At 5:10 p.m. Wednesday, the celebrity gossip web site TMZ put up a simple picture. Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, smiled and waved to the site’s celeb-salivating readers under a headline that read, “Jerry Falwell: 1933-2007.”
The Baptist preacher and political activist had died in the early afternoon after being found unconscious in his office at Liberty University.
The comments thread quickly filled with comments like this (there were several outliers whom I commend for their decency):
“No loss. It came 20 years too late.”
“Sometimes a picture says it all.... Burn in hell Jerry, Burn in HELL!”
“That's anything but wrong. He caused more hate than any one person should in a single lifetime. He's burning in Hell as we type.”
“First class a**hole..now worm food...the world finally makes sense.”
“THAT MAN SPEWED NOTHING BUT HATRED SHEER HATRED!!! WELL HE IS FINE NOW DONE IN HELL WITH HIS GOD”
This isn’t one of those columns that picks on the left-wing blogosphere for its appalling lack of civility, although I’m wont to do that when the lefties take joy, as they’re wont to do, in earthly demises and Internet death-wishes for political enemies. There was plenty of that on the left side of the Internet for Rev. Falwell, but that’s to be expected.
What struck me about the TMZ thread is that TMZ is not a political site, at all. It’s a celebrity gossip site frequented by the young, Internet-savvy, often nasty, and mostly politically naive.
It is a site that generally takes no interest in politics or political figures unless Cameron Diaz is chomping her Chiclets about how the Bush administration will instate rape as an inalienable right for white, Southern males.
And yet, the audience and authors who are known for their noble and never-ending quest for the perfect nipple slip fell instantly and easily into the vilest of insults for a man who had just hours earlier slipped the surly bonds of earth.
And, what grave sin of Falwell’s had TMZ readers just ROFL their AO?
The TMZ Tinky Winky graphic was a reference to a 1999 incident in which the National Liberty Journal, a Falwell publication, printed a whopping 213-word unsigned item titled, “Tinky Winky comes out of the closet.” It included this bile-laced, acerbic warning to Christian parents about the purse-toting character:
These subtle depictions are no doubt intentional and parents are warned to be alert to these elements of the series.
Wow, in the words of one TMZ reader, that man spewed nothing but hatred, sheer hatred, huh?
The national media went straight to work ridiculing Falwell, painting him as a screw-loose spoiler of sexual liberation who saw gay monsters under every bed, never mentioning that People Magazine, the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post had all delighted in Tinky Winky’s subversive sexuality just months earlier. It was those reports that triggered the National Liberty Journal item in the first place.
TMZ readers likely know little about Falwell beyond his media-inflated hatred for Tinky Winky, and yet on their vague and inaccurate understanding of him as that “conservative, Christian dude who goes after gay cartoons,” they felt more than comfortable rejoicing in his death.
There is a handful of people who bring out this behavior, even in the politically uninformed and unconcerned. They all happen to be old, conservative, and usually Christian. They’ve all been so effective and prominent as conservative leaders that their names are well-known, even among the apolitical. And, they pay a price for it.
When their names come up on celebrity blogs or at college parties, it’s virtually socially required for all in attendance to express their revulsion, no matter how little they know about the figure at hand. Reagan’s name requires a scornful reference to “Reaganomics” and usually some mention of his “intentionally inflicting” the AIDS epidemic on the gay population. The mere mention of Jesse Helms’ name nearly brings 20-somethings to spit upon the floor, you know, “because he, like, hated brown people and everyone, right?”
There are social dividends paid for bashing such men and prices to be paid for defending them. It’s the ultimate in uncool to even suggest that the man who defeated the worldwide threat of Communism and ended the chance of mutually assured destruction might be worthy of praise. It’s tragically unhip to suggest that a Reverend who started two active charities for alcoholics and unwed mothers might not have hatred in his heart for every minority and sinner he ever met.
However, mention Che Guevera or Saddam Hussein in the same settings—among the young, politically uninvolved, and default liberal—and you’ll find people are much less sure whether they were bad guys.
Che was a mass murderer who once wrote of his exploits killing the blindfolded and bound: “It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches, and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in.” On a TMZ comment thread, he’d be lauded as the “revolutionary we’d most like to wear on a T-shirt.”
Saddam killed and enslaved millions of Iraqis for more than a generation, but on a TMZ thread, he’d likely be hailed as “better than Bush.”
It’s not nearly as trendy to hate on mass murderers as mainstream conservative political leaders.
Which makes me think that if a celebrity gossip blog is ever saying you should rot in Hell for spewing nothing but hatred, someone much more important is likely saying, “with you I am well pleased.”