Thursday, August 11, 2005

Sheehan's public service

Angry in the Great White North continues his obsessive campaign against Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved Gold Star Mother presently camped on George Bush's doorstep to protest the war in Iraq. A whole slew of commentators, including myself, have savaged him for this, but the beat goes on.

Some of those other voices deserve to be quoted:

David: "Congrats, I say, for trying to mislead people into thinking a grieving mother is crazy or is using her dead son for a political agenda. It takes time, patience, and a whole lot of hate. you have my pity."

A Hermit: "Ex POW's, Purple Heart recipients, Vietnam vets, Iraqi vets, covert CIA operatives, now grieving mothers...All fair game for the Bush smear machine if they dare speak truth to power."

I wish I'd said that.

But I think MWW has best put her finger on the flaw in the Right's approach with this succinct comment, in response to a question put to me:

" 'I think the interesting point is why this one mother's grief and eventual protest (note statistics I posted above) rapidly, with the assistance of the media, becomes a political issue.'

"Did you ask the same question about Terri Schiavo's mother?


"I didn't think so."

She raises an intriguing point indeed. Where was the indignation over at Angry's, on Faux News and elsewhere, about the politicization of the Schiavo case? The cynical manipulation of the issue by the hard Right? The endless soppy commentaries?

But, that being said, there's more to all this than simple tu quoque. I would suggest that we need to look at these debates in a different way.

What we have in the Sheehan imbroglio is simply a continuation of the war debate with a personal focus. What we had in the earlier case was a continuation of the "right to life" debate with a personal focus. There is a lot happening in such debates: the personal is the political, with a vengeance. And it is an error, I believe, to attempt to extract one from the other, even if the possibility exists of scoring cheap political points against the opposition by doing do.

Moralizing about the form of the debate is really just an extension of the debate itself. To what extent was Terry Schiavo "used?" To what extent is Cindy Sheehan being "used?" One can build a better case for the former, given that Terry was in no condition, after all, to speak for herself. But I fail to detect, in Cindy Sheehan, any indication that she has been put up to her statements and actions by "the Left," "hard" or otherwise.

I hasten to add that I do not think commentators such as Angry are necessarily suggesting that there is an anti-Bush plot here by sinister forces using Sheehan as a meat-puppet. Nevertheless, we need to be careful when we use the word "used." Indeed, that is at the centre of this raging surface debate.

"Used" means a number of things. In the hands of the Right in the Cindy Sheehan case, it acquires a moralistic flavour. The suggestion is that Sheehan is not a free moral agent, or, if she is, she's too whacked-out to stand on her own in her strong (and consistent, pace Matt Drudge) opposition to the war in Iraq and to President Bush. She's overwhelmed with grief, the Right piously avers, before trashing her in countless talk-shows and screechy newspaper columns and blogs. She's not…herself. Indeed, assuming the mantle of the psychiatrist, Dr. Angry diagnoses Freudian displacement, although he thankfully does not go on to prescribe electric shocks.

Of course, once establishing Sheehan as less than fully capable (a very far from complete task, but the Right seems unaware of that), it is only a short hop, skip and jump to attack the morality of the Left in rallying around her. It seems cruel and cynical, after all, to promote and encourage someone in her condition. It's a bit like urging the town drunk to sing for the crowd, isn't it. Or urging a punch-drunk pug into the ring with the words, "Go for it, Joe. The bum can't hurt us."

This is a great rhetorical move: ad hominem on the grand scale. One gets to dismiss the arguments of Cindy Sheehan because she's damaged in some way, and one can then rule the arguments of the anti-war crowd out of order, not on their own merits, but on moral grounds. They’re using her. Dirty pool. Never mind the anti-war position itself, we don't want to hear it: this is a character issue.

But of course it's not. The war is what is really being debated here, and debates are seldom fought with Marquess of Queensberry rules. Support for and opposition to the Iraq war are based upon facts, suppositions, analysis, emotion, politics, you name it. I happen to be in opposition, so here's my own take on Sheehan and what's happening here:

She is a bright, articulate, angry woman who is mourning what she believes is the needless death of her son. She has taken a stand, and is grieving publicly, not uncommon in other cultures, but remarkable in our own, where the expression of grief, other than at formal occasions like funerals and memorial services, is considered to be a private matter.

But entering the public domain under her circumstances is a political act. It is a new site of struggle for the sides in the Iraq debate. The advantage is to the anti-war side: here's a grieving woman who refuses to wrap herself in the flag and be thankful she's had a little face-time with President Bush. She dares to say the death of her son in Iraq was not worthwhile.

For Sheehan, the Iraq war does not gives his death the meaning that the state would like to ascribe to it. She dares to dream that something will be done about both the war and the President. She hopes, perhaps a little too optimistically, that people will rise up. She believes that her personal grief might have meaning in the public sphere, not just be hers to keep to herself. (She brings to mind Chuck Cadman, who entered politics after his son was murdered, as a direct consequence of his death. Did anyone trash him for that?)

Sheehan speaks truth to power, and the shocked reaction of the Right is to mount a furious personal attack. They've called her every disparaging name under the sun. They probably have investigators combing her credit-card records by now. An unsigned letter attacking her, allegedly from her extended family, is now going the rounds of the right-wing blogosphere. But that's part of the debate, even if it shouldn't be. As for her supporters, of course they are using her, in a very real sense, because she has offered herself up to them as a personal living testament to the iniquity of the war. And of course her circumstances in themselves feed into a strong element of the anti-war argument. What's wrong with any of that?

In the Schiavo controversy, while I felt an immense sense of tragedy and outrage at the way she became a political pawn for the Right, I can't really, on reflection, blame grassroots conservatives for being galvanized by one of those difficult cases that focuses the on-going debate so sharply. Was it cynical for people who genuinely share "right-to-life" beliefs to take part in the public discussion on the matter? Why would it be? (Whether it was cynical on the part of certain politicians is another matter entirely.)

When Marc Lepine, urged on by his private demons, murdered fourteen women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal that awful snowy day on December 6, 1989, he killed women because they were women, because they were "feminists" who chose engineering over more traditional roles at the time. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women talked publicly about violence against women; the men’s White Ribbon Campaign started up; memorial services were and continue to be organized--and a certain sector of the Right accused all and sundry of cynicism, of cheap political capitalizing on a human tragedy. But for those who are feminist and pro-feminist, why would this so very non-random slaughter not rouse them at their very core to mourn and to act on their beliefs? There is nothing cynical or cheap in that.

Let us all recognize, then, no matter where on the political spectrum we are located, that situations will arise that are profoundly personal, on one hand, but have a public, and therefore political, face as well; and that, once public, they will become a focus of discussion in a context that extends far beyond the personal, almost by definition. Cindy Sheehan is the latest flashpoint for the war/anti-war debate; in fact, she has provided a way of currently shaping that debate. And it's the debate that counts. Why not continue it, and avoid being diverted by speculations about the motives of those whose politics we dislike? All sides ought to be grateful for people like Sheehan, who perform the public service of re-presenting the profound cultural, political and moral issues at play, no matter what the personal cost. I, for one, salute her for it.

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