To Speak for the Dead

To Speak for the Dead,


Warts and All: Fred Phelps, an (at best) mixed legacy, and how we remember ourselves


(Note: I do not endorse Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church, their actions or their views.  I cannot repeat that enough)

Fred Phelps is dying, and the general consensus on the internet is that this is a good thing for humanity.  And there are a lot of people in the world who will be better for his passing.  But there is another side that people often don’t know, and it bears remembering as we consider the life of this hateful man.

The startling fact is that if Fred Phelps had died in 1980 he would have gotten all but a hero’s funeral, and if he had died in 1975 there would probably be a memorial to him on the grounds of Washburn Law School—the law school that he and I share as alumni.

Long before he was known for protesting soldier’s funerals, and even before he was known for turning a routine courtroom examination into a medieval ordeal, Fred Phelps was a noted civil rights attorney.  If you go to the Phelps Chartered building in Topeka you can find a fascinating array of pictures of Phelps in civil rights marches, and the man himself proudly said that he helped litigate Jim Crow laws out of Topeka and out of Kansas.

During his law career, Phelps represented African Americans in a variety of struggles against injustice and unfair laws.  He fought school systems and American Legion posts, Kansas City Power and Light and Kansas Universities—Wikipedia has a whole list, some of which I had heard and some of which I hadn’t known.  He was given an award by a chapter of the NAACP in Bonner Springs, Kansas and by the Greater Kansas City chapter of Blacks in Government.

He was extremely religious all this time, and probably held the beliefs that would come to define him later in life.  But he was doing good work in a cause that nearly everyone would agree is just.  He was probably always corrupt in the ways that would lead to his disbarment, but he was using the skills he was taught in order to fight the good fight.  And he was reportedly physically abusive, but would not have been the first public figure who had positive works in public balanced by horrible ones in private.

To Speak for the Dead

So what is the point of bringing this up?  It is certainly not to defend Phelps, his views, or his actions.  I do not, cannot, believe in a God that rejoices in anyone’s death or one that hates anyone for a sexual choice.  I will never condone violence against family members, or anyone save in very limited circumstances.  I have no desire to see a statue built to a man of hate in the halls of an institution that taught me to love justice.

But as a culture we have no room for complex people, and that is to our detriment.  We paint over the warts of our own history to provide heroes that are unfailingly good, and villains that are unfailingly bad.  We remove the humanity of our own past so that we can provide a tidy narrative, and in doing so we rob ourselves of a true connection to the events of the past.  There is no man or woman who has lived that does not have some sympathetic quality, some kernel of shared human experience that deserves to be remembered.

Fred Phelps is not a demon.  He was not birthed from pure evil, and will not return to whatever lies beyond with a legacy that is purely evil.  There are lives in the world that are quantifiably better because he lived.  And while it may never balance out the damage that he has done, it still deserves to be remembered.

And the other side is that there is no good person who has ever been without evil, or at least pettiness and smallness.  Whether because of the limitations of their time (for men such as Jefferson who spoke so highly of equality and yet kept slaves) or because they were simply human (Henry Ford built the modern world, but was shockingly anti-Semitic even for his time).  When we tell stories and histories that sanitize them of their flaws we remove the things that allow us to identify with them.  We turn men like Washington into gods astride the world, and men cannot identify with gods.

It was ironically in the words of another man now noted more for his bigotry than his works, Orson Scott Card, that we can find inspiration for this.  At the end of Ender’s Game and the books that follow it, Ender becomes a Speaker for the Dead.  He founds a group of people who come to tell the story of a human’s life after their passing, the whole story from the positive to the negative.  They don’t hide either side, so that the family can remember the real person, not a hagiography or a condemnation.  So that a real human can be remembered, with all the positive and negative lessons that come from their lives accessible.

And in the end that is the point.  When Fred Phelps passes from this world, tell his story.  Tell the story of a man who hated with all his being and stained a family, a church, and a town with that hate.  Protest his funeral if you want to, because while I would never do it myself I can’t deny the appeal of protesting the funeral of a family that fought for the constitutional right to protest at funerals.  But also tell the story of a man who spent hundreds of hours fighting hate before his life was overtaken by it, and brought a great deal of good to a number of people.  Tell all of the story so that we can learn what the lesson of his life is, and so that someday a person who has done great things and feels the stirrings of hate can learn what that looks like.

Thailand and the American Myth of the Protester

Thailand and the American Myth of the Protester


But why can’t all world problems fit neatly into our preconceived narrative?

Americans love a protester.  It harkens back to the dawn of our country and the stories we’ve told ourselves about the Revolution.  We look at protestors in the Ukraine and we see the Boston Massacre.  We look at the Arab Spring and see the stirrings of our own birth, waiting to be play out across the world stage again.  And sympathy for pro-democratic protestors against an autocratic regime is a storyline that plays well in our psyches.  But the problem is not every protest around the world fits that handy outline, and to try to force them to fit our traditional protest narrative spreads dangerous misinformation and trivializes the actual issues at play.

Enter, then, Thailand.  Thailand has been in a state of protests for several months now, although that really only describes the current round of protests.  It is safer to say Thailand has been in a state of off and on protests since 2006.  This latest round has been especially vicious and noticeable, especially since they have come at a time when other countries like Ukraine and Venezuela are going through similar struggles.  It has thus been popping up in lists trying to explain this wave of protests, as if they’re all over the same issues.  And it’s worth knowing why the protests in Thailand are nothing like those other protests.


Thailand has never had a particularly easy political history.  Since absolute monarchy was removed in the 1932 revolution (a few years after which the country was also renamed from Siam to Thailand) they have had 16 constitutions and charters and 25 coups, coup attempts, rebellions, and popular uprisings.  In that time there has only been one Prime Minister to serve out his full term and only one to be re-elected to a second term: Thaksin Shinawatra.  This would be a notable achievement if he had not later been removed in a military coup and found guilty of embezzling roughly two billion dollars from the government.

Thaksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister.  Like mint jelly.

Thaksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister. Like mint jelly, he’s on the lam.

And that’s where the last 8 years of difficulty come from.  The military removed Thaksin because it claimed he was corrupt, but Thaksin had ridden to power on the backs of a populist movement he used quite adeptly.  He was a former police Colonel from Thailand’s second city of Chiang Mai, and was popular both for his populist policies (universal health care and student loan funding, among many others) and the fact that he was outside the traditional Bangkok power structure (referred to as the amatya, meaning oligarchy or elites).  Of course he was equally hated for his populist policies and for being outside the amatya, as well as his alleged corruption and penchant for extra judicial executions of drug smugglers.

He was removed in 2006 with a coup that happened while he was at the Olympics, which has to lead to an awkward call in the hotel room.  He has stayed out of the country since then, because of the warrant for his arrest initially and then because of the trial and guilty verdict in absentia.  Thailand was ruled for a military junta for a year before they stepped down, and Thaksin’s party was promptly elected again.  That Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2008 and he was replaced by Somchai Wongsawat.  Samak was removed, and this is the absolute truth, for hosting a cooking show while Prime Minister.  Somchai was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2008 as well, making it the Year of Four Prime Ministers (after the military PM Surayud Chulanont, Samak, and Somchai) when Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party (the other party) was elected.  This marked the first time since 2001 the Democrats had been in power, and it was largely because the People Power Party (what had been Thaksin’s Tai Rak Thai party) was dissolved.

Abhsit Vejjajiva, Former PM. Posh Etonian tosser.

Abhsit Vejjajiva, Former PM. Posh Etonian tosser.

During this time, there were internecine protests.  Anti-Thaksin supporters of the Democrats, wearing yellow shirts, seized Suvarnabhumi Airport in late 2008.  In April of 2009 and several months of 2010 there were large scale pro-Thaksin protests by protesters wearing red shirts that crippled parts of Bangkok, and in 2010 resulted in violence and deaths.

In 2011 Abhisit was beaten in an election, since the Democrats are really horrible at winning those, and was replaced with Yingluck Shinawatra.  If that name sounds familiar it is because she is Thaksin’s sister, and the third member of the family to be Prime Minister, since Somchai was also his brother-in-law.  The protests which have been going on since late 2013 accuse her of corruption and being a puppet for her brother to rule from a distance.  They took to the streets when an amnesty bill was proposed in late 2013 that might have pardoned Thaksin and let him return to the country.

Yingluck Shinawatra, former PM.  Probably a tool.

Yingluck Shinawatra, former PM. Probably a tool.

No Good Guys

That sets up what could be a fairly straightforward set of protests.  And if it was just that a group of people, disturbed with the possible amnesty, took to the streets to protest it then there would be no issue.  But the amnesty bill was soon taken off the table, and the protesters stayed.  The government dissolved to hold new elections, and they stayed.  New elections were held, and they boycotted them.  The problem is the leaders behind the protests are not any better.

Suthep, former deputy PM.  Christ, what an ***hole.

Suthep, former deputy PM. Christ, what an ***hole.

The head of these protests is one Suthep Thaugsuban, former MP and also former deputy PM under Abhisit.  A member of parliament from 1979 to 2009, he has been implicated in a corruption scandal involving land sales lasting from 1995 to now, resigned from parliament to avoid being kicked out in 2009 so he could remain deputy PM, and was charged with murder in connection to his role as deputy PM during the 2010 protests.  He is the founder and Secretary General of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the amusingly named organization leading the protests.

It’s amusingly named because the demand that Suthep continues to press is no less than the dissolution of the Thai government and its replacement with an unelected “People’s Council” to oversee a Constitutional reform, before a new government would be elected (presumably).  This unelected council would be overseen temporarily by a royally appointed caretaker Prime Minister (an idea supported by the increasingly ludicrously named Democrat Party), would have 300 representatives from different professions chosen by the members of that profession somehow…but would also include 100 PDRC members involved of course.  What could be more Democratic than a body with 100 “non-political” political appointees along with 300 other appointees dictating government changes to a people who had no hand in their selection.  Incidentally this is not the first time the protest group backed by the Democrat party has called for a royally appointed Prime Minister, as they did so in 2006 before the coup as well, and it is believed by many in country they attempt to disenfranchise as many rural voters as possible.

Battle Lines

So those are the people fighting for the future of our closest ally in Southeast Asia.  On the one side you have the sister of an exiled former Prime Minister who may well be in on the corruption, but leading a party that has decisively won every election since 2001.  And on the other you have protesters lead by a man whose group has the word democracy in it but who is calling for an essentially fascist party appointed by his group to reform the government the way he wants and who is supported by the perennial election losers from Parliament, but who is nonetheless bringing some legitimate points about the influence of the Shinawatra family on politics.

One side is filled with the members of one family and their cronies who want to hold on to power and have abused that power frequently.  The other side is populated by people who desperately want to be in power, and have abused it when they had it—it’s worth pointing out to me that to many the issue with Thaksin was not that he bought votes, but how blatant he was about it.  And one side is filled with people who subvert democracy for their own benefit, while the other is filled with people who increasingly seem to have no idea what the word democracy means.

There are no heroes or villains in the protests in Thailand, and there is no easy narrative that we can lay over it.  To do so removes legitimate grievances and glosses over insane demands.  It is not like other protests in the world right now, where the snipers are on one side or the deposed President immediately asks a bellicose neighbor to invade when he’s thrown out.  There is no universal truth to the current season of protests, and anyone who says there is has an ideology to sell.  The only truth is that the people suffering the most are the Thai people who just want a functional government, and that once you’ve taken a hit of the heady drug of Thai politics the weak American equivalent will never be satisfying.

Thai flag