[Marxism] Reformists seek to exploit Cindy Sheehan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 19 06:58:16 MDT 2005


After Cindy Sheehan
The antiwar movement was dominated by lefties and ineffective -- until a 
grieving mother from California became its symbol. With Middle America now 
asking the same angry questions she is, will the movement finally take off?

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By Farhad Manjoo

Aug. 19, 2005  |  The day before he was killed in a helicopter crash near 
Ar Rutbah in western Iraq, John House, a 28-year-old hospital corpsman in 
the Navy, told his wife that the worst was over and he'd be coming home in 
a matter of weeks. "He said, 'We've got one more thing to do, providing 
security for the elections,'" recalls Melanie House, who's now a 
27-year-old widow and single mother living in Simi Valley, Calif. "It 
seemed too good to be true that he was going to be leaving Iraq." Two days 
later, "I got a knock on the door," House says. "It was every military 
wife's worst fear."

Melanie House is no radical. Both she and her husband had initially 
supported the war, and their attitude toward the effort shifted slowly, 
over the course of his deployment, as the endeavor began to look 
increasingly like an unwinnable mistake. Still, when John died, on Jan. 26, 
2005, Melanie did not feel compelled to publicly oppose the war; her grief, 
she says, was too deep.

A few weeks ago, House heard about Cindy Sheehan, the 48-year-old woman 
who's demanding to meet with the president to discuss the death of her son 
Casey in Iraq. House too had questions to ask George W. Bush: "Why did my 
husband die? Why are we over there? Is there an end in sight? What is the 
plan?" So House decided to join the antiwar movement. On Tuesday, she told 
her story to reporters in a conference call organized by liberal advocacy 
groups, and on Wednesday MoveOn.org featured House in an e-mail encouraging 
its members to attend candlelight vigils around the country to protest the war.

House, Sheehan and dozens of other members of military families opposed to 
the war represent the new face of the American antiwar movement -- a 
movement that has, over the past two years, managed to stage a few massive 
street demonstrations, but has otherwise had little success convincing 
Democrats, not to mention Republicans, to take up its cause. Indeed, as the 
war has grown increasingly unpopular in recent months, the antiwar movement 
has been virtually silent -- or, as its leaders insist, the movement was 
ignored by the media, which amounts to the same thing: Few Americans were 
aware of any active opposition to the war.

Sheehan's stand has changed all that. Not only are reporters now listening, 
but antiwar warriors are energized. Just about every antiwar group, from 
the farthest left to the most moderate, is moving to associate itself with 
Sheehan. In her, opponents of the war see an authenticity -- the symbolic 
value of a mother grieving for her son -- that they say resonates with the 
American mainstream. It's too soon to tell whether this will actually 
happen -- but opponents say they're confident that the antiwar ethos has 
reached a "tipping point." Sheehan's story -- as well as House's, and that 
of others who've lost loved ones in Iraq -- could prove highly effective at 
pushing Americans to oppose the Bush administration's policies in Iraq.

Wednesday's candlelight vigils highlighted the born again movement. 
According to MoveOn, tens of thousands of protesters gathered at more than 
1,600 locations across the nation to support Sheehan's demand for a meeting 
with the president. (Sheehan left the Bush estate in Crawford on Thursday 
after her mother suffered a stroke, but she vowed to continue her protest 
as soon as possible.) If the numbers are true, that would be the largest 
antiwar mobilization in a year. At the vigil I attended in Oakland, Calif., 
more than 200 people clustered along both sides of a busy intersection 
under a BART train station, a few of them carrying signs -- "Stop the War" 
was the most popular -- but most simply cupping a candle and standing 
silently. The effort, said Sally Hutchinson, a middle-aged woman in the 
crowd, was reminiscent of the protests held during the very earliest days 
of the war, when people came out in droves to oppose the invasion. "After 
that, no one -- people sort of gave up and went home," she said. But now 
hundreds were out, and every second car that passed by honked loudly in 
support. "I really think she has made the difference," Hutchinson said of 

But if Sheehan's protest has reinvigorated the antiwar movement, so too has 
it exposed the central dilemma that people opposed to the war now face: 
What should America do about a war in which every option looks bad. Saying 
that we should stop the war raises all kinds of questions about what you 
mean, notes Todd Gitlin, the former Vietnam activist and Columbia 
Journalism School professor. "If you say withdraw, then how many? What 
pace? Starting when?"

In the spectrum of antiwar groups, there are hard-liners who call for 
Americans to leave Iraq right now, and those who espouse a softer course, 
essentially asking the White House to outline a specific exit plan, 
including a timetable for eventual departure from Iraq. Sheehan is a 
hard-liner. Parents of soldiers in Iraq "want their kids home yesterday," 
Sheehan says, and waiting a few months or a year to bring troops back "is 
not near soon enough." Sheehan's position is echoed by a number of antiwar 
groups, notably United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella coalition of 
progressive organizations that has sponsored some of the largest street 
demonstrations against the war. But the three groups that organized 
Wednesday's vigils -- Democracy for America, MoveOn and True Majority -- do 
not go as far as Sheehan. Instead of calling for Bush to remove the troops 
now, these three support the plan outlined in the so-called Homeward Bound 
Act, a law proposed by some in the House that would impose a deadline of 
October 2006 to begin to remove troops from Iraq.

The range of opinion among war opponents over what to do in Iraq is 
important because it reflects a larger national uncertainty over the 
options. Polls show Americans to be thoroughly discontent about the effort 
in Iraq. But Americans are not yet settled on what we ought to do. The most 
recent Gallup survey shows a large group -- 33 percent -- calling for 
immediate pullout, but significant numbers also call for troop levels to 
remain constant, or to be drawn down gradually.

In the personal tragedies of Sheehan, House and other military families, 
the antiwar movement may have finally found what it needs to turn 
mainstream Americans against the war and galvanize the Bush administration 
to bring U.S. troops home -- either now or in the near future. The antiwar 
movement has shifted, for the first time, from the left to Main Street. 
Many of the more polarizing voices of dissent -- like Michael Moore or 
International ANSWER -- have been drowned out by a larger sea of 
opposition. Many of the criticisms of the war in Iraq that were once heard 
only on the far left -- that the invasion was based on lies about weapons 
of mass destruction, that American-style democracy could not be easily 
transplanted in a country historically riven by rival sects -- now echo 
across suburbia.

At the same time, antiwar groups are wary about endorsing Sheehan as a 
powerful new way to oppose the war. For one thing, they point out, 
Sheehan's story is not new. Sheehan has been speaking out against the war 
since her son was killed in April 2004; she's well acquainted with many in 
the movement. That Sheehan's protest has caught on with the media now is 
not so much a testament to the power of her story as it is to the caprice 
of the national media, they say, which has long ignored opposition to the 
war and only now -- when Americans seem finally ready to oppose the war -- 
is changing its tune.

The groups also worry about being accused of taking advantage of Sheehan -- 
a worry borne out by right-wing attacks that paint Sheehan as a naive 
stooge of the left. Matt Holland, the online organizer of True Majority, 
the liberal organization that hired the P.R. firm Fenton Communications to 
handle media for Sheehan, took pains to stress that his group's part in 
Sheehan's activism is minimal. "In summary our role is to ask her how we 
can be helpful and to try to be helpful," he says. "She was a private 
citizen who got surrounded by this media maelstrom, so we helped with that. 
I want to be crystal clear about this: At no point have we suggested to her 
what her message ought to be or what she ought to say."

Yet as they deny that they are using Sheehan, many also acknowledge that 
Sheehan's story is useful. At the most basic level, it breaks your heart; 
everyone agrees with that. But different corners of the movement also see 
different strengths in Sheehan's protest. For hardliners, what Sheehan 
symbolizes is defiance and urgency. "She's been very bold and very 
determined," says Ai Mara, the national coordinator of the Not in Our Name 
project, "and that's something others in the movement have a hard time 
doing. She's not taking no for an answer. Ultimately what she's calling for 
is for troops to get out of Iraq. This is something that the rest of the 
movement can learn from."

More moderate groups, meanwhile, choose to focus not on Sheehan's call for 
troop withdrawal but instead on her demand to talk to the president about 
the mission in Iraq. "More than anything, she's a powerful symbol of the 
administration's refusal to face the facts about Iraq," says Eli Pariser, 
executive director of MoveOn.org's political action committee. "That's what 
brings so many people to her side. She's finally demanding accountability 
from the administration for the deception that led to war."

Jim Dean -- who is the chairman of Democracy for America, the political 
group that grew out of Jim's brother Howard's presidential campaign -- says 
much the same thing. "I'd truly like to see this war over, but I'll be 
honest with you, I don't have a silver-bullet solution to this whole 
thing," Dean says. "But if we want to get these troops out of there in a 
hurry, the first thing we should start to do is have a discussion about 
accountability. This is about accountability. That is something that most 
Americans understand. What she's doing is born out of sorrow. People see 
the common sense and fairness in what she's asking for. Just because you 
have troops in battle doesn't mean you don't have to account for what's 

It's not clear which of Sheehan's demands -- to meet the president or 
withdraw from Iraq -- might prove more attractive to the American public. 
It could be that people will agree with both; that they'll essentially 
follow the prescription to leave Iraq now. Polls do show that the nation is 
moving in that direction, and at the vigil in Oakland, this position 
certainly seemed to be the prevailing attitude. "If it were up to me? Yeah, 
I'd bring them back," said Peter Lee, a 60-year-old man at the protest. 
Arguments that Iraq would descend into civil war if the U.S. withdrew 
didn't hold much sway with Lee. "We can't tell what forces will shape it," 
he said. After all, just about every other prediction we've made about the 
war has proved off the mark.

Of course, this vigil was held in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Rep. 
Barbara Lee's district, about the bluest spot in the nation, and not a 
place to go for an indication of what the nation thinks about war and 
peace. A better sense of the antiwar movement's policy ideas about Iraq 
might be found in a survey MoveOn conducted of its members in June. In an 
e-mail headlined "What should we do about Iraq?" the group asked members if 
it should put its resources into pushing for passage of the Homeward Bound 
Act, which calls for troops to begin to come home by next fall. An 
overwhelming share of MoveOn members -- more than 80 percent -- responded 
with approval of the plan.

MoveOn's Pariser speaks enthusiastically of setting a deadline for troop 
withdrawal. Doing that, he says, would set the conditions to compel various 
factions in Iraq to create a working government. "The theory here is that 
the best shot that we have in creating stability in Iraq is creating a 
political climate where Shiites and Sunnis can cut a deal," he says. "Right 
now the Shiites in the government have the full force and weight of the 
U.S. military behind them, and as long as we're there, the Shiites won't 
have the political reason to cut a deal."

Pariser's theory is a good deal less provocative than that of hard-liners 
in the antiwar movement, who see the U.S. presence in Iraq as not only an 
obstacle to a stable government, but as the main source of all the violence 
there. "The U.S. occupation is the primary cause of the death and the cause 
of violence there," says Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East scholar at the 
Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that sits on the 
steering committee of United for Peace and Justice. The fighting in Iraq, 
Bennis believes, "is not sectarian-based, it's Iraqis who support the 
occupation vs. those who oppose the occupation. The majority of the 
resistance, as far as we can tell, are motivated by nationalism. If the 
U.S. occupation ends, those people will stop their fighting. Once they are 
not able to use the nationalism justification for political cover, Iraqis 
will be eager to turn against them."

Bennis acknowledges that her theory of what might happen if the U.S. leaves 
Iraq is not guaranteed; things may still turn out badly in Iraq if the 
nation follows her plan. "But what we do know is that if the occupation 
remains, it's not going to win," she says. "The danger is far greater of 
staying." And if that's the case, she asks, why stay a day longer?

Sheehan herself has made her position crystal clear. "We're over there and 
we need to come home," she said in a conference call with reporters on 
Tuesday. What happens in Iraq after we leave isn't a worry of ours, she 
added. "We need to let the Iraqi people handle their own business." Sheehan 
also fingered the U.S. presence as the source of all violence there. Asked 
about whom she blames for the death of her son, she said it was George W. 
Bush alone. Of the insurgent groups who were more directly responsible, she 
said, "The person who killed my son, I have no animosity for that person at 

To say the least, Sheehan is a bomb-thrower, which many on the right hope 
will knock her from her new perch as the head of the antiwar movement. 
During the past couple of weeks, Matt Drudge has put forward a constant 
barrage of some of her most impolitic statements about foreign policy -- 
her criticisms of Israel, or the "foul-mouthed tirade" she delivered at San 
Francisco State University in April, in which Sheehan called members of the 
Bush administration "fucking hypocrites" and declared, "We are not waging a 
war on terror in this country. We're waging a war of terror. The biggest 
terrorist in the world is George W. Bush!"

Could Sheehan's rants derail the antiwar movement? It's conceivable, if 
what happened in Vietnam is a guide. In late 1969, the war, which had 
initially been approved by a huge percentage of the country, had become 
quite unpopular. As Harold Meyerson pointed out recently in the Washington 
Post, "The Gallup Organization found that 49 percent of Americans favored a 
withdrawal of U.S. forces and 78 percent believed that the Nixon 
administration's rate of withdrawal was 'too slow.'"

But here's the odd thing: A large number of Americans -- 77 percent -- said 
they didn't like the antiwar demonstrators, either. "That disapproval was 
key to Nixon's political strategy," Meyerson wrote. "[Nixon] didn't so much 
defend the war as attack its critics, making common cause with what he 
termed the 'silent majority' against a mainstream movement with a large, 
raucous and sometimes senseless fringe. When Nixon won reelection in a 
landslide, it was clear that the strategy had worked -- and it has been 
fundamental Republican strategy ever since."

Nixon was able to score points off the protesters' theatrical condemnation 
of the war, Gitlin says. "Many Americans accepted that the war was awful, 
but at the same time it was an embarrassment," he says. "It wasn't 
something you could wall off as belonging to Lyndon Johnson. It had been 
the nation's war. So here are these people out there who are culturally and 
theatrically odd, and they are a living reminder that the country is doing 
something idiotic and worse." The way the public reacted, Gitlin says, was 
to condemn the war as well as the protesters, "the long-haired, 
sandal-wearing, bearded types burning American flags."

In the past, Gitlin worried that the protests against the war in Iraq would 
produce the same sort of backlash. In October 2002, when International 
ANSWER (a group that supports Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim 
Jong Il) and Not in Our Name (affiliated with the Revolutionary Communist 
Party) were launching the first large protests against the war, Gitlin told 
Salon's Michelle Goldberg that he feared "a gigantic ruination for the 
antiwar movement."

Gitlin says the antiwar movement has become broader and wider in its 
appeal. "There's a much larger, more diffuse and variegated antiwar 
sentiment in this country now," he says. People calling for an end to war 
are not just located on the political fringes. And Sheehan, in particular, 
doesn't strike Gitlin as an ideologue but someone who's responding, if in a 
highly public way, to personal tragedy. "She's taking the position that 
what she wants is a conversation," Gitlin says. "It's hard to object to 
that. The dramaturgy of her appearance is quite powerful. She's simply 
asking for a personal contact, which is clever."

Also, the public may forgive Sheehan her indelicacy for the simple reason 
that, as Maureen Dowd has pointed out, "The moral authority of parents who 
bury children killed in Iraq is absolute." Pariser puts it this way: 
"There's literally almost nothing you could say that cancels out the grief 
of a mother who lost her son, the strength of that voice. Conservatives, 
the smart ones at least, know that you can float all sorts of rumors and 
allegations and lies, but you can't challenge the integrity and the pain of 
a mother who lost her kid."

The antiwar movement is not pinning all its efforts on Sheehan, certainly. 
It still plans street protests; United for Peace and Justice is organizing 
a march on Washington on Sept. 24. And even if Sheehan is not damaged by 
her past statements, the movement could well stumble with the public in 
other ways.

One lingering question is the movement's position toward Iraqi insurgents, 
which is undefined, and which may leave the people who are against the war 
vulnerable to the charge that they are comforting terrorists in calling for 
a withdrawal from Iraq. According to Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator 
for United for Peace and Justice, the group has adopted no formal response 
to Iraqi insurgents because there is a wide range of opinions about the 
matter among UFPJ's member groups. Cagan says that within the group there 
is "a general feeling that we understand why people are using many tactics 
to fight against the occupation by the U.S. military, but we do not support 
terrorists or organized paramilitary groups."

Still, the antiwar movement remains determined to broaden its focus. Medea 
Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, the women's group that has worked 
closely with Sheehan to publicize her protest, says that wide appeal 
finally seems possible. Benjamin is a hard-liner in the movement but 
"that's the direction the country is moving in," she says. "As the peace 
movement gets more and more organized and reaches into faith-based 
organizations, unions, teachers, youth in the schools," more and more 
people will come to believe that "fighting in Iraq is not worth it."

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