A city of the plain

The state capital of Kansas is Topeka. With its population of 122,000 it is overshadowed by Wichita, with 344,000, and followed by Lawrence with 80,000. Other Kansas towns count 45,000 at the most from 200 up. As is so often the case with capital cities if they are not at the same time the social-economic and cultural hub of their state or country, Topeka is grey and faceless and lifeless and boring. Similarities can be found all over the world. My own The Hague, the Dutch government residence, is incomparable to Amsterdam, the main vibrant city in the Netherlands. Washington D.C. cannot stand in the shadow of New York City or Los Angeles, or Chicago for that matter, where the real life is taking place. Canberra is a mere village compared to Australia’s Sidney. Brasilia, forever the city of the future, may be an interesting architectural experiment, yet no comparison can be made with either Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. Bonn in the old days, before unification, was a backwater compared to Berlin and Munich and a couple of other German cities.

Topeka, Kansas, doesn’t really find its master in bigger Wichita. This city may be the economic center of Kansas, with its prime industry being aircraft production it is attracting a population of engineers who, though innovative in their professions and able to enjoy a quite affluent lifestyle, do not stimulate the creative environment a booming culture needs. The arts in Wichita are not world shocking; instead of supporting cultural innovation the music scene is conventional, with orchestras playing the same old, same old, and ballets dancing the same old too; actors play mostly traditional theater; the visual arts are no more than provincial, with a small and interesting contemporary university museum, the Ulrich, as the exception; mind-baffling architecture is non-existent; contemporary literature absent. Funny, Wichita appears to have a lively and open gay scene, more active than its competitor, Lawrence, where this would be expected. Wichita is sort of Rotterdam as opposite to The Hague (government center) and Amsterdam (cultural center) in the Netherlands, a no-bullshit-workers’ town. In Kansas, Lawrence is clearly the cultural hub; just east of Lawrence, Johnson County, a huge conglomerate of suburbs divided only by the Missouri River from the real Kansas City in Missouri, is the state’s … uh … Beverley Hills. Their Nerman Museum, by the way, is really worth a visit.

Topeka is merely the nest of politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, lawyers and other carpetbaggers – small scale duplicates of what crawls up from the deep stink holes in Washington D.C. Is it the smell of discreet corruption that hits the nose as soon as one ventures out into Topeka’s streets? As in so many government seats the streets are neat and clean and well-maintained and rather lifeless; the city is lacking a seedy district, a ghetto such as D.C. has, this shameless gathering on the Potomac. Topeka is a city full of decent people, very petit bourgeois; half of them may be involved in breaking the law, or even the Constitution – but they do it strictly legally. Profit as everyone nowadays knows has nothing to do with justice, only with law, and profit and the law are respected in Topeka like nothing else.

In other ways, too, and like so many other American state capitals, Topeka resembles Washington D.C. The Kansas State Capitol building is a classic American state house, an immense stone building with a floor plan in the form of a Greek cross, each wing featuring columned porticos, and the whole topped by a massive dome. The resemblance with the nation’s Capitol in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial, and other public architecture in between, is striking. The classical architecture suggests the timelessness of power and civic virtue. New as it was to history, America was the consequence of Athens, the reflection of Rome, the future of the world just as those bygone empires were its past. Yet one would think that, because America was new in the world, Washington’s and Topeka’s and all the other states’ capitol buildings, government houses and additional public architecture should be new also, at least less imitative. Alas, a new and contemporary architecture was never realized for American democracy and officialdom (with only a couple of exceptions). A few 20th century trials in states such as North Dakota (after the previous classical building burned down) or New Mexico resulted in architecture either reminding of Mussolini or something neutral and therefore totally unimpressive. The new empire cherished its classicals more than many old empires did, which kept building contemporary halls suiting 21st century democracy instead of bygone laurels. The new empire also appears to cherish the British Crown more than the Limeys themselves do and, while lacking their own royalty, continues to profess the need of creating imitations, whether in D.C. or in Hollywood, whether the Kennedys or the Jolie Pitts. Funny, how things develop differently from what one should expect, or hope for. And now, in 2012, it is too late to finance change, and America will be saddled up with many classical, outdated, inefficiently planned government monstrosities until the end of day.

Topeka sleeps. The carpetbaggers all walk slow and without making noise, talk slow without producing noise. They are fixers and their job, or their idea of their job, is fixing things quietly if not on the sly. Only one person appears to be wide awake in Topeka and it would be much better for Topeka, for Kansas as well as for the U.S., if this person was sound asleep. His name is Fred Phelps.

Fred Phelps does not deserve anyone’s special attention. Yet, after writing so many congratulatory words about Kansas and the Kansans, I believe I have the right if not the duty to also show their society’s darkest side. I will not go into much detail, for they are too ugly, too dirty; they form a pile of dossiers giving witness to exceptional intolerance and naked hate. Who nevertheless wants to learn the details, I advise to Google ‘God hates Fred Phelps’ at www.fredphelps.com, an anti-Phelps website edited by a gay activist who submits clear and clean information that tells it all. Do not go to Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church home page www.godhatesfags.com unless you already feel the urge to throw up; it is Phelps’ own website and it is a never-relenting piece of smut.

Fred Phelps is “Giving Christians a bad name since 1929.”  He is the godfather of a violence-inspiring hate group built around a core of anti-homosexual theology that makes it its business to picket continuously with slogans such as “AIDS cures fags,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and “America, land of the Sodomite damned.” He and his followers can be seen marching in Topeka’s otherwise so neat streets at least each weekend of the year. They picket many events in Kansas and in other states, especially military funerals, gay pride parades, and political gatherings, arguing that it is their sacred duty to warn others of God’s anger. They have conducted more than 30,000 pickets (Phelps’ own count). Their foul hate speech is, they say, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Each time this is contested, they fight back ferociously. Phelps is a disbarred lawyer, but a few of his children are still allowed to practice law in Federal courts. He and his family members are never-resting persecutors not afraid of accusing opponents of being “sluts,” “whores” and “perverts” and whatever else comes to a dirty mind; vendetta is their trade, perjury amongst the means they use to try and win their cases in court.

“God has elected certain people for salvation before birth,” is Phelps’ doctrine. He and his family members plus a few followers are, of course, members of the elect because they are the only ones not afraid to publish the relevant application of the word of God. His church has only 70-something members most of whom are his family. Four out of thirteen of his children have left the family and the church, and have publicly declared their father’s religious beliefs as nonexistent. “The Westboro serves to enable a paraphilia of Phelps wherein he is literally addicted to hatred.” The church is a planned cult, these children have stated, with Phelps as demigod wielding absolute control over his family and his followers.

One, almost full, quote from the church’s many attacks, of a play about the murder of a gay man: “(…) a tawdry bit of banal fag melodrama – sordid, cheap (…) without the least artistic or literary merit or redeeming social value. Indeed, it’s only purpose is to promote sinful, soul-damning sodomy by playing on the sick, maudlin emotions of doomed, godless America and thereby to recruit ill-bred teenagers to lives of sin, shame, disease, death and hell.” One more: “Their God-hating Jew blood bubbled to the surface” (about John Kerry and Wesley Clark). Another one: “The American Jews are the real Nazis, misusers and abusers of government power.” Looking across the border: “(…) Ireland’s militant sodomite citizenry, steeped for many decades in ignorant, blind, idolatrous Catholicism, belching out their vile fagspeak, slander, and blasphemy against God and His Word (…)” And at U.S. military funerals: “they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom and play taps to the fallen fool.”

His Westboro Baptist Church may have few members, they are active to the extreme. Without doubt there are more followers and not only in Kansas. Some of the cult’s members, including one of Phelps’ daughters, have contested for public functions (such as mayor of Topeka), or Senate or House seats. So far, they never got anywhere. I believe they never will, although it is a sad fact that at one election, not long ago, the Phelps candidate received 30,000 votes, a shocking number. It doesn’t exactly make Topeka one of the “Cities of the Plain,” a sister city of Sodom, Zeboiim, Zoar, Admah and Gomorrah … but it doesn’t do any good to its image either.

His hate speech has taken Phelps into many court rooms yet to only a few convictions, mostly with regard to disorderly conduct and assault and battery. Phelps contests every ban of his actions, fights every group (and there are many) that pickets against him, appeals every court verdict against him. But in this “Free State” of Kansas and in the United States as a whole Phelps, like any radio talk show host who thinks he will get a larger following (and thus more advertizing income) by uttering the foulest of accusations, or any politician who applies dirt-screaming techniques to get votes, can continue his hate labor. I will never understand why Freedom of Speech, rightfully holy indeed, should be without any limits at all, should recognize no decency, should leave Phelps c.s. fouling the streets and people’s minds unaccosted, while peaceful demonstrators for instance against Wall Street’s greed are punished with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and brutal lock-up.

If you happen to be Iranian or Chinese and not fond of your country’s government and express yourself on the subject, the U.S. government will support your right to do so 150% of the way. Not so if you are an American and have an opinion about the American government. One of the many victims of the double standard is Morris Davis, a retired U.S. Air Force lawyer with the rank of full colonel who became a researcher for the Library of Congress. He wrote a newspaper column critical of some government action and was fired by his employers, whose domicile is … the Jefferson Building. How odd … wasn’t Jefferson the guy who wrote most of the Constitution and the First Amendment?

The First Amendment, the one that offers limitless protection of people such as Phelps, Ku Klux Klan members, and book burners, meanwhile is being hijacked by a government that punishes its staff and by universities that punish their professors for having their own intellectual opinion, and by a Supreme Court that decides money is now speech and corporations are now people. Seeing this happen, the architectural reference of America’s state houses to the old Greek democratic past makes even less sense.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, November 2011 

PS – Photo by Risk Hazekamp (Rotterdam / Berlin), taken in September 2011 in Topeka of herself and Tania “Caya” Witte (Berlin) kissing with gay joy in front of the Westboro Baptist Church, dressed in loud pink skirts. The Phelps pickets apparently did not get it.