Today I was reading that the Supreme Court upheld Fred Phelps’ right to picket and harass military funerals, part of their KKK-esque anti-gay crusade. I don’t have a firm opinion about what the Supreme Court should have done, partly because I don’t have J.D. after my name and I understand my limits of understanding, partly because I don’t have any respect for the SC to begin with, and partly because I have zero faith in law and the rule of law anyway. But having seen Team Fred in action from 40′ away myself, and being nearer fifty years old than forty, it did bring to mind one thing.
In our time, the military is openly, publicly and loudly glorified and adored; even a hint of anti-military scorn would get one a lot of angry reactions. If you are young today, you never knew a time when the military was unfashionable. I assure you that there was such a time: my own youth. Numerous reliable sources relate experiencing verbal abuse and degradation just for being in uniform, and especially for getting off the plane from Vietnam. Evidently it was so common it came to be expected, coped with by service people, and socially accepted to a degree. Which is not to say that the soldiers suffering it were unhurt by it; oh, no. It did at least tip them off to the kind of reaction society had in store for them. I was too young to have a view on this, but old enough to know of the social current. It lasted into the early 1980s, when I did put on a uniform a few times and get some small tastes of it myself. Imagine a ROTC unit that tended to de-emphasize uniformed presence on campus just to avoid stirring stuff up? I was in one.
Now, I am not sure that anti-Vietnam protesters ever picketed or disrupted an actual military funeral. We have general consensus that disrupting anyone’s funeral is disgusting, at any time for any reason. A lot of people found ways to oppose the Vietnam War without insulting Special Forces guys as “baby killer” in airports; fair enough. (Some people are uncomfortable with homosexuality, too, yet don’t approve of Phelps on any level.) But how different were the two extremes, really? How different were the fanatics in the airports, heaping scorn on some poor sod who got drafted and sent to the 1st Cav, survived and graduated, and then wanted to come home and get back to normal, from the Phelpsites I saw in a vacant lot in Pasco holding up signs advocating more military casualties? Fred Phelps and the airport harassers had more in common than I’ve heard anyone attest. Motivated by pure hate, both asserted the right to pour verbal abuse on targets who could not effectively fight back. The only difference today is that it’s no longer fashionable to abuse the military. Sadly, if Phelps had stuck to just disrupting funerals of AIDS deceased, there would be nowhere near the backlash against him, even though his conduct would be just as contemptible.
I sit, and I watch, and I marvel how social currents change people’s ethical compasses without most people noticing.
© 2011, J.K. Kelley
Addendum, nine years later: I read these words from my past in light of four years’ concerted effort to remove all democracy from our republic, and I think this: If a client had come to me in my capacity as an editor, presenting me with speculative fiction like the past five years, I would have had serious misgivings about it. I look back now and see a wannabe dictator mocking a POW veteran and not losing many supporters, and I see just how variable people’s ethical compasses truly are. And it confirms my belief that a fluid ethical compass is no ethical compass at all.