Who is Cindy Sheehan? As her role in our national drama dwindles, the question remains why the silent majority spoke through her. In August she camped near President Bush’s ranch and demanded to meet him. The wind brought heat and dust but no reply. She lived in the silence of his refusal, asking for a truth to bury her son in. After a summer of protest, elected officials are translating her anti war activism into politics and crowding her out of the media spotlight. Now we can ask who Sheehan was to us.
The Left titled her the Rosa Parks of the antiwar movement. The Right compared her to Walter Cronkite who turned the public against the Vietnam War or to eccentric conspiracist Lyndon LaRouche. Analysts tried to explain her but Sheehan’s power comes from an older time, from the ancient Greek drama Antigone.
When Antigone’s two brothers kill each other fighting for the throne, the new king Creon buries the brother loyal to him, the other he orders to be left to rot. Antigone sees the hypocrisy hidden in the law and covers her brother with dirt and prayer. Now centuries later another woman battles the state for the right to bury her loved one in truth. Instead of a sister it is the grieving mother Cindy Sheehan. Instead of the monarch it is President Bush.
The names change but the need to have meaning for one’s life is the same. Sheehan wants a truth to cover her son’s body, to seal his life from the decay of meaninglessness. So she lashes out at Bush because his lies endanger the memory of her son. She wrote, “Would George Bush send his children to be killed, or maimed for life, for a series of lies, mistakes and miscalculations?”
When the reasons for the war were exposed to be false, it threatened the sacredness of Casey’s death. So Sheehan replaced one myth with another. If her son cannot be a hero who died in a Noble Cause he can be
the martyr of the Great Betrayal.
She can invoke betrayal since her image is anchored by an assumed innocence. She even joked about it on Nov. 30, when she came to New York to promote her book Not One More Mother’s Child. An older crowd of leftists came, eager to agree with her. She is a disarming speaker, with a high nasal voice toughened by speeches. And she looks like a mom. Homeliness is part of her media appeal. “I represent the mainstream,” she said, “Does someone from the fringe wear cashmere sweaters?”
Sheehan’s power comes from conservative ideology itself. Her role as America’s antiwar mom uses the traditional divide between public male sphere and private female domain to guarantee the innocence of
her politics. Her grief assures us that to take an antiwar position is not based on ideological
dogma but pure love for son and nation.
Such an appeal sets up an aesthetic challenge. Sheehan’s allure came from an assumed sincerity, that she wanted to know the reason for the war from the man who started it. Now that she has settled into performing outrage at the President’s refusal to answer, she joins the crowded field of political pundits.
The limit of her politics also limits the antiwar movement. She is middle class, white and in the end, pro-military. The Black and Latino and white working poor continue to be unacceptable as images to identify with in the national media.
The right dismissed Sheehan as a naïve mother whose grief was exploited by MoveOn and Michael Moore. What may be another more disturbing truth is that she exploits her own grief to avoid the real target of her rage, her son Casey.
As others have noted, Bush hasn’t met with her because nothing he says will satisfy her. Yet he may not even be the one she’s protesting. At the book signing Sheehan said, “Sometimes I’m mad at Casey.” A long quiet moment passed, “Were your buddies more important than your mom?”
Is this doubt of his love what drives her to speak out, to be arrested and chain herself to the White House gate? At the book signing, Sheehan talked of how Casey was raised to always use words rather than violence to settle conflict. “I didn’t understand why he joined the military,” she asked.
She can’t be answered; he is the wind and dust she breathes while speaking. Since he is beyond words she can deny the authority of the war itself, leaving her to be the last authority of her son’s life. In going to Iraq, he may not have accomplished the liberations of Iraqis but instead liberated himself from the image others had of him.
In an interview, Sheehan said she was grateful to Bush for not coming out because it would’ve ended the silence that allowed her to show Casey how much she loved him.
Loving the dead is dangerous – it allows us to do anything in the name of those who can’t answer. It also relieves us of the responsibility of having to listen. Antigone knew this as she told her sister of her plans to bury their brother. “We have only a little time to please the living but all of eternity to love the dead.” As Bush invokes the victims of September 11 and Sheehan her dead son, both can enjoy the ease of speaking for the void. It is up to us who love the living to speak with them.
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