On Thursday, March 3rd, the nation opened its news feeds and collectively wished we didn’t have a first amendment, as the Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. These are the bastards that go about protesting soldiers’ funerals, holding colorful “God Hates Fags” signs, and reminding us why America sucks: we’ve let the lib’ruls and the gays and perverts corrupt our children, and now God has it in for us.
I don’t particularly care about this Supreme Court ruling, but Westboro hits the news cycle about every other month, and this month happened to coincide with my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s How To Read Lacan. This combination got me thinking about the great potential we have (but which will never be realized) in the Westboro klan.
Repression and the Return of the Repressed are One – Jaques Lacan
When Colin Powel made the case for the Iraq invasion before the UN, the US delegation demanded that Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the catastrophic German bombing of Spanish civilians, be removed. The US claimed it was not statesmanlike given the occasion, but of course this was a farce. The funny thing is that nobody would have noticed if a big deal had not been raised over it. When you repress, your repression returns the favor by cropping up in other ways (like how teetotalers discharge stress by becoming enourmous gluttons instead of alcoholics like normal people do).
Unwritten rules are the most insidious to break. Zizek imagines a story in which you are listening to a state speech during the Stalinist purges. A man stands during the speech and cries out, “Comrade Stalin, the government is corrupt!” As the guards close in on him, you stand and shout, “Comrade, be quiet you fool! Don’t you know that we don’t talk about the corruption?!” The guards will be sure to shoot you first. In the same way, when you pull out your driver’s license for the cop that pulls you over, you experience true horror when the cop, noticing you have let a hundred dollar bill slide our of your wallet with a wink, exclaims, “You are trying to bribe me?!” Plausible deniability exists until we name the unwritten rule, which is why we never name the unwritten rule. The exception to this rule is twofold: alcohol and Facebook- two things that remove our better social inhibitions and allow us to truly express the unconscious (much in the same way that to truly know somebody, you should see how they behave in a virtual Second Life, where the social inhibitions of unwritten rules are removed). Unwritten rules are so sacred that when we speak them aloud, or God forbid, break them, we commit the highest social sin. This is why Westboro spooks us.
Westboro believes God hates homosexuality, that gays have made a choice to live in immorality, and that America has turned its back on God (who is now pissed) with its liberal rights. They put the logical extent of religious ultra-right-wing belief into practice, evangelizing to lost culture as they enthusiastically carry their message forward. Is this not, more or less, what at least a third of America truly believes? The horror of Westboro is not that they believe God hates fags, but that they say God hates fags.
Belief doesn’t matter much. You can believe whatever you want. But, we unconsciously say, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t act as if you believe it.
This is the gift I claim that Westboro offers us. Their blessing is that we have a chance to recognize the horror of these beliefs, see them in ourselves, and repent, but we won’t. We wont recognize the plank in our own eyes as we judge them because of a second, far more insidious psychoanalytic concept from Freud.
Fetish Disavowal, or Why Batman is the Villain and Westboro is the (Potential) Hero
I would love to rewrite The Dark Knight to the tune of reality, where the Joker gets his way as Batman murders him while ferry passengers blow each other up. Bruce Wayne has the resources to recreate himself as a private, one-man, high tech army, and nobody notices. He has so much wealth that all he must do is sleep through a board meeting once a week, resting up to beat up bad guys on the weekend. This is why Batman is the true villain; instead of beating up bad guys, how much more good would be done in Gotham if his vast rescourses were used instead to fund job training, education, and so forth? But no, in order to mask his true potential (along with his horror and waste), he plays the part of a hero. This is pseudo-activity. The true enemy of progressive activity is not passivity, but this type of pseudo-activity which is expressed by Disavowing the horror of reality by redirecting attention into a Fetish symbol.
Again, Westboro should be a sign of the weakness of this ultra-rightist, religiously oppressive belief, but fetish disavowal will save the day.
I notice that some of the most outspoken critics of the Westboro Baptists are people who share the gist of their political belief (if not their expression). So what does one do when feeling anxiety due to people (whom you agree with) breaking the unwritten rules about what is acceptable to say? You sacrifice them!
So while the Westboro Baptists should be taken as a critique of religious oppression and fundamentalism, it is instead a symbol for millions of Americans to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (my unconscious which agrees with them)! Instead, look at those angry zealots!”
And thus, Westboro will continue to be in the news, because we continually need to sacrifice in order to justify ourselves. Let Batman continue to play the hero, and please don’t point out the Guernica!
by Tad Delay