'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Some Random Reflections About Cindy Sheehan 

Originally, I had not intended to post on this subject, but driving home from the Bay Area last night, I heard Bernie Ward on KGO Radio defend Sheehan against those who had maligned her so savagely, and I changed my mind. It is important, I think, to recognize her for her accomplishments, with the challenge being, of course, to properly identify them.

Back in August 2005, I was in Venezuela on a Global Exchange tour when Sheehan demanded to see the President during his summer vacation in Crawford, Texas. Some of the other tour participants would talk about the growing protests after getting updates over the Internet. I didn't take it that seriously, partially because I was engrossed in my tour experiences (when someone said that Peter Jennings had died, I thought it was either a hoax or a sign of their mental incapacity), and partially because, given my cynicism at the time (the peace movement had pretty much slept through the 2004 election), I superficially believed that it more style than substance, more emotionally gratifying than politically important, just another feel good opportunity to bash Bush.

I got it totally wrong. Sheehan challenged the President when the war in Iraq was still popular, and most of the political elite was too intimidated to confront him. She tapped into a groundswell of middle class discontent as veterans against the war flocked to her side. Her loss of her son Casey in Sadr City in April 2004 provided her with an unassailable credibility. She literally stepped forward and changed the direction of public opinion.

Even so, I thought that Sheehan would be enveloped within the boundaries of acceptable dissent as defined by liberal activists and the Democratic Party. Sometimes, she criticized specific Democrats for their support of the occupation, like Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton, but then drew back. But each time, I noticed, she became more aggressive. She was giving them time to change their mind, but she made it clear that she did expect them to take action to bring the troops home. She was holding them accountable, and that impressed me.

Sheehan also walked outside of the lines on other issues as well. Sometime in late 2005 or early 2006 (I don't exactly recall), she visited Venezuela and met Chavez. Just the fact of the visit was significant, an indication that she believed that there was something profoundly wrong about American society and curious about alternatives. Upon her return home, she praised Chavez, no doubt inducing her more mainstream liberal supporters to faint. After all, didn't she understand that Democrats can't raise money to defeat the Republicans without demonizing Chavez? Pelosi did, as discussed here late last summer when she called Chavez a thug.

Now, I got it. Sheehan was just one of those people who always slips the leash of conformity, and her supporters justifiably admire her for it. Personally, though, according to Ward, she was being ground down. Her family life was difficult, and she was going into debt. It is a common story among activists. People like Bill O'Reilly, Sean O'Hannity and, at KGO Radio, morning host Ronn Owens, get paid handsomely to viciously attack activists like Sheehan, to instigate hostility against them, with the expectation that they will get emotionally exhausted and quit.

To her credit, Sheehan didn't. She fought through it, but encountered more intransigent problems that eventually overwhelmed her, and these problems go to the heart of the question as to the extent to which it is possible to bring about meaningful political change in this country. One of the most difficult challenges she was faced, a challenge that must have been shocking and demoralizing to her, was apathy. Initially, most of us would believe that a war and occupation that gets worse and worse, with no end in sight, motivates people to become politically attentive and involved. The war in Iraq has energized some people, but Sheehan, and the peace movement generally, have been unable to create a mass movement against it.

Certainly, one can find fault with their strategy and tactics, but this misses the more serious impediment: the lack of confidence that most people have in the US political system, along with a combination of financial pressures and entertainment alternatives, that render them either incapable or consciously dismissive of political action. Sheehan and the peace movement have not been effective at persuading them otherwise, and it is arguable whether there was any way that they could possibly do so. Indeed, I wonder whether, in a globalized world, where neoliberal transnationals and finance capital uniformly pursue their interests across nation state boundaries, and even continents, the traditional forms of protest, marches, civil disobedience, street theatre, strikes and boycotts, forms developed to compel changes in policies and practices within a specific country, have any prospect of success. One of the debilitating aspects of the postmodern condition, in other words.

Sheehan and the peace movement also encountered another paradoxical problem that they could never reconcile, and it haunts efforts to bring the war to an end to this day. As the parents of soldiers who served (or in Sheehan's case, died) in Iraq, or veterans of the Iraq war and previous wars, they insisted, understandably, on the importance of supporting the troops while condemning the policy. The consequence of this approach blunted any effort to educate the public that the primary purpose of the US military today is the imperial dominance of much of the rest of the world.

Frankly, as I have stated here several times, no one should enlist in it. But, for veterans, soldiers and their parents, such an acknowledgement destroys the romanticization of military service that they still passionately retain. From their perspective, the US military is fine, service is not only acceptable, but a noble endeavor, and it only inflicts harm when it is deliberately misused politically. Such an emotionally understandable, but naive perspective, one that presumes to place the military outside the political world in which we all live, ignores obvious facts, such as the fact that the military is is designed and trained for imperial intervention, that it has, since the end of World War II been deployed almost exclusively for this purpose (at this point, it is even implausible to describe the war and occupation of Afghanistan as acts of self-defense) and that, in the future, it is anticipated the military will be deployed within cities and shantytowns around the world in counterinsurgency operations.

Of course, Sheehan and the peace movement have encouraged people not to enlist and re-enlist, but the effectiveness of the message has been undermined by the inability to truthfully state that service in the US military necessarily involves the brutalization of other peoples and cultures around the world. As long as military service carries a residue of nostalgic pride, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to persuade people to reject it, or, at least, reject it sufficiently to impair US military operations. In the end, most people shy away from it for the obvious reason that they don't want to get killed or maimed or separated from their family indefinitely, but enough still enlist and re-enlist to provide the Pentagon with sufficieint force to occupy Iraq indefinitely.

Such a perspective has also contributed to the public's seemingly contraditory willingness to continue funding the occupation, while wanting it brought to end as quickly as possible. Opposition to a war based primarily upon the harm brought to our troops, while perserving an idealized view of military service, is invariably going to result in such confused attitudes. We want out, but we don't want to hurt our boys, and Bush recognizes it, and exploits it every day. Beyond Iraq, the possibility remains, no, the probability, if not certainty, that people will again enlist in larger numbers after this conflict, and excitedly participate in the next atrocity, because no one has informed them about the true nature of US military service, and then there will be a another Cindy Sheehan, living through the same thing all over again.

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