Charlie Sheen, Fred Phelps, and American Democracy

Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family.  This blog was originally posted in our member newsletter.

As a parent I must admit there are days when I think that the world, or at least the American media, is conspiring against me. I hardly see myself as overly protective or one that goes to extreme lengths to ensure my children are only exposed to the “right” kinds of things. I wish I could say that my kids are more familiar with Beethoven than Lady Gaga but that wouldn’t be true. I’d like to pretend they spend all their out-of-school time in much the same manner as Amy Chua’s girls (she of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother fame). Chua’s daughters are the ones who’ve become famous recently for never having a sleep-over, practicing their violin a thousand hours a day so they can perform at Carnegie Hall by age 14, and fully comprehending that A- is a grade for “losers” (Ms. Chua’s word, not mine). But I’m sorry to admit that my kids do have sleepovers, they sometimes get B’s, and they watch television far more than they’ve ever practiced their musical instruments. I confess that they’ve even occasionally watched an episode of Glee or The Office although I cringe as I admit it.

In spite of my many parental shortcomings, I try to ensure that what the kids are exposed to is in good taste and that they are seeing at least as much of what’s great about our history and culture as they are of “the other stuff.” At one time, I felt that encouraging my kids to watch the news was a good way for them to keep up on current events. But that idea has been on a slippery downhill slope for a number of years and finally hit rock-bottom in recent days. This week’s US news has been dominated by a constant barrage of nearly incoherent ramblings from an American celebrity named Charlie Sheen. It seems that everywhere you turn and every station you turn to features Mr. Sheen discussing the virtues of a less than virtuous life. He permeates the airwaves in a way that was once reserved for major global disasters or US political elections (those are not one in the same – at least I don’t think they are.) As a parent and a citizen, I find myself wondering, “How can this level of conversation be tolerated, never mind celebrated, by the media?

Then last week, the US Supreme court rendered an 8-1 decision in favor of Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in the case of Snyder vs. Phelps. Albert Snyder is the father of an American soldier, Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.  At Cpl. Snyder’s funeral and at those of many other American soldiers, Rev. Phelps and members of his church hold protests rallies. These protests feature signs, the contents of which are probably inappropriate to quote here. They say, in essence and in very plain language, that God is punishing the United States (and in effect killed this soldier) because gays are allowed to serve in the military and in a larger sense, participate in our society. They celebrate the death as “just desserts” for the sin of homosexuality.

The rationale for having such protests at the already tragic event of a young soldier’s funeral escapes me. The fact that, in this case, Cpl. Snyder was never considered a homosexual is irrelevant, but only makes grasping the fervor and logic of Rev. Phelps and his followers all the more difficult.  It stretches the limits of my mind to ponder why anyone would choose to protest the position of our country on the rights of gay people at the funeral of a person who had virtually no influence over that stance and for all we know, may not have even agreed with it. But while acknowledging the pain and suffering that Rev. Phelps inflicts on the families of soldiers at a time of almost unimaginable grief, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts asserted that “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker” – in spite of the fact that the speaker was the one inflicting this additional pain.

This decision is a powerful reminder that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that is protected by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, and in this instance, we mean freedom of hateful speech. There are times when it’s just plain difficult to accept that the price of freedom includes listening to things that we may see as repugnant and which are aggressively voiced in the most inappropriate of venues. I suppose democratic citizenship always comes with its benefits and responsibilities.

As a parent, I know I should be doing more to ensure the kids are only exposed to the finer things in life; that they never waste time playing senseless games or sports or watching those crazy sitcoms. I should strive to help them remain untainted by the pop culture and worthless pursuits that Ms. Chua condemns so adamantly in her bestselling book.  But on the other hand, I think my kids need to be exposed to all sides of life if they are to be able to fully grasp the complexities of citizenship in an open democracy. Somehow, I don’t think you are able to do that by only breathing rarified air.

My head hurts. I hope I remembered to TiVo that Charlie Sheen interview on ABC last night!

Brad Harrington



The Boston College Center for Work & Family is a global leader in helping organizations create effective workplaces that support and develop healthy and productive employees. Please visit us at
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