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March 21, 2014: Baptist Farmers

On March 19th, the entity known as Fred Phelps died. The corporeal husk, that is — the man-sized pustule who stank up a hospice bed, the liver-spotted garbage bag currently stuffed in some morgue freezer. There doesn't seem much else to say, really — whatever other elements typically serve as a prerequisite for human existence seemed totally lacking in Phelps, as well as his satanic, buck-toothed brood, clutching their Day-Glo placards. Phelps is the closest thing we have to those Norwegian death metal goths, burning churches and killing each other in the nineties. Phelps's corpse should be incinerated in some sort of solemn stadium ceremony, as a vague warning against going insane. He is an authentically American nightmare.
But I'm not telling you anything you don't know. Phelps was a deranged coot, a depraved little tyrant whose appalling antics would be amusing, if they so often weren't in spitting range of an actual funeral. Any funeral, incidentally — the Phelps clan didn't care, as long as there would be publicity. And publicity there was, along with Supreme Court judgmentstargeted lawmaking — even British film crews, their rushes and B-rolls scarcely believable to most Americans, much less the wider world. I should know.
I once spent a bizarre afternoon shadowing Shirley Phelps Roper, she in her fetching neon "GOD HATES FAGS" regalia. The fam had spent the day picketing a well-known TV personality's memorial service, on the sidewalks of a busy intersection a few blocks away. There were several young children in the contingent; I don't recall any men. Shirley wore snap-away track-pants, as if at any moment, Pa Phelps would give her a quiet nod, and off she would fly, tenaciously confronting a homosexual. From across the street, I waited until I was sure Shirley could see me, and flipped her off. All it elicited was a good-natured, gap-toothed smile, as if she was hearing a child tell her a knock-knock joke. Or as if a friendly Springer Spaniel had just bounded up to her.
It was unsatisfying, because of course, I had lamely given these mutants exactly what they had come for. Walking away, as a preppy type loudly yelled at them, I couldn't believe my credulity. Walking back the same way, later, however, a few hours later, I noticed them preparing to leave. Watching them pack up their cheap beach chairs and pertinent "AIDS FOR FAGS" literature, I couldn't help but follow them, at least part of the way back, to whatever depressing, cut-rate Day's Inn the twenty of them were crammed into. 
As it happened, the nearest subway stop was on a nearby college campus. As a lover of fresh produce and organic foodstuffs, I knew today also just happened to be the day of the weekly farmer's market. And so it was, I, crouched behind the leafy redoubt of nearby hedges and trees, watched Shirley Phelps Roper, in a screaming lime-green GOD HATES FAGS t-shirt, casually navigate the piled rutabagas, squeeze the assembled peaches, and grin over a pyramid of beets, a vision of comfort and blithe self-confidence.
In other words, it was weird. It was very weird. It was the strangest goddamn thing I have ever seen. I saw the perfect wingnut, more tawdry than sinister, but sinister nonetheless, strolling through a liberal college campus in the uniform of a cultish hate group. As many cheerful wags saucily plan Fred's funeral picket, I can't help but think that the instinct for revenge, no matter how understandable, elides the main point: there is no gesture, no counterpoint, no riposte, that might derail the kind of twisted faith worn on a sleeve — and through an afternoon farmer's market, at that. 
Phelps has no following of his own beyond his captive family; his cult is far too bizarre, too molded by the warped drives of one now-dead maniac, to capture even the shakiest of fringe personalities. He achieved the remarkable distinction of uniting all Americans of all political persuasions against his insanity. The late Jerry Falwell called Phelps a "first-class nut" — but, silver-tongue and televangelizing aside, was Falwell's rancid belief system any more sophisticated, at the core, than a simple dictum: that his God, does, in fact, "hate fags"? This distinctly American pride is as incomprehensible as it is apparently unshakable.
And it isn't going to die with Fred Phelps, either.
Trust me on this one. The Iowa Republican Caucus is only 655 days away.


General Gandhi

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