Monday, December 13, 2010

The Westboro Baptist Church: Masters of Frontloading

Alfred Hitchcock used to say he spent so much time planning a film, by the time it came to film it, it was almost anticlimactic for him. 

Quite often, people on the Internet start talking (and complaining) about films so far ahead of time, by the time the film comes out, they're so exhausted they don't bother seeing it. Some who read all the hoohah make the mistake that the film must have already come and gone, as the discussions took place weeks, even months before the release.

We're rapidly getting to the point where we won't even have to make the movies.  As soon as Hollywood can figure out a way to monetize the vehement fannish discussions, the need for the actual film will be eliminated.

The Westboro Baptist Church seems to have gotten this down to a science.  They're the folks who gained infamy and general animosity by showing up at the funerals of soldiers who died in the War On Terror and protesting.  Not protesting the war, or the soldier in question; odds are they didn't even know who the soldier is.  They protest the fact that people are starting to consider the the idea that homosexuals are anything other than sub-human abominations against the creator.

Their "God Hates Fags" banners have appeared on almost every news show in the country at some point or another.  The news that they're coming to a town near you sparks the kind of communal preparation reserved for natural disasters.  People make plans to go to whatever event the church intend to dsrupt, the news media talks about it endlessly, and all told, they get more face time before the event than they could if every single news outlet filmed them for the entire time they protested.

And they've gotten that figured out.  They have realized that with the amount of play their very name gets, they barely have to show up at the events at all.

Case in point, the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards.  the Westboro folks sent out a press release that they planned to protest at the funeral of the wife of former Senator, failed Presidential candidate and Only Human John Edwards.  The news media and public reacted as if NAMBLA announced they were going to go to Disneyland.  An astounding twelve hundred people attended the funeral, bearing signs and forming a human wall, protecting the mourners from hearing the hatred coming from the protesters.

The Church sent five.

Not five hundred...five PEOPLE.  One of them may have been a Real Doll.

Again, they've successfully front-loaded controversy.  They got everyone whipped up to a frenzy, made sure their message was heard, and didn't have to lift a finger.  The only reason they showed up at all was if they didn't, it would make them look like they backed down.  All they had to do was send a token force, hold up signs for ten minutes and leave.  Saves a fortune in airfare.

It's similar to what happened at the San Diego Comic-Con last summer.  They didn't have to send a separate force - they were already planning to protest Al Gore's energy conference (I guess they assume only faggots care about the air, or something) and as long as they were gonna be there anyway, sent out a release saying they were going to protest the SDCC, half-heartedly citing the lewd nature of comics today. Fandom organized and set operations in play more quickly than the legendary time a diminutive author extolled the joys of a bathtub of Lime Jello.  Dozens, possibly hundreds of fans lined the street in front of the convention center, with a range of glorious costumes and witty signage.

The Westboro crew sent three. Each holding two signs.

It was viewed as a tremendous victory for fandom and inclusion.  But again, the fans got one day of news coverage, the Church got WEEKS, off of what was essentially a last-minute thought.

They will eventually get to the point where they won't even bother to go. They'll mail the signs to the event and hire a couple temps.

But by talking about them so often, and for so long, they are given more power than if they showed up by the truckload and took the event sites by force. 

Heck, look at that guy in Florida who said he PLANNED to burn the Koran.  No reputation, no evidence of intent, something like thirty-five followers, and he got an call from the President and an audience with the guy building Park 51, the misnomered (and curiously forgotten because the story got old) Ground Zero Mosque.  All he did was SAY he was going to do something..

Think of the words of Hopper from A Bug's Life:

Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! 

These people have no power, save that which we grant them.  Back in the day, people like this were branded "Kooks", got laughed and pointed at for a while, and they went away.

So this is a better plan?


  1. "These people have no power, save that which we grant them." It's like what my mom used to say: "Ignore them, and they'll go away." Of course, idiots like the Westboro Baptist Church often take longer to get bored and go home, which is why we must ignore them with all our might! :-)

  2. As the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, the newspapers of Utopia would be rather dull. And, unfortunately, it takes much more effort to ignore the rude and unpleasant than most people are willing to summon. We are in a society where, for better or for worse (and it usually turns out to be worse), News has been dictated by Ratings. And if news outlets were to try and ignore an event featuring the Westlake people, they'd be in constant fear that a Competitor would send someone out to cover the event in the hope that something would happen (and there'd be an even worse fear that Something Would Happen). As much as newspeople dislike being thought of as pandering to the lowest common denominator, they dislike being thought of as being Out Of The Loop even more. As long as this frame of mind exists, the Westlake so-called "church" will continue to thrive.

  3. (borrowing a Peter Falk moment here) Ah, just one more thing. It is said that the Devil cannot tolerate being mocked. Perhaps a solution can be found from a related situation. I refer to perhaps one of the finest and most underrated entertainment venues of 2010: The Hitler Rant. For those of you who haven't experienced this, go to YouTube and dial it up. Basically, people have taken a movie scene where Adolf Hitler is throwing a wall-eyed hissy fit at his commanders, and they rewrite the subtitles to fit some totally off the wall subject. So you have things like "Hitler Learns Heath Ledger Didn't Win The Oscar", or "Hitler Learns Michael Jackson Has Died".

    So it is that one of the most despicable monsters ever to walk on two legs has been reduced to the level of a clown. And the sound you hear is that of Mister Chaplin snickering in his grave.

    A similar (and timlier) solution, perhaps, could be applied to the people of Westboro.

  4. Thanks for your two intelligent, thought-provoking responses to this Westboro blog post, Michael! On a related note, I seem to recall Mel Brooks saying that he was inspired to write THE PRODUCERS because the best way to defang monsters like Hitler was to ridicule them (and so entertainingly, too).