WBC’s image bigger than message

By Erik Hinton

‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Draped in upside-down flags trailing on the ground, flanked by highlighter-bright… ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Draped in upside-down flags trailing on the ground, flanked by highlighter-bright poster boards that proclaimed in bold-faced type ‘God Hates You’ and ‘You Will Eat Your Children,’ and singing a rewritten ‘Jingle Bells’ that went, ‘Off to hell, Off to hell …” the Westboro Baptist Church brought its particular brand of demonstration to Pittsburgh last Tuesday. ‘ ‘ ‘ Protesting the funeral of Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker-Knoll, the WBC was met by a legion of collegiate advocates, church officials and generally concerned citizens who danced, embraced and sang louder in objection to the WBC’s display. ‘ ‘ ‘ However, as I was awash in what Mother Jones’ Kerry Lauerman once called the WBC’s ‘Day-Glo vision of defiant hatred,’ I became increasingly confused. Try as I might, I couldn’t parse out the aesthetics of this church. The group’s Web sites are marvels of Web design that sparkle and whistle with gorgeous Flash content. ‘ ‘ ‘ But what does it all mean? While it might be convenient to pass off the group’s intricate appearance as the product of a frenzied and incoherent hatred, this seems like an insufficient dismissal. As many far-less-radical religious organizations continue to head toward similarly trendy designs, the aesthetics of the WBC is more pressing than ever. ‘ ‘ ‘ As a note of warning, I have no interest in passing judgment on the WBC further than my approach to its appearance. There are few phenomena like the group’s behavior that have attracted a more unanimous response of vilification, and any condemnation I could offer would be a drop in an ocean. In the interest of careful readership, I leave the drum beating to others. ‘ ‘ ‘ Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of WBC founder Fred Phelps, began an interview with The Pitt News with a quote from ‘The Little Mermaid.’ In response to asking about the motivation behind the group’s design, she referred to the Disney classic, citing Scuttle’s phrase, ‘an aesthetically pleasing configuration.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘That’s what our signs are. They are aesthetically pleasing configurations. That fits them to a T.’ She followed this, as seems to be WBC’s interview policy, with a lengthy quotation from the Bible. This particular citation, attributed to the apostle Paul, went, ‘Hope gives me great plainness of speech.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ At first brush, this seems like a reasonable ‘mdash; albeit unconventional ‘mdash; response. The Disney quote grounds the WBC’s message in pop culture, while the Paulian nod grounds it in the Bible. However, 35 minutes later ‘mdash; the length of our interview ‘mdash; after a torrent of allusion to and citation of every source from Genesis to Ghostbusters, I began to look back on these quotes with unfamiliarity. ‘ ‘ ‘ While quotation is typically used to clarify or justify, the disparate tangle of citation had left me confused. The experience was like watching an entire half an hour of TMZ or listening to a Girl Talk album. I was thoroughly stimulated, but in a way that resisted conclusion or unity. ‘ ‘ ‘ I do not think, though, that this was a tactic of distraction or a revelation of the rough edges around a philosophy. The WBC has intricately manufactured its image. Its seams would not show so readily. ‘ ‘ ‘ Rather, the true message of the WBC is a testament to empty simulation. It is not that there is something in its message; its message is that something is missing. ‘ ‘ ‘ As academic Marshall McLuhan once famously wrote, ‘The medium is the message.’ With its neon signs of pastiche sensationalism, the WBC is saying neither ‘God Hates You’ nor ‘You Will Eat Your Children.’ The group’s rhetoric seems to say that its aesthetically pleasing configurations thrive off the armies of opposition that are provoked by its message. ‘ ‘ ‘ As I was speaking with WBC member Jael Phelps during the protest, a child member of the church scurried past and said worriedly, ‘You know [the WBC-opposed crowd’s] signs are going to break easily.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Phelps then explained, ‘He is worried about their signs because they are not protected.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ The fact that he is so invested in sign craft at such a young age is more indicative of the WBC’s character than any profound statement or product could ever be. What startled the youth wasn’t the grand displays of male-male kissing, the choreographed dances to The Time Warp or any other act of the chanting mob of LGBT-friendly activists. It was the construction of their signs. ‘ ‘ ‘ The childlike honesty of this index of the WBC’s indoctrination shows us that the protest ‘mdash; and all the ‘day-glo’ trappings that go with it ‘mdash; is not a tool of the WBC, but its goal. The medium is the only message it has. ‘ ‘ ‘ When I asked Jael what the purpose of the protest was, she replied, ‘The purpose is to publish the message. Period.’ As the WBC’s Web site claims, the WBC is ‘the world’s greatest publishing company.’ Not the world’s greatest church, not the world’s greatest protesters, but the world’s greatest publishing company. ‘ ‘ ‘ The WBC is reproduction, image, print and a body that is no more than the colors and type on its sandwich boards. The WBC is fully simulacrum. How fitting that its spokesman uses Disney quotes, because the House of Mouse is a recurring point of reference for theorists of virtuality and simulation. ‘ ‘ ‘ Surely, the WBC will disagree with this caricature. In fact, when I presented such an image of the WBC to Phelps-Roper, she responded, ‘Oh, what a lot of fluff and nonsense … Those words you just said about, ‘How do you feel about people say …’ blah blah blah. Here’s how I feel. They are big fat liars and phonies, and they don’t believe what they’ve said.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ However, I challenge anyone to cobble together any guiding philosophy of the WBC that is more coherent than its aesthetics. After emerging from a fog of decontextualized quotations and various stick-figure depictions of sodomy, I assure you that your conclusions will be the same. ‘ ‘ ‘ What, then, is the precautionary tale for the rest of organized religion? Guard yourselves carefully against becoming a commodity or a billboard. As churches take over abandoned Wal-Marts, as many companies learn how to exploit every avenue of media and as Bibles feature ever cooler drawings of King David, religion risks losing its message in its medium. ‘ ‘ ‘ The WBC could easily go down in the annals of history as something of a straw man. Writing invectives against the group is about as challenging as making an infant believe you have stolen its nose. ‘ ‘ ‘ However, if we content ourselves with the easy play of censuring them, we lose its valuable position as a signpost. Do not stop protesting its disgraceful displays at funerals and its intolerant words, but recognize the bold ‘The World Is Doomed’ sign as a warning. This is the future of organized religion if churches and synagogues and mosques turn their bankrolls over from religious leaders to ad men. ‘ ‘ ‘ This does not just concern church-goers. Every character of culture is at risk to be lost to halftone and screenprint. The more a message is photocopied and plastered on billboards, the less it means. Somewhere between Fred Phelps and ‘Jesus Is My Homeboy,’ we must take heed and turn back. E-mail Erik at [email protected].