Keith Allen’s grudge match in Kansas

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Last night I watched a programme on Channel 4 called Keith Allen Will Burn In Hell, in which someone nowadays best known for being the father of a mediocre pop star goes out to Topeka, Kansas, to get inside the cult known as the Westboro Baptist Church. The church have been well-known for years for picketing funerals, first of homosexuals and more recently of soldiers killed in Iraq. They hold up brightly-coloured placards proclaiming “God hates fags”, “Thank God for AIDS”, “Fag Flag” and the like. More recently they have taken to posting their offensive messages in videos on YouTube.

I first heard of the “church” way back when I first got on the net in the mid-1990s at university in Aberystwyth. Among the first things I learned about them was that their website was hosted by Cyber Promotions, owned by the then notorious Usenet spam baron Sanford Wallace AKA Spamford, and when, under huge pressure, the backbone operator AGIS cut Cyberpromo off, “God Hates Fags” went down with them. I also saw a posting attributed to Fred Phelps on some online bulletin board which said, “this country has gone to Hell since we gave women the vote”. Someone else replied to him saying, “you mean, since we freed the slaves … you cretin”.

Watching the YouTube videos recently, the way the family glorify in talking about the minutiae of gay sex is disturbing, but also noticeable was the way the younger Phelpses smile when they finish their lectures. This can be seen in their video “Priests rape boys”, in which the woman reading it smiles with glee at telling us about what priests (as if it’s all of them) do to boys. She reminds me of a Mary Whitehouse Experience spoof of the Scottish TV presenter (of BBC Watchdog fame) Lynn Faulds-Wood, in which she (or rather, a male impersonator) describes something as a “potential death trap” in an exaggerated Scottish accent and then puts on a Cheshire-cat smile. That’s what she looks like: a parody.

Allen starts off his programme by talking about his friend who recently died in a drowning incident, and I’m not sure if his friend was gay but he was a well-known alternative comedian apparently. They even showed his body inside an open coffin. Somehow, Allen started a search which led him to find the Westboro Baptist Church on the Internet. Surprising it took him this long, given that they’ve been known about since the 1990s or even before, and Louis Theroux has also done a documentary on them, but I guess they are not that well-known because they’re not that important. They’re a small group of freaks who put on a bit of offensive nuisance behaviour. If they were actually doing bombings, rather than just praising them, it would be rather different. (If they were praising terrorist attacks in the UK, they would certainly have been arrested by now. In fact, when glorifying terrorism became an offence last year, doubtless they would have been mentioned prominently in the debates leading up to it.)

Allen’s tone throughout much of the programme was snide and sarcastic. For example, when talking about the radio station which interviewed him about the issue, he speculated that the station was full of people who just wanted to be working in LA or New York rather than the little town they were holed up in. In their actual interview, he asks them if Phelps is gay, a question which must have been posed a thousand times or more before. The presenter said he’d like to think so, because it’s hard to think of any reason why someone would feel so passionately about something which has nothing to do with them.

Allen does a lot of interviewing with members of the Phelps family cult, drawing out their usual lurid obsessions with “rectal blood” and the like. He shows the biker groups, like the Patriot Guard Riders or just Patriots, who have formed in order to stop Phelps’s pickets disturbing soldiers’ funerals. Mrs Phelps was of course unimpressed; she remarked on their love of leather, and somehow the conversation got onto the subject of “biker chicks” even though I didn’t see a single female biker among them, and opined that “biker chicks” and “fags” go well together in their leather. He interviewed the guy who makes all their banners, and shows them one by one saying “there’s a good one”.

Allen bombards them with his contempt for not only their obsession with homosexuality but also their religion - and indeed, religion in general. He reveals intimate details about his past sex life, to which Shirley Phelps reacted as pretty much anybody would when confronted with a loudmouthed boor telling her such details: she called it “TMI” (too much information) and told him he could have as much sex as he wanted, as long as it was with his wife. He also finds out somehow that one of the children was born out of wedlock; I’m not sure if this had been public knowledge or if her husband had known about it, but she explained it as a sin she had committed in the distant past and of which she had repented. Towards the end, Phelps thinks he can debate the man he sees the “redneck idiot of the family” under the table, but this also ends up in a shouting stalemate.

The problem is that Keith Allen thinks he can just shock them into silence with his declarations that he doesn’t believe in God and that he’s had however many women in his life, and he does not realise that they have been in this game for years and have heard it all before. Having received an invitation from them, he just acts like an idiot who abuses hospitality. Anyone else would have kicked him out, but they, of course, want the publicity too much. He also fails to grasp basic aspects of religious thinking, such as the difference between having sin in one’s past and repenting and continuing to commit sin and be proud of it. Allen tried to pick out “hypocrisy” in Shirley Phelps’s participation because she had a child out of wedlock, but there is no contradiction, because the Phelps’s campaign is against existing behaviour, not past, abandoned behaviour.

Of course, the Phelpses are freaks, and picketing funerals with lurid banners is just not done. I’ve never heard of this happening at a funeral, even of a rapist or a war criminal. Their own contradictions and ignorance are clear, and were not discussed in this film. For example, they picket soldiers’ funerals calling them a “fag army” and “fag enablers”, but the reality is that life has got an awful lot harder for homosexuals in Iraq since the invasion, as I have personally heard from the mouth of a gay Iraqi man; Saddam Hussain was in fact a secularist and sodomy was actually legalised under his rules. Phelps and a few of his family made a visit to Baghdad before the invasion, but is shown in the film denouncing the Qur’an and insulting the prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). He used the services of a spammer to publicise his “ministry” in the 1990s, regardless of the fact that spam is often indecent, immoral, or fraudulent. However, in this programme, Keith Allen came across as sanctimonious and smug, and managed to lend them something they don’t display in their usual appearances in the media: dignity.

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