’d gotten HIV in a transfusion or through heterosexual contact where equally targeted because after all, as non-members of the Westboro Baptists, they were all equally hellbound.
The next escalation came at The University of Kansas, which I attended about 40 minutes away from Topeka. They had assembly rules that meant you had to file in advance to get permission for a protest on campus during class hours, and turned Fred down flat when he filed for permission to picket a student’s funeral at Danforth Chapel on campus. Fred came back, in the evening after class hours were out, to picket the wedding of a couple getting married at the same chapel. Complete with the trademark “god hates fags” signs, which must have seemed out of place, even mystifying, to a straight couple at their own wedding. They didn’t even know about the funeral earlier in the day, weren’t connected to it in any way, and just happened to be a couple of convenient hellbound in the right place at the right time for Fred to grab some headlines.
The local press picked up that story, and Fred apparently learned that the more outrageously unconnected somene was from his apparent cause, the more attention he could get by making that person miserable. So he went on to picket the funerals of soldiers who’d died in combat (“God is punishing America for its tolerance of gays!”), of doctors who treated STD’s (“STD’s are God’s punishment for homosexuality!”), and so on. To this day, Fred is the person I think of whenever I hear someone say “Get out there, organize a group, and fight for your beliefs! Try to make a difference!” etc, because, after all, that’s much of what Fred was doing. Here is another important lesson Fred taught me; it is far far easier to be certain than it is to be right.
Of course, he engaged in a lot of more targeted and goal-driven misery-mongering too. Local political and media figures (and later in his career national figures) were particular points of leverage that he could use to get things he wanted, and as such he made a special effort to keep them in fear of him. There is one that stands out in my memory. She was a legislator, and she and her husband were going through something of a rough patch in their marriage, trying to learn how to go on together and rebuild trust after an affair. They had part of this discussion over email. Somehow, Fred got his hands on the text of several of these emails, and trumpeted them to pretty much every fax machine in the city (a favorite tactic of his at the time), under a headline and screed that called her a “JEZEBELLIAN WHORE!!!” complete with extra exclamation points. Of course, he had demands for some special treatment or other that she hadn’t given him, so this was all about making an example and keeping legislators fearful of what would happen to them if Fred didn’t get his way.
Now, the reason this stands out in my memory, over all the more mundane attacks such as picketing their private residences twenty-four hours a day in shifts, and harassing their kids on the way home from school and so on that he did to other legislators and reporters, is because the only plausible way for Fred to have gotten those emails was to have engaged in one of the earliest DNS mail spoofing attacks on record. What this means is that he had set up mail routing software on a local machine, altered it to make it tell other machines that it had a more direct route from where the mail was sent to where it was going than the servers that normally delivered the mail, and let other machines then send mail through his machine rather than through the servers that normally carried it. This isn’t particularly hard to do for a technical person, but it was the very early 1990s. Email spam hadn’t even been invented yet. The attack hadn’t been widely discussed even among technical people, and Fred was already over 65 years old. Nobody had any inkling at the time that this old geezer who spent all his time on religion and politics and hate was a technical person.
But he was. The same mind that had earned doctorates in law and theology had turned itself to the nascent Internet. One of the less well-known facts about Fred is that he had an IQ a bit over 160 and a lifelong passion for learning. But intellect and knowledge were to him nothing more than weapons, and his enjoyment of them came only from using them to make others suffer.
So that was another important lesson Fred taught me; just because someone is smart, doesn’t mean he or she isn’t an asshole. This was a hard lesson to learn for me, because I had always thought I was something a bit special, a bit better than most people, because I was smart. Fred demonstrated that there is absolutely no reason to conclude the former just because of the latter. Fred’s not the only example of this lesson in my memory now, but it was startling to me at the time that someone could be a genius and yet have absolutely no redeeming features.