What lies beneath

I watched Louis Theroux’s programme on TV last night. It once again involved the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, or ‘America’s most hated family’ if you believed the tag-line that accompanied the show. It was essentially a repeat of his 2007 show, which also involved the WBC, and saw Louis do what he does best: giving his subjects a sizeable length of rope with which to hang themselves, all through a mixture of gentle questioning and subtle coercing. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before from him, and he really is the master of this particular style of Gonzo journalism. His naive and comforting manner belies a keenness to expose, and the fact that he never lets down his front means that people are only too keen to allow their prejudices to shine forth.

I’m all in favour of this kind of expose, but I also think that subjects like the WBC or American neo-Nazi groups are simply not the sort of targets on which a skillfull practitioner such as Theroux should be concentrating. Firstly, the WBC have only 71 members, so they’re hardly a serious threat to America, or anywhere else for that matter. Secondly, and perhaps of more relevance, they do not represent a group that need to be ‘exposed’. In fact, more ‘exposure’ is exactly what they are keen to gain. They are not a group that hides extreme beliefs behind a public facade, and hence one could argue that in this case that exposure = publicity.

I checked twitter straight after the programme to see what viewers had made of the it. Predictably, there was a lot of bile being chucked around, much of it directed straight at members of the Phelps family, who are at the very centre of the WBC and are also on twitter themselves. Most of the abuse was little to do with their extreme beliefs or despicable behaviour, but concentrated on violent sexual threats to the Phelps women. I’m pretty sure that this will have little effect on the Phelps family, save perhaps to strengthen their own radical beliefs. It’s also clear that two wrongs don’t make a right, and the fact that all members of the family are well into 4 (or 5) figures for ‘followers’ does add weight to the ‘publicity’ argument. It would be terrible to think that even one viewer was tempted to side with these lunatics after such a programme.

Last night’s documentary once again focussed mainly on their picketing of US servicemens’ funerals, which they claim is just retribution by an vengeful God for America’s toleration of homosexuality. Now this is such a mental claim that it hardly needs a journalist of Theroux’s skill to extract it from them. The WBC are happy to attempt to justify this lunacy to anyone who challenges them (as we saw last night). The fact that they disrupt and pour scorn on the funerals of servicemen is disgusting, but surely this is a matter for the police? I actually found it rather difficult to get angry at last night’s programme (unlike most of twitter) which is undoubtedly not the reaction that the film’s makers would have wanted. This was partly because it’s exactly the reaction you feel that the members of the WBC would have wanted. In addition, their behaviour is so appauling and their logic so distorted that you feel almost totally disconnected from their arguments and the need to argue back. Trying to reason with these people would be pointless, bearing in mind that their reasoning is so deluded in the first place.

The only truly tragic part of last night’s story was the interviews that Louis conducted with the children involved with the WBC. These were clearly perfectly reasonable and pleasant kids, who had simply been brainwashed by their parents. It is the job of every parent to instil the right values into their kids; values such as tolerance, generosity, politeness etc. It’s also necessary for kids to be able to challenge the beliefs held by others, but to see a 6 year old being handed a ‘God hates fags’ placcard was distressing. A clear example of how nurture can override nature, for the worse.

Overall, I’m not sure what positive outcome the programme could have hoped to achieve. I’d much rather have seen Louis infiltrate the BNP or EDL. These are organisations with a growing and worryingly high membership. They are organisations who wish to become mainstream, and realise that this is a realistic aim, given the racial tensions that run high in many parts of the country. They also realise (particularly the BNP) that by putting on suits and ties and placing a Cambridge-educated chap at the front of the pile in Nick Griffin, they can bury their racist centre, and create a front of electability. These are the sort of organisations that need to be exposed for the danger that they respresent, not the up-front nutters of the WBC. Louis Theroux is exactly the kind of person that’s needed to prove that the BNP et al are no different from the ‘braces and bovverboots’ thugs that characterised the racism of the 80s. There aren’t any fundamentally reasonable people who believe in the values of the WBC, but there are some misguided people of limited intelligence who can’t see through the veil that the BNP have drawn over themselves.

Time to expose what lies beneath…