George Pyle: The spirits of bigotry past, journalism present and socialism future

“You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”

— Jacob Marley’s ghost, in “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens

The spirit from the past weighed a lot more than a ghost. And, unlike Marley, it was both expected and appreciated.

It was a package, tall and very thin. Inside was a large homemade picket sign. On one side, in very large block letters, “THE F-- RAG,” referring to an anti-gay slur. On the other, in similarly bold lettering, “RAPE OF THE TRUTH.” Each carried a citation to an appropriate verse from the Bible.

More important to me, though, were a few scribbled, faded words from an old friend.

“5-16-93 To George Pyle, Best wishes to a lover of the First Amendment. - Fred Phelps”

Yes. That Fred Phelps. If you don’t recall, Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka were known far and wide for a time as the horrid people who picketed funerals.

Their holy mission was to inform the world that the AIDS plague that was then raging across the world — as well as wars, hurricanes, airplane crashes and the odd heart attack — represented God’s judgment against a society that was increasingly becoming tolerant of what we now call LGBTQ folks and their relationships.

One day, Phelps and his congregation (almost entirely his children, in-laws and grandchildren) added a side trip to the sidewalk in front of the offices of The Salina Journal. A newspaper that had, under my editorship, been outspokenly in favor of gay rights and marriage equality.

A brave reporter asked Phelps if she could have that sign. For me. Fred gladly obliged.

Before Phelps lost his mind, he had been sort of a friend of mine. He had built a reputation as a civil rights attorney, standing up for the downtrodden. He ran for governor a couple of times, mostly on a platform of slashing taxes by doing away with all the bits of state and local government devoted to assessing and collecting taxes. (We did the math. It didn’t add up.)

Fred’s health and influence faded. Some of this family members left his tribe to become normal people, others because they thought the old man had gone soft. In 2014, at the age of 84, he died. And was memorialized in Time magazine as “a colossal jerk.”

Haunting my present is the ghost of The Salina Journal. It was sold some months ago to a rapacious devourer of such properties called Gatehouse Media. Aka, Guthouse Media, in honor of the many people it has fired, leaving the communities they operate in very poorly served.

A few of the hard-working journalists who put out The Journal when I was there are still on the staff. Or maybe not. I can’t be altogether sure because nobody is bothering to keep their online staff roster up to date.

On their way out the door, a couple of veteran journalists — both still quite young in my mind’s eye — picked up a few souvenirs. Including the Fred Phelps sign. Which, for some odd reason, did not fit the decor of either of their homes. So they graciously sent it to me.

So, now, we need a third spirit.

Oh. I know. The future credibility of Chris Stewart.

Utah’s 2nd District member of Congress has become alarmed by the number of people who style themselves as “socialists” who are not only getting themselves elected to Congress but mounting what appear to be credible runs for the presidency. His response has been to create an “anti-socialism caucus” in the House and to deliver to The Tribune a commentary outlining the reasons for his concern.

Said essay was a total disaster of false equivalencies and proof certain that Stewart — and anyone else who joins his He-Man Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Haters Club — wouldn’t know “socialism” if it fell from the sky, landed on his nose and bit him.

He is confused enough to accept the word of now-dead leaders of Cuba and the old USSR that their regimes were socialist, when they were actually about as Marxist as the Spanish Inquisition was Christlike. He talks up the robust, and completely democratic, welfare states of Northern Europe as a sort of Schrodinger’s Socialism, free and oppressive at the same time.

What is it that the new generation of American socialists wants? For us to heed the regretful words of Jacob Marley, who, from beyond the grave, regretted spending too much time at the office.

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”

If Stewart can understand that, we can talk. If not, well, maybe he can autograph an anti-socialist picket sign for me on his way out.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, wishes he had had the nerve to do a Bugs Bunny kisses Elmer Fudd on Fred Phelps all those years ago. gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate