Let me add to the way-too-many posts around the internet concerning Cindy Sheehan. She’s such an odd player on the media-politics scene, really. Few real vocal sympathizers in the image-media scene – though, it is worth saying, her take on the War in Iraq has been pretty much mainstream for the past year: back that shit up and come home.
What has been so divisive, if not uniformly hostile, about Sheehan’s presence? I get the hostility from the Right. They want her to go away because she’s too public and too sensitive of a figure for blunt, mean-spirited critique. You could almost hear the Right’s sigh of relief when she met with Chavez. It gave referrent for venom, and then the critique moved from substance (which would be hard to do, turns out she’s right) to character assassination (easy to do, the specialty of the Right these days). So, I get that part of the story.
I find it really interesting when folks on the Left turn on Sheehan. I’m thinking in particular about the new write-up from Joan Walsh on Salon.com, which raises a big objection to Sheehan’s new threat: running against Nancy Pelosi. Walsh’s criticism is pretty straightforward. In calling for impeachment proceedings, Walsh thinks Sheehan is heading down a destructive path, namely, alienating the swing-ish voters who have pushed the Democrats into power. Not sure if she’s right about that, but the argument is clear and strategic. What concerns me is not so much the nature of the strategy – though I don’t see Pelosi as an especially galvanizing figure, nationally – but rather what it says about the meaning of activism in relation to politics.
The decisive part of Walsh’s argument is here:
Until then, I think it’s the wrong move for the Democratic leadership to push right now — I think their priorities have to be stopping the war, winning the White House and retaining control of Congress in November 2008 — and I think Sheehan’s threat to run against Pelosi is misguided. It just shows how much work the left has to do to build a voter base that understands the importance of avoiding circular firing squads. Nancy Pelosi isn’t perfect — I wasn’t thrilled with the way she tried to depict the Democrats’ cave-in on the war-funding bill as some kind of victory — but she’s done a decent job holding together a fractious caucus that isn’t unanimous about anything, including the war. She is not the enemy.
To this she ads the rather derisive remark that “lefties love symbolic fights,” fights that ultimately lose general sympathy (and so elections).
Maybe. I think that is open to question.
What is so strange about this criticism is that it actually asks Sheehan to be purely symbolic – while wielding the charge of “symbolic fights” against the Left. (I’m not so convinced that symbolic fights are bad, but, whatever.) And this is the peculiar place of activism in popular life in the U.S. We prefer it stay at the level of symbolism, perhaps even just an alternative aesthetic or lifestyle (see my post on The Beatles and another on The Clash), and get really anxious when it moves to the level of political change. I’d argue that this is where the Left actually fails to register the successes of the Right. The Right never hesitates to move activism into politics. It has served them well. From abortion to affirmative action and school busing to regressive taxation – i.e., women, blacks, money – the Right has put edgy activism into law and politics. The Left’s real failure has been the unwillingness to take this very risk. To mean what you say. And act on it.
Activism on the Left is still just so saturated with the ghost of the 1960s. That is, the fantasy that something was really changed in Viet Nam, rather than seeing in that movement what is so glaringly true: nothing changed politically in that historical moment, and, after that, things actually got worse. Nixon seems almost progressive these days, just as the “sixties generation” takes political and economic power as its own.
So, when Sheehan moves to mean what she says, I’m not surprised to see the Left begin turning on her. To be “not thrilled” with Pelosi’s spin on caving-in to a crazy, last-breath Right is straight-up soft. It means you don’t really care if your words and principles have actual bite in the world. Disappointment is not outrage. We should be outraged. Let’s remember and keep this always in the center: war is about a bunch of people dying and being maimed. And all those waves of people changed forever because of that dying and maiming. “Meaning what you say” in this context seems an almost foundational moral requirement. Shame on the Left who criticizes Sheehan for this statement and, maybe, actual plan of action.
In the end, I’m just as concerned about what this says about the Left’s attitude toward women and activism. Walsh’s write-up smacks of this sentiment, just barely beneath surface of the strategic concerns: you’re a mother. Go mourn your son and love your children. That split between the domestic and the political has done so much harm to women. You know what, ladies? Don’t bring THAT stuff out here in the big boy world. And it has done real harm to our public life. The concerns of “mothers,” literally or figuratively (your choice), are actually the concerns of a good society: how we live and eat and suffer and die. I don’t think we have to scratch much at these sort of sentiments before that very sentiment comes out. Consider Walsh’s own words:
I was also a little relieved when Sheehan said she’d retired from the movement in May. I never wanted to criticize Sheehan; she lost her son and she tried to do something brave and world-changing with her grief…In May she told reporters she was taking a break from the struggle to spend more time with her three children, and I was happy for her.
And yet making that grief political – rather than just symbolic, edging into politics – over-reaches? Maybe we have a lot still to learn from this mother, in particular that an aesthetic revolution is no revolution at all. That is, posturing as a mournful mother, while it might grant Walsh et. al. some relief and “happy for her” feelings (aesthetic effect par excellence!), makes no change in how we live and suffer and die.