In March of 2006, my husband, my parents and I had the pleasure of seeing Jack Benny: Laughter in Bloom at Pearce Auditorium, Brenau University. It was a one-man show featuring a dead-on impersonation of Benny by a funny, gifted performer, Eddie Carroll.
On occasion, one's joy in a humorist's performance may be compromised by a sense -- who knows where it comes from? -- that when the curtain goes down, said humorist is a jerk with very little sense of how to treat other people. Watching Carroll, I experienced the opposite; somehow the man's good nature radiated through his work. I came not just to admire Carroll (and, through him, the great Benny as well) but to like him as well. He wasn't only fun to watch; he would have been fun to spend time with. I didn't get that privilege, but my friend and colleague Brad Strickland describes Carroll as "the nicest man I have ever met."
This week I learned that Eddie Carroll has passed away, the victim of a brain tumor. He was 76.
I won't cease to be grateful for the delight he gave me and my loved ones four years ago. Even though I never had the chance to get to know him personally, I'm privileged to have experienced his work. His was a life well-lived; like Benny before him, he brought joy to many and sorrow to none.
What worthier goal, than to be someone people remember with a smile? Would that more people had such a goal in mind.
In terms of national news, last week struck me as "Cruelty Week." First we got the story of the "death by bullying" of teenage Phoebe Prince. Then we learned of tragic consequences of the antics of "man of God" Fred Phelps, whose every word and action is a blasphemy. Raging bigot Phelps and his like-minded thugs have been in the habit of protesting at the funerals of fallen soldiers, carrying signs with the blazon "GOD HATES AMERICA," and crying out that the soldiers are now burning in hell for the sin of defending a country that tolerates homosexuality. The father of one soldier wouldn't stand for it and filed a lawsuit against this animal; the judge ruled in his favor. But Phelps, not content with degrading the grieving man at his son's funeral, appealed the decision, and now the father has been ordered to reimburse him for the court costs. Phelps claims his repugnant displays are protected by the First Amendment.
I do understand that the First Amendment exists primarily to protect unpopular speech; popular speech needs no protection. Likewise I understand the need for this defense. While some ideas -- the garbage spouted at a Klan rally, for instance -- will never be vindicated by the passing years, today's unpopular speech could be tomorrow's accepted wisdom. Frederick Douglass's denunciations of slavery, for example, were inflammatory in their day; today, we perceive them as plain common sense, and are disturbed to know that so many once vehemently disagreed.
But freedom of speech is not absolute. We can't say anything we feel like. If we stride into a church and shout that a bomb has been buried underneath it, we're going to create a panic, and then we're going to get clapped in jail. Laws exist to protect people from slander in speech and libel in print. What can be more slanderous than an assertion that a loved one is damned to hell for serving his country?
While men like Eddie Carroll radiate goodness and spread pleasure wherever they go, Phelps and his thugs are in the business of spreading misery, targeting people who are already suffering more than their share. One man was brave enough to try to put him out of business, and now he is paying the price. The most sickening aspect of all this is that the sociopathic bully claims to be doing the work of God. Yet when he passes on, it's doubtful that anyone outside his own thuggish circle will think of him and smile -- unless it's to smile in relief that he's gone at last.
The news is full of people like Phelps and the teenage brutes that drove Phoebe Prince to suicide. Yet so many exceptional people who do their jobs well, whose spark of creativity brightens and/or enlightens the world around them, and whose hearts are warm and instincts are good never make the front page. We who knew them and experienced their work must sing their praises. I've known many such people --artists, performers, teachers, public servants. It's always a good idea to spare a thought for them when we're feeling disgust for the thugs in the news, to remind ourselves that human nature has many sides, positive as well as negative.
Phelps and his gang should not get away with what they've done. Thankfully, public opinion has come down on the grieving father's side, and donations are pouring in to help him with those court costs. Not only that, but some states are considering passing noise ordinances which would make it illegal to disrupt a funeral, and which would clearly designate Phelps's speech as un-protected and inexcusable.
But in the end, his true character will be revealed in what he leaves behind, and how people remember him once he's left this earth.
What's our legacy -- joy or misery?
I do recognize that