Salter: Inevitable departure of a peace activistBy Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star www.tribstar.com
TERRE HAUTE — Thank heavens Cindy Sheehan decided to stop being “the face of the U.S. antiwar movement.” How could she ever hope to fill such a role?
After all, she’s a human being.
Whatever our politics, we really don’t want human beings to represent us in a national arena. We say we do, but it’s a lie.
Humans bring emotional and psychological baggage with them. They get involved in movements in the first place for personal reasons. They have biases and zealous opinions, their judgment is subjective, they’re inconsistent.
We want perfect. We want a god. We want impossible.
We want a “typical” and “ordinary” woman or man to emerge from our midst, to take the words right out of our mouths (but express them more articulately) and to bring us to tears and shouts of resonance and gratitude.
Then we want that person to become a cipher for our millions and millions of personal, biased, opinionated, subjective, inconsistent, human projections. And we prefer they pay their own tab in the effort and never complain.
When the woman or man fails at this task because it is impossible, we want that person gone.
Back in August 2005, when a middle-aged woman from Vacaville, Calif., stepped out of the shadows of anonymity and into the national spotlight in Crawford, Texas, many people feared for her. Her presence wasn’t commanding or vivacious. She was stuck with the eternal-teenage name of “Cindy” and had a Valley Girl speech pattern to match. Like most Americans, she couldn’t put two sentences together without “you know.”
How could she possibly survive what would be unloosed upon her? She had walked, not only to the edge of the property of the U.S. president, but into the insatiable, cannibalistic maw of media fame where few survive and no one gets out intact.
But Cindy from Vacaville’s demand was simple and her courage steady. Her 24-year-old son, Casey, had been killed in action in Iraq the year before and she was taking it personally. She’d had 16 months to think about his death and all the other deaths that were mounting here and in Iraq.
Significantly, those months included an early face-to-face comfort session with the president who’d sent her boy to war, a man who could not bring himself to use Casey’s name or to call the woman anything but “Mom.”
Cindy Sheehan showed up in Crawford to demand that the commander in chief acknowledge names and individual lives as well as his responsibility in all the deaths. She wanted an explanation for a war that had turned out not at all as advertised: affordable, a cakewalk, welcomed and necessary for the imminent security of the United States.
All of a sudden, across the nation, in big cities and small towns, Sheehan put a face on — and gave a voice to — a huge segment of the population that had spent the years since 9/11 feeling steamrolled and gagged into impotency.
Of course, it couldn’t last.
The attacks from the right were inevitable but no less vicious for their predictability. She was in it, they said, for the celebrity, the power, the money.
She was “naive.” The same people who ridiculed her for embracing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez never thought to apply the standard to George Bush, who’d insisted he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, “saw his soul” and recognized it as good and kind.
Typical of the conservatives’ criticism was the absolutely-true-it-was-on-Fox story that careened around the Internet: Sheehan didn’t care about Casey until he was dead; she’d divorced his father and “left her son with him to be raised while she became a political activist for the Democratic Party.” She’d married another man.
“So the son dies in Iraq and Cindy shows up to make a big stink,” went the chain e-mail. “Cindy didn’t care about her son. She let another woman raise him. Cindy doesn’t care about the other soldiers in Iraq. Cindy cares about her liberal feminist agenda and about using the death of her son to lobby against Republicans and Bush.”
Too bad the “absolutely true” story was absolutely false. Cindy was married for 29 years to Patrick Sheehan, her boyfriend from high school, the father of Casey and their other three children.
They did get a divorce: Patrick filed, citing irreconcilable differences — not quite two years ago. The marriage, Cindy Sheehan said last week, was one of the many casualties of her activism.
Another was her history major’s belief that if she did her homework, dug deep and studied the long story of war and Eisenhower’s military industrial complex, she could use the knowledge to combat it and make Casey’s death “count for peace … for love … for justice.”
Sheehan also believed the peace movement was an actual, cohesive entity with clear rules of engagement and a loyalty to purpose that overrode all else. Because they implied as much, she believed that Democrats in Congress were no-compromise lead players in that movement when, in truth, they and their Republican counterparts — anybody who wants to survive in big-time politics — eat, drink and sleep compromise.
The more she traveled and the less she slept, the deadlier the war grew and the further the Democrats distanced themselves from her as she spoke about U.S. imperialism and greed and of politicians beholden to corporate America, the more Sheehan began to question her path.
On Memorial Day, she told radio host Amy Goodman — while one of her daughters decorated Casey’s grave in California and Sheehan sat in Crawford reading a liberal blog that called her an “attention whore” — she realized she’d had enough.
“I think I have gone as far as I can right now in the movement. I’ve come to a road block. I’ve come to a dead end. I’ve come to a brick wall,” she said on Goodman’s show. In addition, “I have, you know, decimated all of my resources, my monetary resources.”
(So much for the get-rich theory.)
Her plan, Sheehan said in another interview, was to go home for awhile “to try and be normal” and to “be a mother to my surviving children and try to gain some of what I have lost.”
After a rest, she will return to work for peace, she told Goodman, “but I’m not coming back the way I was before” and she’s not going to bother with “this political system anymore.”
Among the cascade of reactions to Sheehan’s announcement was one from the peace movement veteran, Rabbi Michael Lerner. In his diary on dailykos.com, he described “inhumane, insensitive and put-downish” behavior of peace and justice activists by their very own cohorts that he has witnessed since the Vietnam War era.
Lerner said his personal contact with Sheehan revealed “someone who has so much goodness and decency and idealism pouring out of her, mixed with righteous indignation, that [she] elicits fear, anger, competitiveness and a desire to eliminate her from public life even by people who agree with her.”
What the rabbi didn’t say was, this is what humans do when we discover that the perfect, impossible god of our creation is just one of us. We turn our disillusionment on her and ourselves and we use it like a sword to run through our collective human heart.