Friday, March 21, 2014

Phelps Retrospective

Mr. Fred Phelps died yesterday, and as I said in yesterday's post, there are some who believe his passing is best ignored. The question of how to react to Fred Phelps and his cult following is nothing new.

Phelps first came to public attention in the early 1990's pushing to criminalize homosexuality in Topeka public parks. No doubt, homosexual activity in Topeka public parks was already illegal, so that must have been an easy win for him. Flush with that victory, he began busing his Westboro Baptist family around the country to gay pride events to wave their God Hates Fags pickets and shout abuse through bullhorns.

This won the ire of LGBT groups wherever he went (and wherever it was rumored he might show up), but little attention outside of the LGBT community. Leaders in the LGBT community decided that the best way to deal with the Westboro gang was to ignore them.

So Phelps decided to escalate. In 1998 came the gay-bashing murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, which came to national attention. Phelps announced that he and his spawn were going to wave their hateful pickets at Shepard's funeral. Taking a cue from a series of Nixon cartoons by Herblock (but with only one photo of Phelps to work from), I drew this:
Counter-protesters with enormous crane puppets (a mainstay of peace protests) shielded Shepard's mourners from the Westboro picketers, but Phelps was close enough to the limelight for the mainstream media to take notice. So he continued showing up at funerals of anyone at all remarkable who died of gay-bashing, AIDS, or "a lingering illness."

The Phelps clan financed their travels, it seems, by filing lawsuits against anyone whose response to their picketing could be construed as assault or infringing on their religious liberty. In the first month of the Dubya Bush administration, the new president promised federal handouts to faith-based religious social service organizations. I imagined that the Westborans might take advantage of this new source of funding:
My favorite Phelps cartoon came one year later, when a story came out that the New York Aquarium at Coney Island had a pair of male penguins, Wendell and Cass, who had seemed to have developed a mating bond. (A more famous pair at Manhattan's Central Park Zoo, Roy and Silo, made news a couple years later.)
By this time, Phelps and his spawn were having more difficulty attracting media attention, even after adding "Thank God for 9/11" to their picket canon. The mainstream media had figured out that he was news only if they made him news, and there were plenty of other nutty religious zealots out there. Again feeling ignored, Phelps upped the ante and started picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2006, the family of one such soldier sued Phelps and two of his daughters for "defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy," in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2011, in Snyder v. Phelps, The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Phelps and his ghouls (Justice Samuel Alito dissenting).
I've drawn other cartoons featuring the Phelps brood, but the nine-year gap between the penguin cartoon and the Snyder v. Phelps cartoon represents my attempt to go along with the conventional wisdom that it were best to ignore them.

It's sort of a shame that I had to draw this week's cartoon on Sunday in such a way that it would work whether Fred Phelps died right away or lingered for months. I had a better cartoon idea (similar to Nate Beeler's cartoon today) showing the Phelps clan at his grave site, brandishing "God Hates Dad" and "Grandpa In Hell" picket signs as one of them explains, "He would have wanted it this way."

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