April 25, 2010

For Cindy Sheehan

[UPDATE: Republished below is an article I wrote about Cindy Sheehan in August 2005. (As I explain, it had been offline for several years.) Very interestingly and gratifyingly to me, Chris Floyd also wrote an article about Ms. Sheehan at just about the same time. Here it is. I hope you read it.

It wasn't until a year or two after these articles were first published that Floyd and I learned of each other and began to read each other's work. As I say, it is both intriguing and deeply personally satisfying to discover that we had been plowing some of the same ground. I leave it to the reader to provide whatever saying you think appropriate concerning minds that "think alike" and so on, however you may choose to describe the minds in question.]

Every now and then, very welcome and needed encouragement enters our lives from an entirely unexpected source. That happened to me just a few hours ago: I followed a referring link in my tracking stats -- and was taken to Cindy Sheehan's site. One item there directs readers to my essay from several days ago. It also mentions an article of mine from 2007; it gives me special pleasure to see that post remembered, particularly at Sheehan's website.

It never occurred to me that Cindy Sheehan even knew of my existence. I'll let that be a lesson to me: much of the time, you never know who is reading you, just as you often never know what people your writing might reach. I'll try to remember that in the coming days. (It's not entirely clear to me from the items at Sheehan's site that Sheehan herself wrote the one that mentions my articles, but I assume Sheehan at least approves the links that appear there. For those who might be interested, and for myself as well, I've reprinted the item in question at the conclusion of this post, since it will undoubtedly be replaced by newer items very soon.)

I have deeply admired Cindy Sheehan ever since she first appeared on the national scene. She had experienced an unimaginably terrible and searing loss, yet she possessed the courage and determination to turn her personal experience into a focus for national opposition to not only the then-latest war of criminal aggression launched by the U.S. government, but to our Death State's entire program of death and destruction, both at home and abroad. Sheehan continued and even intensified her battle in the face of despicable and loathsome opposition.

My immense admiration increased still more when she continued the same fight after Obama took office. Unlike almost all of today's liberals and progressives, Sheehan has repeatedly demonstrated that her opposition is genuinely based in principle, and not merely the opportunistic "positioning" engaged in by those who seek political power for its own sake and for no other end at all. I've traced the "progress" of the liberal-progressives in "The Plea of Helplessness, the Refusal of Responsibility, and Today's Progressives." In part, I wrote:
[V]irtually everything the Democrats and progressives claimed to be their fervent concern was merely instrumental: that is, they staked out the positions they did for their perceived political advantage, and for the assistance those positions would provide in regaining and consolidating power.

In the end, that was the only goal, the only purpose toward which everything else was directed: the achievement and maintenance of power.
That Sheehan is profoundly principled, and that she continues her battle against what is an immensely evil program that produces only suffering, destruction and death, means of course that she is largely ignored by every aspect of the establishment, and by most commentators and bloggers as well. On a much more modest scale, that has been my fate, too. I was once frequently linked by the leading liberal-progressive blogs, when we shared our opposition to the loathsome Bush administration. But I began to see what actually motivated the Democrats and their voluntarily brain-dead supporters in the months leading up to the 2006 elections. Just before those elections, I published: "An Election Conceived in Nausea." My judgment of the Democrats and Democratic partisans grew steadily more negative, and the "big" links soon dried up completely. I was no longer "helpful" to their goals.

Now, the Obama administration has continued all the most detestable policies and actions of the Bush criminals that Obama and those who voted for him claimed to oppose so vehemently. In certain critical respects, Obama has expanded those policies and made them still worse, sometimes significantly so. With very rare exceptions, the damning criticisms of Bush -- all of which and more can and should be leveled at Obama, with already massive evidence -- have vanished altogether. So much for principles, integrity, dignity and the most basic sense of humanity.

Because of my deep admiration for Ms. Sheehan and the great courage she continues to demonstrate, the mention of my articles on her site carries special meaning for me. As I've occasionally mentioned, my blog archives became corrupted several years ago. The result was that most of my writing up until that time disappeared from the internet. With the help of one friend in particular (great thanks as always, J.), many of the earlier posts were able to be saved. But reposting them requires a lot of work; except for selected essays here and there, I've never taken the time to do it (assuming I even had the time, which I never have).

But the post on Ms. Sheehan's site impels me to republish an essay which hasn't been available for at least three or four years: "Of the Sacred and the Profane: Leave Cindy Sheehan Alone." It was originally published on August 10, 2005. I don't know if Ms. Sheehan saw it when it first appeared; I hope she is able to read it now.

I haven't taken the time to insert the internal links; in any case, the links to earlier articles of mine wouldn't go anywhere, until and unless those earlier articles are similarly reposted. Except for the missing links, the article appears below exactly as it first appeared, including the Update at the beginning (which I wrote in response to some reactions to the essay). I should note that some formulations in this piece are not stated nearly as forcefully or in as focused a manner as I would wish today. But my understanding of many of the issues involved was still evolving and growing, as I hope it will always continue to grow. And this earlier article is somewhat meandering, but a lot was happening during that time and a lot was on my mind. On balance, I said what I wanted to say, and I think it is as true today as it was then.

Here then is the earlier article, now dedicated, or perhaps re-dedicated, to Cindy Sheehan, with my deepest admiration and gratitude.


Of the Sacred and the Profane: Leave Cindy Sheehan Alone
August 10, 2005

[UPDATE: In reading reactions to this post, I see that some people appear to be willfully misunderstanding one of my points. When I say that Casey Sheehan died for no good reason, I most certainly do not intend to say that his life and his death had no meaning. The overall theme of my essay should make it clear that I mean precisely the opposite. His life, and his death, are of supreme importance: that was my point, and that was my reason for writing this essay.

But what I did mean was this: Casey Sheehan's death was unnecessary. The war on Iraq is not the American Revolution, or World War II. Iraq represented no serious threat to us whatsoever. As everyone who is honest now acknowledges, it was an optional war -- that is, a war we need not have fought. Therefore, everyone who has died in Iraq -- and who will die in Iraq as long as we are there -- need not have died, if their deaths, like Casey Sheehan's, are a direct result of our invasion of that country. In the sense that Casey Sheehan's death was entirely avoidable and need not have happened at all, he died for no good reason. And in that sense, I fully stand by that statement.

With regard to poetry that particularly speaks to Cindy Sheehan's situation, I should have included this justly famous and very brief poem from Rudyard Kipling. As I noted in my earlier post about World War I literature, Kipling had been the preeminent poet on behalf of the British Empire. It was the death of his only son in World War I that changed his perspective so profoundly:

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

That is the bitter, terrible truth that Kipling came to understand at immense personal cost -- and that Cindy Sheehan lives with every day. The rest of us, most of whom do not share her pain, should never forget it.]

I haven't specifically addressed the frenzied and mounting attacks on Cindy Sheehan up to this point, primarily for one reason: those attacks are as sickening as they were predictable. Let me note at the outset that, in one very limited sense, Cindy Sheehan certainly was on notice that this would be her fate if she chose to become a visible symbol of opposition to the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. However, this acknowledgement should not be taken to mean that any of the current attacks on her are deserved or just. They are neither. Moreover, they are deeply uncivilized -- and for the most part, not remotely decent.

I'm certain that Mrs. Sheehan was well aware of the kind of attacks that would be launched against her. She is obviously a very intelligent woman, and she has taken the measure of Bush and the most feverish of his supporters. She knows what she's up against.

Before getting to my more specific point, some general background is required. Any observant American knows that, beginning almost immediately after 9/11, any disagreement with Bush or his foreign policy -- any disagreement at all, offered on the basis of any one of numerous possible grounds, and even if supported by massive amounts of evidence -- has been characterized as treasonous. This has been an explicit and frequent part of the demonization campaign engaged in by Bush and his supporters -- and the vilification of Mrs. Sheehan is only the latest example of the kind of indecent and nauseating filth that the idolaters of American Empire are now prepared to engage in.

I traced the genesis of this vicious argument in an essay examining a remarkable piece of propaganda by the superficially "kind" and apparently non-threatening Peggy Noonan, whose prose is so sweet that you can feel your teeth rot as her sickly words ooze their way into your body. Because of this sickly sweetness, the depth and viciousness of the lie Noonan perpetrated on this occasion deserved notice.

After excerpting Noonan's column addressing the allegedly "hateful" comments offered by Howard Dean, a column in which Noonan imagined the outrage that would supposedly greet Bush if the president were to say that he viewed the Republicans as "good" and the Democrats as "evil" and that he "hated" all Democrats, I wrote:
This is truly masterful. I take my hat off to Ms. Noonan. It sounds so utterly reasonable. It sounds so judicious. It sounds so mature.

It is also a great big, enormous lie. In fact, Bush and many members of his administration -- and almost all of Bush's most ardent supporters in the media, and in an even more extreme form (if that is possible) in the blogosphere -- have been making all of these statements for the last several years. Since 9/11, such statements are the daily meal provided by the Bush administration.

It is not even the case that such statements are hidden or disguised. They are right out in the open, but Noonan relies on the unfortunate fact that most people are unable to see the truth and unwilling to name it.

Remember the basic dichotomy from which all the rest sprang, provided in a now-famous statement by our President himself in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: "You are either with us, or on the side of the terrorists." This statement is so broad and so general that it is susceptible to many different meanings and applications -- and that is precisely the point of this type of propaganda.

For almost overnight, one central meaning of Bush's statement became the following: If you disagree with the manner in which Bush chooses to fight this war -- if you question or criticize any aspect of it at all -- then you are “on the side of the terrorists." Don't take my word for it. Take the word of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft (defending the administration's actions in response to 9/11):

“To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."

This statement was not only not disavowed by the Bush administration: it has been reinforced countless times since. We most recently saw this tactic employed full-force in the completely phony Newsweek controversy. The always-dependable Mr. Rumsfeld:

“People lost their lives. People are dead," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. “People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do."

Note that the post in which I quoted Rumsfeld was entitled, "Careful Now, Obedient Servants!" Remember that Rumsfeld was addressing what people regard as a "free press." And his message was unmistakable: do not report stories that we do not like, or that we in our sole judgment view as possibly damaging, for reasons we are not obliged to share with you. Report only the "news" that we want you to report. Push us too far, and you will only report "news" that we permit you to report.

In the blogosphere, these kinds of tactics have been carried to still more insidious and more threatening levels. Strong critics of Bush's "War on Terror" are not antiwar: they are "on the other side." People who use and repeat such idiotic phrases seek to avoid their clear meaning: they are accusing many of Bush's critics of treason. They ought to state it openly, so everyone knows exactly what the nature of the accusation is -- and so that we may all appreciate how broad a swath of the American public they include in such judgments.

And that is the ultimate meaning of all such statements from the administration and its rabid supporters: passionate, meaningful, serious criticism of U.S. foreign policy is treason, it undermines our "national will," it weakens us in a time of great peril, and it "give[s] ammunition to America's enemies."

So let us improve upon Noonan's fictional Bush one more time. With the above actual statements from Bush and many others in mind -- and such statements could easily be multiplied a thousandfold -- consider what the message from those who support Bush's "War on Terror" in fact has been:

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I want to speak this evening about how I see the political landscape. Let me jump right in. The struggle between freedom and the terrorists is a struggle between good and evil -- and we are the good. I hate anyone who questions or criticizes my way of fighting this war. Let's face it, all such critics hate freedom and want to see it destroyed. Who are they, really, but people who are intent on eroding our will, destroying the United States and undermining freedom as I conceive it? They have no shame.

"But why would they? They have never been acquainted with the truth. You ever been to a peace rally? They all look the same. They all behave the same. They have a dictatorship, and suffer from zeal so extreme that they dare to question my judgment and the actions of my administration. But what would you expect when you have a far left extremist base? Our nation, and the future of freedom around the world, cannot afford more of their leadership. I call on you to help me defeat them!"

As I said, this is exactly what Bush and many of his supporters have been saying for the last several years. You see these and similar statements every day in certain parts of our "mainstream" press, and you see them constantly in certain parts of the blogosphere. Most importantly, you hear them still from Bush and other members of his administration. I will grant Bush and his supporters this much: their target is much more all-encompassing than Dean's. Dean only spoke of the Republican Party. Bush and his supporters seek to demonize anyone and everyone who dares to disagree with them at all (except, of course, on issues that are insignificant and beside the point) -- Democrats, independents, libertarians, liberals, leftists, and even other Republicans who dare to step out of line from time to time, to say nothing of large parts of the rest of the world. Compared to these tactics and these goals, Dean is an amateur.


The only reason that Bush and his supporters get away with this, and that Howard Dean and some few others do not, is that lies are now the common coin of the realm, and the truth is despised. But Noonan gives us yet another version of the Big Lie -- the lie that is so immense, that is offered up in full daylight, that no one is quite willing to believe that such blatant deception and manipulation is being committed literally under his nose.

Given all this, the worst and biggest lie told by Noonan is this one:

"If Mr. Bush ever spoke this way, most Republicans would feel embarrassment. I would be among the legions who would denounce his statement."

But he has "spoke[n] this way," Ms. Noonan, countless times, as have countless others. But you have never, ever denounced such statements, not once. You cheer them all on, over and over and over again.
In this cultural setting, it was inevitable that Cindy Sheehan would become a major target of the Bush supporters. And because her cause is gaining so much attention -- and most importantly, because it is gaining so much support from the American public -- she must be destroyed.

Obviously, the truly obscene and unforgivable aspect of the attacks on Mrs. Sheehan is the fact that her oldest son was killed in a completely unnecessary war -- a war which has now killed almost 2,000 Americans, has permanently maimed many additional thousands of Americans, and has killed and maimed deliberately uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Cindy Sheehan's son was killed in that war. Focus on that fact, and forget everything else. Mrs. Sheehan herself offered some powerful words to Bush, in which she explained to Bush exactly what "hard work" is, since his entire life reveals that he doesn't grasp the first thing about that phrase.

I have some personal knowledge about the point that follows. One of my nephews died when he was just about Casey Sheehan's age, when the cancer that had first almost taken his life when he was not even a teenager finally killed him. Many people, and many experts, have written learned treatises about the fact that perhaps the most unnatural act in the world is for a parent to bury a child. If we live long enough, all of us must finally bury our parents. Both my parents are dead, and I can tell you this: even if you are prepared for it and even if they die after long illnesses, as was true with both my mother and father, it remains a deeply traumatic experience. It takes at least a year to fully process the loss -- to integrate it fully into your being, emotionally and psychologically. And those deaths are in the natural order of things.

Think about how infinitely and how incomprehensibly worse it is for a parent to lose a child. I will tell you one further thing, based on my own experience: certainly my sister, her husband and their other son have gone on with their lives, have had many achievements and much success, and have enjoyed a great deal of happiness. Thank God for that. But their lives were forever altered, and they have never been the same. In countless ways -- which I will not recount here, since it is their private business -- they have all been changed, in ways large and small. Their lives have taken turns they would not have otherwise -- and the scars still remain, even all these years later. And some of the wounds will never heal, no matter how long they live.

Cindy Sheehan's son did not die at home, after a terrible illness which even modern medicine could not cure. Such illnesses strike all families eventually. They are indeed terrible, but they too are in the natural, inevitable order of things. Cindy Sheehan's son died in a war which even its most ardent supporters now admit was "optional." Let me translate that: Casey Sheehan died for no good reason at all. His death had nothing to do with the defense of our country, and it did not happen because Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, which it did not. In that sense, Casey Sheehan's was entirely unnatural -- and it was the direct result of the disastrous and self-destructive course chosen by our president.

Think about the limitless, unending pain that comes from knowing that your son died for no good reason at all -- that he is dead only because your president and his advisors would have their war, regardless of the facts, and that they would make other people, but never themselves or those they love so desperately, bear all its unbearable costs.

Cindy Sheehan has voluntarily placed herself directly in the center of the major political and cultural battle of our time. She knew the nature of the opposition and the attacks she would face. But that does make those attacks legitimate -- or decent.

I will not here dissect the attacks on Mrs. Sheehan, because I consider all of that beside the point. You are free to state that you disagree with Mrs. Sheehan's opposition to the war, and that you think she is completely wrong. That is indisputably your right. Because the issues are so important, I would expect no less -- and I do not think Mrs. Sheehan expected less.

But if Bush's supporters were decent at all, that is where they would stop. State your disagreement, and the reasons why her position is not yours. But beyond that: leave it alone. Leave Cindy Sheehan alone. You do not understand her grief or what it might impel her to do. God grant that you never have cause to understand it.

I leave you with a few poems, which I have set out before.

About the fact that it is always the young who die for the delusions of the old, here is Grantland Rice:

Two Sides of War (All Wars)

All wars are planned by older men
In council rooms apart,
Who call for greater armament
And map the battle chart.

But out along the shattered field
Where golden dreams turn gray,
How very young the faces were
Where all the dead men lay.

Portly and solemn in their pride,
The elders cast their vote
For this or that, or something else,
That sounds the martial note.

But where their sightless eyes stare out
Beyond life's vanished toys,
I've noticed nearly all the dead
Were hardly more than boys.

On the same theme, here is the retelling of the Abraham story by Wilfred Owen, who was himself killed in action just one week before World War I ended:

Parable of the Old Men and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

And here is the best summation of my own attitude toward these tragedies, which we insist on reenacting through the endless reaches of time -- from Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Dirge without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, -- but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

If you disagree with Cindy Sheehan, say so -- and move on.

Some few, precious things are sacred in this world. This is one of them.


POSTSCRIPT: As explained above, here is the item that appeared on the main page of Cindy Sheehan's site:
Well kindly Preznit Change-O, whutzup? Arthur Silber is back, once again ripping asunder the veil that even professed "dissenters" still draw over the blood-soaked reality he elegantly terms the "Death State." In his 2007 essay Obey or Die, Arthur says that in the last several years, the United States has caused the deaths of a million or more innocent people. The United States has committed crimes on a scale that defy comprehension. This fact is almost never mentioned by our leading politicians and commentators. And now all our leading politicians lay the groundwork for another act of still worse, monstrous, criminal aggression - but we discuss it as if it is our "right" to wreak destruction, suffering and death, in the name of "self-defense" and "civilization." Lies, on top of criminality, on top of genocide, both accomplished and planned. Lies and destruction without end, and facts and reality are banished altogether. Please keep in mind two critical ideas that both Arthur and I have mentioned: first - always, always first - profound reverence for the sacred value of a single human life; and second, the monstrosity that the United States government is today: a government which is unquestionably a Death State in every way that matters. In numerous ways it diminishes the value of each of our lives each and every day. We can hope that we will be able to continue our discussion, provided that our Change-O Death State does not decide speech of this kind is so horrible a danger that it must be ended. Yet to be honest, I must admit how pitifully obvious it is that a person who insists on the reverence due an individual life and who profoundly abhors violence of all kinds (actual or implied) represents a mortal danger to a State which can utterly destroy his or her life at a moment's notice. And yet we talk about none of this. If you do, you're a crazy troublemaker. No one should pay attention to you, and you will be shunned.

But golly, gee: What the *bleep* do I know anyway?