May 30, 2009

Celebration of the Majority's Jeering

Justin Katz

Fully expecting scurrilous attacks that deliberately miss my point, I was going to put this one aside, but it nagged at me at periods throughout the day, as I constructed a client's two-flight deck stairs, so here it is: Am I alone in finding there to be something discomfiting about the Providence Journal's making this a front page story?

Hundreds of Rhode Islanders turned out on street corners Friday in opposition to the anti-gay, anti-Jewish message of a tiny group of demonstrators from Kansas. ...

Various counter-protesters chanted — "Go Home" or "Gay is the Way" — and for a short time the shouts unified in obscenities.

The Westboro Baptist Church crew is certainly deserving of jeers, but there's an aftertaste of mocking the infirm to this episode, and a belch of moral preening in making it the stuff of newspaper celebration. Is this really the sort of lesson that we want to teach our young? The Phelps family has absolutely no power but that of controversy; students and others amassing by the hundreds to oppose them is nothing if not safe (one could call it sport, even). And for their public display of the clear majority opinion in the state, they've been rewarded with just about the highest-profile reinforcement that Rhode Island has to offer.

Now, I am absolutely not saying that the counter-protesters should not have participated, and I'm not disagreeing with their general statement. What made me decide to post on this topic, however, was my total certainty that I'd have precisely the same reaction if the "tiny group of demonstrators" were of the left-wing-nut variety and the counter-protesting majority were right-leaning. Promoting such displays of force against minority viewpoints is a precarious principle, even when that minority contributes nothing to the public debate.

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So you find it objectionable for the news service of record in this state to report (front page) that neighbors of Jewish people took to the streets with some of their Jewish neighbors to give these people a good Rhode Island welcome? Are you alone? No. Many people are so enslaved by their political fancies that if they deem it an issue for the other side all they do is ridicule.

Posted by: David at May 30, 2009 8:09 PM

Whom did I ridicule, David? On what grounds do you do me the discourtesy of asserting my enslavement?

As it happens, I didn't think the story out of place on the 7-to-7 blog, last night, and I would have thought nothing of its being covered in the bulletin section of the paper. But a front page, look-how-wonderful-we-Rhode-Islanders-are story about folks (mostly students) making an event of "counter-protesting" five people? No ideology ought to be needed to be uncomfortable with that.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 30, 2009 8:23 PM

Justin, I believe the only mistake made was putting the Providence Journal into the bastion of journalistic professionalism.

I have firmly placed their 'newsworthy' stories somewhere between my MAD magazines and the Lifetime Channel.

The Journal is dying. Don't keep the patient alive any longer.

Posted by: Roland at May 30, 2009 8:47 PM

I did not single you out. I said your response was among the many. Similar to the response from people that refused to belive OJ was guilty or that Mike Tyson did rape that woman. If you take it personally, then it is because of the elephant in the room -aka - rifuture. I also do not single you out for your rightwing sentiments. Plenty of people on the left cannot or will not accept an argument if it is first generated from the right.
I was a 1971 graduate from East Providence High. I am proud of the present student body for their protest to this group and enjoyed the coverage the sadly declining newspaper chose to print.

Posted by: David at May 30, 2009 10:44 PM

Really, Justin, do you want to put yourself in the position of defending anti-Semites?
Let's put aside the whole gay issue for a second. You're asking us to sympathize with a group that pickets, demonstrates and generally raises hell at military funerals. You're insulting a group of kids that stands up to a clan which slaps the families of deceased veterans in the face.
I was in Providence today and saw the veteran bikers on parade around the Statehouse, to the cheers and sign-waving of those who oppose the Phelps clan. The kids and the veterans made me proud to be an American this weekend (never thought you'd ever hear a liberal say that, did you?).

Posted by: rhody at May 31, 2009 12:09 AM

"the news service of record in this state"

Could someone explain the meaning of "newspaper of record"? I assume this is lifted from "court of record", meaning its proceedings are transcribed as opposed to lower courts whose proceedings are not transcribed.

Does this have any real meaning in the newspaper trade, or does it just sound snappy? If I am not mistaken there are now TV stations "of record".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 31, 2009 1:42 AM

"Really, Justin, do you want to put yourself in the position of defending anti-Semites?"

You might as well have asked him when he stopped beating his wife. You know very well that's not what he was implying or advocating. You also know that he doesn't "sympathize" with anything related to this.

I think the point which Justin was trying to make was that the gist of the Projo story (whether or not it was true) seemed to be that of an overwhelming majority which was attempting to squelch the unpopular speech of a small minority, even if that particular minority is literally insane. While I'd hate to make comparisons between that particular group and any other, the whole idea of trying to drown out unpopular speech doesn't seem on the surface to be a good precendent or a very American thing to be advocating, especially coming from a newspaper which relies on the protections of the First Amendment for its very existence.

I don't personally blame anyone who counter-protested what is possibly the most vile family in the USA. Frankly, if I weren't working, I'd have probably joined in the counterprotest myself, esp. since I went to East Providence High School. As has been stated before, they are neither truly "Baptist" in any theological sense, nor a real "church." It's literally an inbred family mini-cult operating under the guise of a church. I've never heard of any Christian church which did not have at its core, the desire to convert people to the faith. If anything, these people drive people away from faith, and more importantly, they distort the idea of who Christians really are in the eyes of those people who may not be. I would hate to think that any students might think that that group was in anyway representative of real Christians. They're just a bunch of nuts and should be treated as such. Optimally, they should be completely ignored.

The problem is that they thrive off of the attention they receive by a rightfully scornful public -- it's their modus operandi. I'd like to think that if they were completely ignored, they'd just go away. I tend to think of the analogy of if a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound. However, everywhere they go seems to "roll out the red carpet" as it were, and lavish undue attention on them, thus encouraging them to keep going back for more. The more people and media outlets who show up and demonstrate against them, the more righteous they think they are in their cause ... whatever the heck it is, and I think it encourages them to keep doing it. It's a tough call in my book, because I don't think they are worthy of our attention. However, because what they advocate is so outside of societial or religious norms, it's difficult to be silent in the face of it.

PS I could not have less disdain for any group. I first heard of them back in 2004 when I was in Washington DC for President Ronald Reagan's state funeral. They "protested" right outside the National Cathedral during the funeral service for President Reagan. It was some of the vilest stuff I've ever seen. What I saw there was a lot worse than was was apparently in EP. One thing that did make me proud however, was that a number of people directly confronted them, including a good number of military members. In there intervening 5 years, they're still doing their schtick, and were still watching. If we weren't there to watch it, would they still do it?

Posted by: Will at May 31, 2009 1:44 AM

Problem is, we tried ignoring them, and they didn't go away. That's when they started hitting military funerals.
It's kind of like ignoring the school bully. I tried that as a kid, and it didn't work.

Posted by: rhody at May 31, 2009 2:31 AM


I really do not understand the OJ or Mike Tyson comparisons; I also don't see what argument I'm failing to accept because it's left-wing.

I'm making a point of style and ethos. Profuse expressions of pride in a group of hundreds of kids for standing up to a powerless group of five outsiders universally acknowledged as wackos can easily slip away from prudence.

Just look at the comments to the Projo article, and others. Folks are attempting to outdo each other in applying scornful adjectives to the group. Some are wishing them dead. As I've said, it requires no ideological bias, or lack thereof, to see why patting ourselves and our youths too enthusiastically on the back for our righteousness in taking entirely risk-free "stands" against such minorities is an impulse that ought to be controlled.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 31, 2009 7:55 AM


I'm not defending anybody, and I'm not encouraging sympathy for anybody. As far as I'm concerned (as I, you know, wrote in the post) the group and its message are irrelevant to my point.

Don't you see? If you establish the principle that we ought to celebrate ourselves, in our majority, for generating massive response to "tiny groups" whose opinions and activities we find vile, all that remains is to expand the definition of "vile."

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 31, 2009 8:01 AM

I approve of both the reporting, and the action. I like the idea that 1) our kids have learned to spot human junk, and react accordingly ( there's always a built-in respect for elders taught to kids. Its good for them to know when to shake it off ), and 2) the projo carrying it helps other kids to learn to markings of this kind of animal, and learn to reject it out of hand faster.

Its a pity violence isn't allowed. It would be a quicker lesson for those things.

Posted by: Chris at May 31, 2009 9:20 AM

And therewith, that which speaks for itself.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 31, 2009 9:38 AM

I steer clear of protests and demonstrations like this because they always conjour images of jackbooted firemen burning books and I have more than enough disturbing images floating around my mind.

Posted by: michael at May 31, 2009 11:03 AM

It's funny hearing this whole tyranny of the majority argument against the oppressed disciples of Fred Phelps. I didn't hear it not so long ago when gay marriage was much less popular.
Justin, there's a larger issue here, if you could just set aside your animus against gays and heteros who support SSM for a moment. It's also an irrational hatred of Jews and the families of deceased veterans.

Posted by: rhody at May 31, 2009 12:10 PM

Rhody,Justin-time out(please)
No one admires the veterans on bikes or the kids who protested what is obviously disgusting behavior more than I.
That said,they wasted their time on trashbags.The Phelps crew just got more exposure,which to attention junkies like them,is everything.
Phelps and his followers do teach us a valuable lesson-if you're going to have sex with close relatives,use a condom.

Posted by: joe bernstein at May 31, 2009 12:44 PM


I'm not sure to whom you're addressing your comments. I made no tyranny of the majority argument... unless you're just raising clichés as a means of making points with a veneer of cleverness.

The animus that you reference is purely in your imagination (or lack thereof, as the case may be), and I'm well aware of the "larger issue." (Check my last name.) I happen to think that there's an even larger issue involved in discouraging moral preening among the majority.

You seem to have difficulty absorbing the critical statement, so I'll type it again: the group and its message are irrelevant to my point.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 31, 2009 12:47 PM


I get your point. It's why I think it's wrong to engage in torture or enhanced interrogation techniques. Those clearly of a larger group protected by the many
around them can do most anything particulaly if the ones having it done too are reviled by the many.

Posted by: Phil at May 31, 2009 4:16 PM

Warrington Faust, I used that term to denote that the Providence Journal has been the most read, the most cited news entity on Rhode Island news. Television news and radio news stations such as WPRO use ProJo news reporting in their news segments. It is a term used in journalism.

Posted by: David at May 31, 2009 5:04 PM

Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press - often strange bedfellows of the First Amendment.

Posted by: Bob Walsh at June 1, 2009 1:45 PM
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