Fred Phelps is dying, to the internet’s unbecoming glee. A Wisconsin woman has created a Facebook page called Fred Phelps Death Watch, which announces that “1 like = 1 death prayer for Fred Phelps!” The exclamation point makes it fun. “Sometimes it’s easier to make light of an ugly situation and to just laugh at everything,” she told USA Today, missing an important aspect of being good-humored: you laugh at bad things that happen to you. The Westboro Baptist Church brings out the worst in everybody. For example, a Twitter account that once belonged to Phelps’s daughter announced over the weekend that the church would protest Phelps’s funeral.
You will notice that the International Business Times article begins with an update explaining that the story is essentially a hoax, and the funeral-protesting tweet came from an impostor. You will also notice that it is still up. When it comes to the WBC, internet journalism has no interest in fact-checking.
Both The Blaze and the IBT are reporting that Phelps was excommunicated in August, based on a Facebook post from his estranged son. It’s unclear how his son is privy to membership information about his former church/family, but he wrote it on Facebook, so it must be true. The same post contains this observation:
I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.
It’s weird, because most people who devote themselves to God live forever, whereas Phelps’s devotion directly caused his death. Either that, or an 85 year-old pastor dying is not ironic at all.
If the Westboro Baptist Church does anything, though, it encourages people to just say stuff. The creator of another Facebook page, Protest Fred Phelps’ [sic] Funeral, explains that his project does not encourage people to protest Fred Phelps’s funeral. “Our page offers Facebook users a place to vent anger and frustration or forgiveness and well wishes,” Nate Phillips says.
It also generates likes and pageviews. More than any other goal—activism, commentary, informative journalism—that seems to be the purpose of the Fred Phelps excommunication/death/protest narrative. That makes sense, since from a broader perspective, that’s been the purpose of Westboro Baptist Church itself.
Arguably, the purpose of any church is to get attention from god. The WBC, though, seemed inordinately interested in getting attention from the press and general public. It’s hard to argue that they wanted to shape policy or even engage in discourse. Protesting the funerals of cops and soldiers does not win people to your cause. The church can’t even properly be called evangelical, since membership is mostly limited to the Phelps family and people who married in.
You’d think the WBC was a performance art collective, if everyone involved didn’t live in Kansas. As it is, Westboro Baptist is stubbornly arranged against sense-making. It must surely do or mean something, but what?
I suspect that the active nonsense of WBC’s behavior lies behind the internet’s tendency to embrace fake stories about it, in the same way that clouds encourage us to see weird shapes. Confronted with disorder, we make our own sense. It can’t just be that Westboro Baptist is a bunch of crazy people, and the internet has elevate descriptions of whatever crazy people do to the level of journalism. Fred Phelps, his nutjob family and his inevitable death have to tell us something about The Way We Live Now.
Maybe it tells us that we are not ready for daily confrontations with nonsense. The internet brings us a deluge of narratives every morning, some of them made up and many inconsequential. Yet we are conditioned to embrace any kind of widely disseminated information as news. Putin invades Crimea, crazy church protests pastor’s own funeral, and cat plays piano all reach us through the same medium, and our instinct is to process them in the same category.
I don’t know what to do about that. Probably our children will not understand our susceptibility to fake internet news, nor our panic when narratives beamed to us from around the world do not make sense. It will all just sort of wash over them during breaks at the Lan Duong Holo-Screen Factory. For now, though, we live in vexing times. Probably nothing you read on this screen is true. But are you really going to stop looking at it?