On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014

Fred Phelps, who for decades railed against fags like me, isn’t in Kansas any more. The pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers (blood kin or not) knew him as Gramps, was declared dead just over a week ago; no funeral was organised. ‘We do not worship the dead’, his daughter Shirley told the press – fingering absent-mindedly, one can but hope, her crucifix.

Phelps picketed hundreds of burials. Those who planned vengefully to picket his, or dreamt of it (and many did), divided views: the civility police railed against the notion, citing taste, decency and compassion as they had when street parties marked Margaret Thatcher’s death. At Westboro’s first post-mortem demonstration, a counterprotest’s banner read SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS – a sign, perhaps, that moral heroism has won out.

I’m not a hero at the best of times. I’m unlikely to grow into one at times like this.

In the face of the Phelps children’s suffering, I’m not stonehearted. Those who escaped and were cut off, among them now-atheist Nate (who broke the news his father was near death), were allowed no final goodbye; while they mourn a lost parent as best they can, thousands dance on his grave. The thought stays my schadenfreude more than most, but ultimately it seems Fred’s doing too. At such an infamous life’s end, could the world be asked to hold its tongue, even for their sake?

Nate Phelps and I have a few mutual friends. Though we’ve never met or spoken, he’s always seemed his father’s opposite, warm-hearted, soft-spoken and kind, graceful in what Louis Theroux, writing on social media of his brothers in the Church, calls the air of an abusive upbringing. That I feel his pain and check my urge to cheer his father’s death challenges my every vindictive instinct – nor do I feel, though, that in the calculus of how we answer Fred’s last gasps, his feelings or his siblings’ are the only ones that count.

Fred Phelps, though mercifully distant and in nothing like as harrowing a way, was part of my childhood too. Unlike Nate or Louis Theroux, I’m queer: his signs, in whose fluorescent shadow I grew up, referred to me.

This May will mark ten years since I came out, if I’d even call it that. (‘Because you’re gay?’, Stephen Hodgson asked after biology, wondering why I didn’t leer over the girl I was meant to. ‘Yeah’, I shrugged. That was it.) Earlier, a decade ago almost exactly, I’d sat online for hours Googling; one queer teen forum in particular was of great use to me, and was where I first discovered Fred.

Imagery shared and mocked there is still fresh: a squadron of girls no older than ten in ‘God hates fags’ shirts; a Flash-based noughts-and-crosses style game, ‘Fags vs. Kids’, on Westboro’s site, where five sodomites (‘represented by a pink swastika’) and three infants (‘represented by a baby bottle’) had to be placed correctly on a grid; footage from Michael Moore’s programme The Awful Truth, where Moore and a dozen gay men and lesbians confronted Fred across the Bible belt. He was 69 in the segment, but looked like he was pushing 90.

Skeletal, stiff as boards and with skin, appropriately, like an old Bible, it was clear he wasn’t a man in good health. Phelps’ appearance meant, conversely, that he never seemed to age, forever at death’s door without quite dying. His was the kind of twilight state the word ‘undead’ must have been coined to describe – you almost suspected, in fact, that some hideous otherworldly force must be sustaining him.

For that reason, he never seemed weak to me or the forum’s other members. Sickliness in a man of such extraordinary evil meant not frailty, for boys like us, but a horrible invulnerability – the same way that, whereas if you or I turned green we’d be rushed to a hospital, a witch’s green skin shows she’s to be feared. Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.

His death, we assumed, would therefore be spectacular. If no tornado dropped a house on him, or water-based attacks failed to melt his flesh, then earthlier routes must be taken. Friends and I fantasised at length about how Fred Phelps, the monster, might be slain: Chris from Toronto picturing putting gun skills to good use; Matt from New Zealand, prompting cardiac arrest through wandering hands; Logan from Alabama and I, blowing the Westboro compound up with high explosives. (A funeral picket afterward seemed only logical.)

If this seems extreme, consider that the straight boys in our classes played at machine-gunning Nazis – Fred was, for us, a spectre in his own lifetime of the kind the Waffen-SS has become in pop culture. It’s also true, of course, that such vicious thoughts came to provide an outlet for a swell of righteous rage.

Westboro did little that harmed me personally; despicably as the Phelpses behaved, they were loathed for what they signified as much as their actions. Fred gave the fear a face that made me scrub my browser history like an infected wound, was the emblem of the way it felt to me when Robbie, a boy in my 13-year-old art class, drove a pair of compasses into my forearm and drew blood; when Jack and Jonathan, sat behind me in maths, took turns spitting on me; when my brother, in the adjoining room one Christmas, unknowingly called me ‘an offence against nature and God’.

I took most of this and more by staying on what I deemed the moral high road, doing what childhood’s moral heroes told me was the Christian thing: loving my enemies, praying for my persecutors, forgiving them because they knew not what they did; turning the other cheek, rising above and being the better soul. When deaths like Phelps’ occur, we hear this too from preachers of civility.

It’s a sick philosophy, I’ve come to think, that tells victims to prove themselves better than their oppressors. Being wronged by somebody I haven’t wronged makes me better than them. Fred was a man who bludgeoned children with farm tools – no quantity of vitriol or disrespect will make us equals, just as no act of self-defence would have sunk me to my assailants’ level. Had I only been less loving toward them, I’d have invested less in hating him, since part of me did long to return fire: lashing out in lurid, violent fantasies at the thought of him became a form of reprisal-by-proxy.

Kids like me needed a witch our rage could melt. PC civility’s expansive plains, like Aunt Em’s ranch, are grey and lonely for us – abiding by its delicate constraints can feel like living in a world made out of cardboard. Fred’s cruelty made him a fair-enough target, someone as vicious as harassment had made us; his pain, an opportunity for justified sadism; his someday demise, a glorious event. Pickets aside, I longed for a good seat – a chance to savour his death throes’ exquisite spasms, watch his spirit break before his choking flesh. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your brittle god too.

After the fact, I’m unsatisfied. Phelps’ death was, in every sense, pathetic.

Westboro, Nate’s statements and implicitly its own have made clear, burnt bridges with its founder some months earlier. Male congregants (fearing, perhaps, a woman’s assumption of church leadership) pushed daughter Shirley to one side, and Fred – seeking, of all things, a ‘kinder approach’ – was excommunicated. Family, concerned that he might harm himself, moved him seemingly against his will to living quarters where ‘stopped eating and drinking’. Hospice care, at some point, followed. It only ends one way.

Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. His death reads like a man’s who outright lost the will to live, if not a calculated suicide – Fred would no doubt have spurned that option – then a gradual, half-conscious disintegration. I’ve been through that partially because of views like his; gone further and more knowingly, in fact, down the same path of self-destruction. Try as I might, I can’t gloat over it. What’s there to gloat about?

My queer teenage friends and I thought Fred would go out fighting, defeated finally, crying ‘Oh, what a world’ – a spectacular undoing. Not for a second did we see him fading miserably from life, vulnerable and pitiful. The boom-voiced wizard’s fire-and-brimstone face is gone: behind the curtain fallen to one side, only a shrivelled old man’s form remains, Professor Marvel mangled in his own machinery – a lowly, foolish Kansan crystal-gazer.

It might well be that the end of Phelps’ life came as a mercy. He never inspired mercy in me. What lingers is the sense of being thwarted – shock that the inhumane could die such a manifestly human death; grievance at being robbed of a bête noire. Fred perished like a man beneath contempt, too small and weak to hate, but hating him sustained me. There is no monster now, no slaying to look forward to, and I feel lost without it.

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How filesharing in Germany cost me $3000

At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. ‘While you were here,’ he said once papers were filled out, ‘you used BitTorrent?’

I had, I said, like almost all my friends. Filesharing was in my eyes like speeding on the motorway, an illegality most practised and few cared about. ‘We all do it’, the Barcelonian said, who seemed to have come reluctantly.

The scientist produced a further wad of fine-print forms. ‘We got sued’, he told me, ‘by the music industry.’

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Above is an extract from my piece today at Index on Censorship. Read the rest there.

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Hunger games: food, money and how I grew up feeling fat

Twice in my life, I’ve been a bit rotund. Both times, it was a common enough experience. At eleven I gorged on pizza, chocolate bars and caramel ice creams, more available at secondary school than in our previously welfare-dependent house, and stayed a slightly tubby teenager till added height changed my proportions, though it may be that having never quite eaten enough before, I was only gaining puppy fat I already should have. A decade on, I snacked my way through Oxford finals, spurning regular meals and comfort-eating. I’ve never been what you’d call fat, but nor during these periods was I slim.

My exam weight has now mostly been shed, more through abstinence than effort: since June, I’ve had no student loan to blow on cake. (No one expects a sweet tooth in someone as sour as me. You’d be surprised.) The poverty diet, as I’ve fondly come to call it, reached its logical extreme this week.

In January I moved back to Berlin, the place I started blogging, and managed to lose my debit card in transit – my bank, amusingly, has since located it in the Philippines. After ringing up immediately to cancel it, I had to change my address with them for a replacement to be sent out, and phoned again when this was done to order one. Presumably since I reported losing my card twice, the bank managed to cancel both the old and new ones. The latter’s last days of use ran out this weekend, and until another has arrived on Friday, I can make no withdrawals, either to pay the rent or to buy food.

Crash diets are a bad way to lose weight: the body responds to starvation by stockpiling fat. That said, and while these fasts have always been involuntary for me, I’ve found that I can make some use of them. As I wrote in December, I can go days without meals since as a child I had to now and again, but for this exact reason I’m prone to binges. I crave food for the joy of eating more than the benefit of being full, and forced restraint takes my mind off using it as a diversion. I’d be lying, too, if I said some part of me doesn’t enjoy the thinner-than-usual body in the mirror when food is off the menu. I’ve no doubt this is unhealthy.

‘Now that I have begun to celebrate lost inches,’ Ben Blanchard of the Pathfinders Project writes, ‘I am fearful that I might develop an eating disorder when left to my own devices as a busy academic back in the states. Until then, I am focusing on not focusing on it, and refuse to give my mind footholds to climb on to an obsession.’ Ben documents a weight loss far more dramatic than any I’ve undergone or needed, but the thought still resonates. What if I cared about this too much?

From the time my eleven year old self became conscious of his slight tubbiness, I’ve never felt quite thin enough – while my body’s undeniably changed shape at several points, I’ve yet entirely to throw off the sense of being overweight.

Hindsight and data tell me this instinct is ludicrous. In television footage from 2012, when I was 20 and the thinnest I remember being, I look like a string bean. In the next year, I didn’t just get fatter for exams but had a late and quite unnecessary growth spurt – between that October and last June, I went from 6’2” to 6’4” and developed relative breadth for the first time. (Before that, I’d had shoulders drag queens would kill for.) If you’d hugged me while the relevant footage was being shot, you’d have sustained a paper cut. So why, at the time, did I feel fat?

I go back further, through pictures of me at eighteen and sixteen. None exist between about twelve and fifteen, because I wouldn’t allow them; school photographs were lost on the way home. Even after my height first rocketed, I didn’t think of myself as slim, but seemingly I was. I’d always been tall for my age anyway, particularly in the leg, and like Ben (if for different reasons) struggled to buy trousers – for adequate length, I’ve often had to wear ones for much bigger waists than mine, and wonder now if it affected how I saw myself. I’m more given to blame parents and P.E. teachers in the end.

Losing my finals weight, combined with the broader frame I got concurrently, has given me a body I quite like. I’m no more toned or skinny than I was two years ago – less so, in fact – but the casing seems for the first time to tie up with the software. The issue, I conclude, is interior: the way I felt about my shape had little to do with what it actually was. Perhaps my mind matured just as my body did. It seems a question of framing either way.

Nowadays I prepare most of my own meals, kept slightly on the paunchy side by love of starchy foods (pasta, pizza, potatoes) and baking. This has provoked in me a strange desire to become healthy – to exercise, eat better and get out more. I’m not sure exactly what will happen here, but whatever does will be gradual, done because want to do it rather than feel a need. I never had impulses like this when I felt overweight. They’ve come to me as I’ve found satisfaction with how I look, and I don’t think that’s by chance.

Dawkins, Grayling and the New College of the Humanities: secularists should know the dangers of private education

‘It’s high time that the atheist left asserted itself against the atheist right
– an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.’ (Jeff Sparrow)

Three years ago, A.C. Grayling – till shortly thereafter, the British Humanist Association’s president elect – announced plans for a private university. New College of the Humanities, whose doors have opened since, was thought up in 2010 when David Cameron’s government cut eight tenths of higher education funding, including all state support for arts degrees, raising tuition fees from £3465 a year to £9000. These had only existed, at the time, for a few years, and fiery arguments broke out over free market education policies. Grayling founded NCH in their backwash, annual fees set at £18,000.

Results weren’t pretty. Only one or two private campuses existed at the time – to open one where degrees would cost the same as a small house was viewed with justified anger. Grayling’s public talks were picketed, a condemnatory public letter signed by dozens of his previous colleagues, and angry letters forced him to give up his BHA role before even assuming it. His presence in the secular scene dried up, societies no longer willing to promote him, and is only just recovering.

I raise this now because I never managed to weigh in on it back then, and more importantly because it illustrates the tensions of class politics in secular circles. NCH’s makeup was and remains distinctly humanist, its staff including Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker, as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s partner Niall Ferguson, but its most indignant critics (if not the loudest) were from the same scene – BHA members, New Humanist writers, left wing atheists like me online and committee members who refused to book the New College’s founder.

In a 2012 interview with Caspar Melville, Grayling tried to portray the project as benign, a last-ditch effort to save humanities teaching from ministers desperate to kill it off. In reality, his actions validated the Cameroons’ education cuts: the way to fight the privatisation of campuses in line with a U.S. style system is not to set up a private, U.S. style campus. ‘A mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax,’ he told Melville. ‘Students should go to university for nothing.’ If this principle mattered so much to him, why let it go at the first sign of trouble? Why not champion the students who then turned on him, and the cause of existing universities?

It’s tempting to think Grayling, Dawkins and the project’s other faces saw accessibility as optional, keen to preserve humanities teaching at any cost, no matter how exclusive it had to be. The former acknowledged NCH would cater to the privileged, drawing in students mainly from private schools. ‘That’s bad news,’ he commented, ‘but it would be worse news if a high-quality education system were to be compromised by the struggle to do what should already have been done’ – as if the academy’s survival for its own sake was the goal, its reduction in the process to a bastion of privilege a mere unfortunate side effect.

‘I would be delighted to support free education’, Dawkins said when challenged at a BHA event with PZ Myers, detailing his desire to protect Oxbridge-style teaching. ‘however, we live in a world where that isn’t happening.’ Keeping the ivory towers standing was the main thing, and if it meant raising the drawbridge, tough. ‘Like it or not,’ he added, ‘some people are richer than others . . . if you want to picket Anthony Grayling’s new university, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that’s above average price.

The BHA has chosen to edit this moment out of its official event footage. Such squirming is understandable: the comparison is risible. Education isn’t simply a product, as a shiny sports car is. It helps determine the whole course of one’s life. That not many people can buy Jaguars is ultimately trivial – cheap cars get drivers just as easily from A to B – but access to education affects who can become an employee, public thinker, politician, judge. The shape of our society rests on who goes to college and who can’t. Only old boys like Grayling and Dawkins could equate Oxbridge so readily with something as shallow as a luxury car.

But Ant and Dick aren’t just old boys. They’re secularists. And secularists should know the dangers of a free market in education.

NCH coheres to the Cameron-Gove philosophy of schools and campuses – decentralised, deregulated and detached in general terms from government. The same philosophy led their administration to introduce ‘free schools’, tax-funded but with no duty to hire qualified teachers or stick to the national curriculum, which almost anyone can start. In practice, this means religious groups, who’ve filed almost all applications since 2010. Several have been discovered carrying out extreme proselytism or abuse.

The problem is multifaceted and longstanding. In his deconversion memoir, blogger Hassan Radwan recalls years spent teaching at Islamia School, a private religious school in London which relied on Saudi donors and was subsequently subject to prolonged ‘Islamicisation’ – including the banning of pictures and music and use of school property for Mujahideen fundraisers. As comparatively recently as 2010, Dawkins himself has visited somewhat similar Islamic schools where scriptural creation myths are taught as science. Some of these are state schools, others not, but Radwan describes Islamia’s extremism as being tamed when it gained public sector funding. (This is, I think, the one thought-provoking argument for state-maintained religious schools, though I’d rather no private sector existed at all.)

Jonny Scaramanga, author of Leaving Fundamentalism, was sent to one of England’s forty-or-so ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ schools, where parents pay for children to be kept in walled-off cubicles, forbidden from interacting and taught outright racism, misogyny and creationism via biblical syllabus. Many, many more schools like this exist in the U.S., where the programme originates. Katie Halper details at AlterNet the broader effects of right wing education cuts and ‘school choice’ policy in the U.S., including boys and girls at private Christian schools (where government vouchers allow children from poor families to be sent) being forbidden to make eye contact.

America’s university culture, which both Britain’s current policies and NCH’s opening evoke, is dominated by the private sphere, with state universities a small side dish. Founding one there is, for fundamentalists, at least as easy as it was for Grayling, hence the U.S. is home to Liberty and Brigham Young Universities, founded respectively by Jerry Falwell and the Mormon church. Only two private campuses in Britain predate NCH, and one of them is the Oxford campus of the Islamic Azad University of Iran.

Is this the higher education system Dawkins and Grayling want? Their project opens the door to it. When the free market of ideas operates as a real free market, abuse ensues. Teaching is one sphere where ideas should be regulated, because not all are fit for the classroom. The solution, and secularists must recognise it as the left already does, is free and secular public education, both at school at campus level. If they were as high-minded as they claimed to be, they should have fought for that.

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If you liked this post, consider joining the Occupy Skepticism Facebook group, a forum founded recently by David Hoelscher to unite atheists on the left, concerned with fostering a class-conscious secularism. Here is a selection of posts, some by members, representing our areas of interest:

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s

Doctors

At Christmas, in a sudden, violent lurch, Peter Capaldi’s face became the Doctor’s. His announcement in the role pleased critics and excited fans as David Tennant’s had in 2005, fresh off the smash-hit set of Casanova – both actors, loved by the public as it was, were hotly tipped for the part. Capaldi, pictured last month in his incarnation’s costume, was by all means a great choice, but I couldn’t avoid mild disappointment. I didn’t want another David Tennant. I wanted a Matt Smith.

‘Who’s he?’, family members asked indignantly when Smith’s casting went public. Headlines were similar. However the Doctor looked, he didn’t look like that. The Doctor’s face was famous – it had eyebrows, not a six inch quiff or polystyrene-block chin. And he didn’t wear turnups, hipster tweed or dicky bows. Whovians winced when on-set photos first emerged, Smith hands-behind-back in dad jacket and charity shop shirt. Where now the gravitas and style of Tennant’s greatcoat, his pinstripe suit’s effortless chic?

Then ‘The Eleventh Hour’ aired in 2010. Bow ties were cool, the new lead said… and suddenly, near magically, they were.

Tennant’s Doctor owed his popularity to populism, handsome, charming and more human than Christopher Eccleston’s had been. Pundits urged his casting when they sensed he’d play a version people liked – like Jon Pertwee’s and Peter Davison’s, Ten was dashing, spry and classically heroic, the handsome head boy with top grades and track prizes. Of all the Doctors, he could most easily be from a different franchise, Buffy or Harry Potter say; at Hogwarts he’d have been a Gryffindor. Russell T Davies envisioned a mainstream, commercial Who, primetime hit rather than fan indulgence, which meant a mainstream and commercial hero. Ten’s character, like his costume, was pitched to be crowdpleasing, a matey, likeable leading man giving noughties viewers what they wanted. They fell for him, and so did his companions.

Smith’s Doctor was, by contrast, weird. He ate fish custard, danced terribly and couldn’t say no to a fez, looked twelve but acted eighty, moralised then all but murdered. In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it. Tennant, though a formidable actor, played a character fangirls and -boys would always have swooned over – he never had to work that hard for their affection. That Smith’s Doctor, like his bow tie, was a harder sell is what makes his success remarkable, the product of a singular, tirelessly layered performance.

‘I don’t even have an aunt’, Eleven tells Amelia Pond minutes after his birth, who lives with hers without a mum or dad. He’s lucky, she says. ‘I know’, he answers – the slightest bit too fast, voice tinged with satisfaction, even pleasure. Blink (don’t) between Scottish jokes and nonsense meals, and you’ll miss the ruthlessness Smith sneaks into the line, infusing grief with disturbing new bravado. If Ten was a lionheart like Three and Five, Eleven was a dark-sided eccentric of the Troughton-McCoy school, bumbling to all appearances but stone-hearted, sinister even, when need be. It’s a more complex and interesting portrayal, at least to me. ‘Look Solomon’, he tells David Bradley’s villain later on, targeting his craft with its own deadly weapons. ‘The missiles. See how they shine.’

Tennant played a similar moment in ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007), but never quite found Smith’s brooding subtlety. Who could forget ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, four years later? ‘Fear me,’ sentient asteroid House threatens Eleven, ‘I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.’ ‘Fear me,’ he replies with a nod, part haunted, part self-satisfied. ‘I’ve killed all of them.’

In his fair and relevant critique of Steven Moffat’s writing, ‘The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith’, Ted B. Kissell attacks this incarnation’s habits of ‘telling people how awesome he is’ and scheming deviously, damning Eleven as ‘a swaggering bully – who also withholds vital information from the people about whom he supposedly cares’. This was what made him work. Deceiving Martha was the most manipulative Ten ever got, but Smith’s Doctor (as River Song was fond of pointing out) lied constantly and to everyone – Amy, Rory and Clara for a start. The Doctor’s more interesting when he’s less of a white knight, but more than that, it’s what made this one’s playful whimsy meaningful. Eleven indulged his eccentricities to hide his heart of darkness. His childish side mattered because often, it was a front.

Who’d never had such an intricately woven lead. It may not again. Yes, Ten went off the rails in ‘The Waters of Mars’ (2009), but only because hubris was the obvious flaw to script such an unreconstructed hero. Tennant is a script-led actor, hence his success in Shakespeare, but one always sensed Smith, who studied Creative Writing and devised his character by making up short stories, knew more about him than anyone. His Doctor was seldom if ever obvious – instead of giving viewers what we wanted, he gave us what we’d never seen before, then made us fall in love with it.

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