Thursday, November 01, 2007

Phelps family slapped down: world cheers, I'm conflicted.

There is an old joke defining “mixed emotions” as watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new car.

Well, a jury just slapped down the vile bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church. They were ordered to pay $11 million to the father of a dead soldier whose funeral the church picketed with their hateful messages.

I find these people utterly disgusting. I put them in the same category as the odious creeps in Stormfront, the Klan, the League of the South, ad nauseum. I despise bigots, whether they are the openly bigoted like David Duke, the more subtle bigots like Joe Sobran, or the bigots who only expose themselves when drunk, like Mel Gibson. And I have to say a large part of my brain is cheering that the church lost this case.

Basically the church is the personal sect of Fred Phelps, an abusive Calvinist minister who has turned his own family into his personal cult. Phelps has a history of abusing his family members and he has intentionally isolated them from everyone and anyone outside their cult. This is precisely how cults control their members. A few of Phelps own children have managed to escape his clutches and flee from the sect but most are firmly under the control of this tyrant.

I have watched numerous videos with Phelps family members and I think these people exhibit the effects of the abusive treatment they have received. And often such abuse causes victims to identify with the abuser -- in this case Fred Phelps. So I do find myself feeling sorry for these people and wishing for the day when they will find relief due to Phelps “leaving this veil of tears” -- and the sooner the better.

Phelps hates the world passionately. He hates everyone and everything that is not under his own control. And Phelps says that everything that is wrong in the world is the result of God punishing the world for “enabling” homosexuals to exist. Fred is very obsessive about the gay thing; so obsessive that it makes one wonder.

Since America isn’t nasty enough to homosexuals Phelps says God caused the war in Iraq. Most people thought George Bush did.

Apparently when a soldier is killed as a result of Bush’s war it is God’s punishment for not stoning homosexuals to death. So Phelps sends his family of zombies out to show up at the funerals of soldiers with insulting and abusive signs. The family members yell rude things to mourners and try to disrupt this private moment of grief.

The jury in this case found the Phelps cult guilty of inflicting emotional harm on the family that sued after their son’s funeral was disrupted by this sad bunch of cult members.

I happen to think that there are vast areas where libertarian theory deals with issues badly. The broad principles are good and sensible but in some areas it doesn’t answer satisfactorily the questions that arise. And this is one area when I’m just not sure.

I don’t want emotional distress to be used easily to stifle the free speech of others. It is too easily abused. Anyone can claim distress and this would hold rights ransom to the emotionally weakest member of a community. I remember reading one Christian book explaining why sin should be outlawed and it argued that victimless crimes actually do create victims: Christians. It argued that since Christians are offended by the existence of gay people to allow gay people to to enjoy their equal rights is inflicting emotional damage on Christians. Of course there is no stopping that argument: Nazis would be offended by the existence of Jews, communists by the presence of private property, etc.

On the other hand there is clearly a great deal of emotional stress placed on a family when they are burying a son, a husband or a sibling. We all recognize that people are very emotional fragile at such moments. And surely having the fanatical Phelps family shouting hate during such a moment does cause legitimate emotional distress. It doesn’t have to be faked. And I’m surprised that more people have not simply lost it and knocked the teeth out of the mouth of some of these morons to simply take a shotgun to them.

And if someone did, and I was on their jury, I’d be rather inclined to go for as slight a penalty as is legally possible, if exoneration is not possible. If there is such a thing as a clear case of provocation then the Phelps family is it.

Yet that is precisely what Fred Phelps wants to happen. He needs to have his family alienated from the world in order to keep control over them. He wants them to feel threatened by the rest of society since that creates the cohesion that binds them. A cult often intentionally pushes their members to act offensively in order to create incidents where the members seek safety and acceptance within the confines of the cult alone.

Certainly what is said, and how it is said, can make a huge difference in the impact it has on others. A man writing a tract about the evil nature of Jews, for instance, who claims they are children of Satan is not violating anyone’s rights. If he were leading a rally of Nazis and then pointed out a Jew and screamed that this one man was a child of Satan, and harming the community, and his soldiers attacked the man and killed him, I would see a strong case for saying the speaker was also part of the conspiracy to deny that man his life.

And this gets to the area where I think libertarian theory is weak -- boundaries. The principles are good but sometimes there are grey areas where boundaries are not clear. Is it a violation of freedom of speech to prevent abusive individuals from spewing garbage at someone’s funeral? Given the reality of public streets and so forth it would be damn difficult to have a funeral service and burial without using public roads. So the property issue doesn’t solve it under these conditions.

Public property is where the conflict arises. If the Phelps kept themselves in their compound no one would give a damn about this band of lunatics. But they don’t. They use the public streets to get as close to mourners as possible in order to abuse them emotionally. And under current conditions it is impossible to for most funerals to be conducted without using the same public road system. Communal ownership creates a conflict. In light of the undeniable fact that socialized streets exist, what is the most rational way of allocating their usage in such conflicts?

Clearly the roads can’t be used for all things at all times. I tend to think that a road or sidewalk should be predominantly used for the purposes it was intended for. At the same time I see it necessary to provide reasonable access for alternative purposes. A street may be periodically closed for a “street fair” or a sidewalk may be used for a picket line. But not just anytime that someone demands. And there is no libertarian theory to answer this except to privatize, but the question is what to do in the meantime, isn’t it?

I wouldn’t ban the Phelps cult from picketing. At the same time I see no reason that they must be allowed to verbally assault others at a funeral. They are using private citizens as fodder for their message and imposing on them unfairly. On the other hand I think people should be free to protest politicians at any opportunity provided they aren’t actually disturbing a private event.

The reality is that there is a mess of issues and conflicts that result from the mixed system that we have -- largely private but also largely public. And there are issues where our libertarianism doesn’t have good answers. At some decibel level a protest chant becomes a nuisance but principles don’t determine where that is.

Historically I think the modern courts have done a fair job in working out just ways to deal with many of these problems. The “bong hits for Jesus” ruling by the Bush supreme court was a major case that went entirely the wrong way and was a blow against free speech, however. So my confidence in the courts does not apply to the current Supreme Court.

Sometimes the mixed system of public/private ownership creates conflicts that can be resolved, in the current situation, in an arbitrary manner. And perhaps their are some boundary issues where libertarian principles don’t have a clear answer and the only answers are arbitrary as well.

If that were the case I wouldn’t find myself grieving too badly if the Phelps were free to picket except when the roads and sidewalks were needed for other legitimate purposes -- such as a funeral for instance. H.L. Mencken wrote that “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” Surely if there are scoundrels around then the Phelps family qualifies. I wish things were a bit easier. I want to throw up my hands and confess: I don’t know where to draw the line in difficult situations like this.

The reality is that I don’t know how to resolve this conflict. It will take someone far younger than me to have the certainty that only comes from deep rooted inexperience to tell me that it’s really very simple after all.