Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Strawman of Kansas

I see that the insane Fred Phelps is up to his usual tricks again, which means the media will have yet another opportunity to whip itself (and its consumers) into a lather.

In case you don't know, Phelps is the guy who has become known for picketing high-profile funerals. He and the members of his Kansas "church" stand outside these funerals and memorial services (whether they be for homosexuals, dead soldiers, astronauts who died in the Columbia explosion, or little Amish girls--the particulars don't really seem to matter to Phelps as long as it's high-profile) and prattles on about how they deserved their fate and that God killed them because he hated them. Obviously such behavior is idiotic. But what I find almost as idiotic is the relentless media attention he receives.

Here's something you need to understand: Fred Phelps is almost entirely a media creation. His "church" consists almost exclusively of his own family members. Indeed, when you see any of them interviewed, you'll see that they all bear the name "Phelps." This is nothing more than one fruitcake and his family. Yet these little demonstrations of his receive endless media coverage, with pundits on all sides of the political and religious world righteously and thunderously excoriating them. But to what end? Fred Phelps represents nobody but himself and his family. This is a tiny handful of kooks.

So considering their utter insignificance, why is the entire Phelps family dragged out for interviews on all the networks each time this happens? For two reasons:

1). They fulfill a necessary media stereotype. The reason this tiny inbred family is at the center of so much media controversy is because the media believes that they are (or more likely wants to present them as) representative of "fundamentalist" Christianity. Phelps' actual influence is nil (and indeed his "church" preaches nothing even approaching biblical, evangelical Christianity, instead advocating a salvation by lawkeeping), yet he's been featured on every broadcast and cable news network, written about in every prominent newspaper in the country, and even referenced in the entertainment media (on programs like "The West Wing").

2). It presents an opportunity to throw "red meat" at viewers and readers, thus allowing commentators to appear virtuous while ratcheting up ratings via viewer outrage. An example of this occurred on "Hannity and Colmes" last night, where H&C interviewed one of the deluded female members of the Phelps clan. For two minutes, Colmes told her what a despicable human being she was, followed by two minutes of Hannity telling her what a despicable human being she was. My question through the whole thing was: Why would they even be having her on? Answer: Her idiotic hate spewing, while representing no constituency, would outrage the audience and allow Alan and Sean to show us how morally upright they are. Which is a jackpot all around. Is it edifying? No. Is it shedding light on an important issue? No. Have they uncovered some massive, sick movement? No. But by gosh, the courage of it all is astounding. These guys are going to take the side of the murdered little Amish girls against the sicko claiming they deserved it no matter what the consequences! How inspiring.

But while Hannity and Colmes are allowed to feel superior because of their counterintuitive defense of dead schoolgirls, they don't address the moral ambiguity of the pink elephant standing in the room--namely their own blatant prostitution. What they (and those like them) are doing by having the Phelps people on (and this was a repeat performance for H&C--they've had the Phelpsies on numerous times) is virtually indistinguishable from pulling a nut who rants in Times Square about the Holocaust off the street and putting him on national TV for five minutes. He represents nobody, he's shedding no light on anything, and what he's saying is vomitous. So why have him on? For ratings and faux outrage, and nothing more.

The fact is, there have been very few people less consequential who have received more attention than Fred Phelps has. So the next time you see him on national television (and you will see him again), ask yourself: Why?

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