Religious Lunatics


This is too ridiculous to pass over. It seems that the crazies–led by the Rev. Fred Phelps–from Topeka’s (that’s Kansas) Westboro Baptist Church are at it again. That’s right, the same people who protested Colorado State University’s official response to some fraternity and sorority’s float in a 1998 homecoming parade by parading around with signs that say “God hates Fags” and “When a fag dies, God laughs.” Anyway, the float gained “notoriety” because it displayed some not so subtle references to the brutal murder of Mathew Shepard, who had recently been beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, WY. Shepard’s body, when discovered by law enforcement, resembled a scarecrow, an image subsequently picked up by the press. The oh so sensitive CSU fraternity/sorority members decorated their float with a scarecrow and a number of different homophobic epithets. Not too subtle. CSU rightly suspended all students involved and dissolved their Greek organizations immediately. From ABC news:

A fundamentalist church whose members demonstrate at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and believe God hates gays will protest the Academy Awards and the funeral of Heath Ledger, because the actor played a gay cowboy in the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain.”

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., are trying to find out where the 28-year-old actor’s funeral will be held and have already made signs to hold outside the Oscars that read “God Hates Fags and Fag Enablers,” “Heath in Hell” and “Mourn for Your Sins,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the church’s controversial founder Pastor Fred Phelps, told ABCNEWS.com.

Though Ledger was not gay, the church believes he “misused the giant megaphone given to him by God Almighty to speak the truth about fags,” Phelps-Roper said, and instead “used his position of prominence to say God is a liar and that homosexuality is not an abomination.”

Read the rest here

A while back, while browsing at the library I picked up Micheal Cobb’s new book God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence simply because the title just sort of grabbed me. Cobb argues that hate can be thought of as a strategic and useful emotion and that such rhetoric can be thought of as nominalism, which he qualifies as tentatively constructing naming and ultimately, forms of resistance in the forms of life queers are forced to take on by hate speech. This aligning of hate speech/rhetoric with a form of oppositional queer politics resists the liberal, identity politic type of discourse. Here is Cobb’s rather controversial move of “racing queers:”

…the queer’s repetition of strong, authoritative religious hate speech…produces, beyond a literal understanding of the queer religious hate speech, a quality of queer feeling that is rendered more akin to racial minority status then is illustrative of queer practices, affects, desires, or sensations of being minor. Queer evocations of conservative, Christian hate speech—the lingua franca of state sovereign power and control in the U.S.–enables queers to lie about they are, choosing instead an emotional, literary association to racial minority status to be the feeling, rather than the being, that will move their politics along (52).

Cobb concludes:

When we take on the negativity of religious hate speech, then, we can remind ourselves of the intricate and nonsaturated way that the speech and style of representation we engage inimportant exercises of political and cultural recognition might not be so literal, so real and so closed to manipulation. When queers reference the hate of the religious righteious to make the racial analogy, we demonstrate that the religious hate of queers is a position in rhetoric as much as it is an immediate and upsetting emotion. Religious hate is a position that affiliates us with the kind of oppression that is more legible within a public sphere that is religious and not ready to transform and lend full civil rights to queer people: a raced position that has captured at least the emotive attention of a nation…Race’s negativity–the oppositional power of blackness–rather than only offering realistically and rationally described histories of differences also offers an important political mode of critique and sentimental protest, which gives us a rhetorical opportunity to engage the cultural and political sphere at an important, linguistic remove (182).

This is rather optimistic. I wonder how the queer community will take back Phelps religious language that ultimately–as Cobb suggests by borrowing from Agemben–enables the sovereign’s power to decide who lives and dies. I don’t know if Cobb is pointing out something new here, any person who is victimized by hate speech knows that their own lives would exceed the naming because for one, it’s not literal. However, Cobb does point out throughout the book(and hints at it in the passage above) that religious rhetoric lacks particularity–the religious becomes an affect that exceeds reference, language etc., but at the same time yearns for some sort of ultimate authority. Thus, for Cobb, religious hate speech, with its lack of particularity and desire for authority, presents itself as a creative space to rework and reshape “tentative” names. So it is up to the queer to re-shape and re-cast religious hate speech, whether through lying about who they are or appealing to racial analogies. Again, rather optimistic in face of lunatics like the Westboro Baptist Church and the sovereign that helps drive it. Interesting, nonetheless.

10 thoughts on “Religious Lunatics

  1. I walked down to the apartment a few hours after he died. Maybe 200 people and the television trucks and cameras. Of course, by then no religious nuts, but it seemed mostly a bit trendy, with people taking pictures and one neighborhood girl gave an interview to a small television person, saying she ‘wasn’t surprised…because, you know, celebrities…it’s just easier…’ at that point, people were still assuming he’d committed suicide and were not even careful about what they said. She had to be prompted on who Michele Williams was, never having heard of her and got her mixed up with someone else. All of the apartments were dark, except the very back of Olsen’s apartment, which was the top floor and has either a greenhouse or small penthouse on top. Whole-floor condos. The masseur calling Olsen and getting involved with private security detail doesn’t sound suspicious in terms of any foul play, but does sound a bit out of touch. Very sad.

  2. I think it’s sad that religious extremists are scraping the bottle of the barrel by being so intent on hijacking Heath Ledger’s funeral because he played a gay character in a movie simply to get more media exposure.

  3. ” it’s strange to feel sad about such ridiculous death of a stranger…”

    That is itself quite ridiculous, and grossly childish You can’t determine what moves other people to sadness, or decide what should make them sad. People are sad about strangers’ deaths all the time, especially if they had been moved by their work. Extraordinary that you would instead think that ‘mode of death’ by someone would make the death ‘sad’. Dying while saving a baby from a burning building would be sad, but the way you coldly determine how people must feel, I suppose it’s the theatrical silent-movie element that appeals to you, ‘allowing’ you to feel justifiably sad.

  4. “such ridiculous death of a stranger…”

    People’s deaths are not ridiculous by virtue of what the mode is. People die however they do, not to fit in someone’s expectation of what a ‘worthy death’ would be for some ‘stranger.’ An overdose of pills that is mostly not suicide is even sadder. Have you never felt sadness when musical geniuses you didn’t know died? Or does it have to be friends or family or internet buddies?

  5. JdC, you’re right, it isn’t really my job to tell others when and how to feel in reaction to someone’s death, i simply expressed my personal view on the matter – it would be disingenuous for me to claim that i feel sad if someone whom i knew through their work (musical or otherwise) died – correct me if i’m wrong, but death is nothing unusual, people die around us all the time, both relatives, close friends and complete strangers and i don’t see anything inherently sad about death…

    you have to admit though that there are noble/heroic ways to die and sorry/pathetic ways to die – now not speaking of Heath Ledger and his circumstances as i simply don’t know much about it, but just in general – plus i was somewhat sarcastic there with “saving baby” comment…

    i do feel sadness for things that are truly sad (in my estimation), but, of course, it does not mean that others can’t feel sad about things – i didn’t mean to imply that your sadness vis-a-vis the actor’s death was somehow inappropriate, i guess i should’ve worded it better…

  6. “you have to admit though that there are noble/heroic ways to die and sorry/pathetic ways to die – now not speaking of Heath Ledger”

    You say ‘not speaking of Heath Ledger’ but you had originally called this ‘such ridiculous death’. If someone is under tremendous stress, and accidentally overdoses on pills, it is no different from not being able to watch for cars when exhausted and getting run over. No, I don’t think it’s important to differentiate, or at least not in nearly all cases, in noble deaths or pathetic deaths. People’s death is part of who they were and are–if a baby is killed by its mother, or castrated like the maniacal Texas mother did to her infant sometime in the summer of spring of last year, it’s a tragedy, but the way you phrase it makes it almost seem as if the baby had been pathetic for this having happened to it, or that Heath Ledger wasn’t noble enough for accidentally overdosing. If you think death ‘isn’t inherently sad’, you’d have to prove that you were as capable of starkness on the matter as Epicurus was–which I find impressive in his case, but it’s not fully convincing to me either.

    It’s a tone you are involved with, as in “correct me if i’m wrong, but death is nothing unusual,” which may mean that you don’t pay any attention to death since it happens all the time. I don’t know. Do what you want. But Heidegger was actually very profound about death being one’s ownmost potential, because in that way one does own one’s death: I think there may be a sense in ‘not owning one’s death’ that makes it fearful. Extreme thanatophobes like Susan Sontag made careers out of ‘not dying’ (of course Liz Taylor has done this with notable success for almost 5 decades), and her son’s NYTMagazine piece about the last 2 years of treatment were surprisingly interesting. Finally, the tests were not very negotiable or ‘out-wittable’ for Ms. Sontag, all of whose medical problems had been made public and celebrated by herself and her servile armies. She knew this at one point in the report of tests administered, and Rieff says she screamed, understanding the results. ‘That means I’m going to die!’ One knows her precisely at this moment as one of the most selfish individuals ever to become worshipped. After this, he reports that she tried ever more esoteric treatment and was always willing to pay whatever price (and these were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) and make remarks like ‘I don’t CARE about quality of life!’ meaning, even if she were a vegetable and comatose she, Thanatophobe, would nevertheless prefer it.

    I didn’t spend any serious time mourning Heath Ledger, I had not ever even kept up with his publicity after the one famous film, but I’d been moved by that one and also finding he was so much younger than I had thought: In the film, he does not act like contemporary young people when they are trying to affect a vapid or heartless attitude, and this was enough to draw me down there, plus curiosity about the building, since that street is less than a mile from me and I go there quite often. Anyway, thanks for making an effort. I ran into a good bit of extreme vapidity today, and you seem capable of trying to understand that others might find your inability to ‘feel sad’ about the death someone’s work you admired the stranger quality. I don’t nearly always feel it, but I have found that I can also ‘not feel sad’ about some people I’ve known well, and just like Cioran, occasionally even exult in them. What I meant about Heideggers’ thing, the ‘ownmost potential’, is that it makes every death as individual as every life. Now, if you want to tell me something about ‘noble death’, you can try, but I doubt I’ll buy it–although death in heroism is a different thing, and obviously admirable. But what if one does not find the opportunity to demonstrate heroism in death? Does the death therefore become paltry, reducing the human who was admirable until he died in some ‘absurdist’ way?

  7. i’m sure there are hundreds of teenage girls out there crying over Mr. Ledger right this very moment – is there sadness real?

    Yes, you’re right about that (except that I’m not sure Ledger was closely followed by teenage girls, I never read any of his PR stuff–but mostly, much like the ‘outpouring of grief’ for Diana as in all these cases with differing degrees) and what you say about the ‘spin machine’ is somewhat true, but also not precisely: Ledger was a real talent, not one of the bimbos. Some of his work gave the indication of possibly having the potential for more profundity, having already demonstrated it, even though this is easily confused with his role in ‘Brokeback Mountain’, which is then divorced from the vapidity of dating Mary Kate Olsen (that seems a bit un-profound.) Also, I went down after about an hour, before there had been anything other than an AP article on my Verizon page. If you want to know the truth, I could sense no ‘grief’ in the gathering at all. People were trying to do business, and this was the real reason I wrote the first response to this, to contrast the ‘religious nuttery’ with the secular vacuity: In having informed me of this (and I doubt I would have been otherwise), Mr. Ozeri immediately stimulated me to think of the several ways in which the story had been received. As, for example, when I read that they ‘are trying to find out where his funeral will be held’, my first response was ‘yes, they would surely be stupid enough not to be able to find out, wouldn’t they?’ and will think that the viewing in New York is the funeral, etc.

  8. In other words (Christ, I can’t seem to tell where I am in these things and think I’m finished and then just Submit), there is something very depressing in finding that the ‘ignorant religious nuttery’ does not seem that much more unsatisfying than all the digital sense of excitement by the ‘chic crowds’. It was like the laughter at funerals one often associates with the Irish, and that I have seen in my own family. But it isn’t an easy laughter, rather it IS hysteria about the death. I do know I didn’t ‘transfer any fear’ onto an ‘easy celebrity target named Heath Ledger’, because it was so obvious that I had definitely outlived him. Paying one’s respects, though, does not have to mean something false–there are dozens of celebrities, for example, to die in New York every year, and I’ve never visited an apartment like I did this time (although I did go to Ground Zero twice in the early period after 9/11), and have never been to but one memorial service of a celebrity I didn’t know personally. I think refusing to pay respects and refusing to see death as a loss can be quite affected as well–it is not a loss for everyone ever, but it is a loss for some. Death means the person, if loved, is going to not be there and will be missed. No big deal, this is just a few extra thoughts on the matter. Do think Heidegger’s ideas were both things–understanding death and understanding life in light of its inevitable end, as you say. And I’m quite free enough agent to find my interpretation of Heidegger much more important than what he may have meant, preferring myself to him, living or dead, by a long shot.

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