Thursday, August 18, 2005

The three faces of Cindy
Cindy Sheehan has become a sort of Rohorsach test of people's opinions on the war and Bush. There seem to be three rather rough narratives circulating about her character and actions. As you might expect, most people are predisposed to accept one particular narrative over the others. The primary factors in determining which narrative a person chooses are their opinion of Bush as a person and of the war as a policy. Equally unsurprisingly, the narratives are not being consistently applied. The narratives, and their appeal across the political spectrum, look something like this.

Sheehan herself is pushing the narrative that appeals to the Left. In this, she is a sympathetic character and her actions are sincere and reasonable. She is a grief-stricken mother who is not convinced by the reasons the president has given for having put her son in a dangerous situation to begin with. She thinks he owes her, all grieving mothers, and the general public a better explanation.

The middle narrative also makes Sheehan a sympathetic character, but her actions are confused and not altogether reasonable. In this narrative Sheehan, the grief-stricken mother, has become obsessed with explaining the unexplainable (why a particular person must die at a particular time). Unscrupulous political partisans and extremists are taking advantage of her to push their own agendas. The reasonable course would be for her to tend to her grief in private.

In the narrative that appeals to the Right, Sheehan is a devious character and her actions are insincere but reasonable given her goals. To the right, Sheehan was a ruthless partisan even before Casey was killed and she has rationally chosen to exploit his death to further her agenda. Because of this, she is a bad mother and forfeits any sympathy she might be entitled to.

I've simplified this a great deal. There are a large number of subtexts involved that could be interpreted in terms of marketing, politics, feminism, and cultural mythology. There are also a few off-the-wall narratives floating around that don't fit into this schematic. The broadest generalization I can make is that to the Left, both Sheehan and her actions are honorable and deserving of respect and to the Right neither Sheehan nor her actions are honorable or deserving of respect. The middle is inclined to be sympathetic of Sheehan but uncomfortable with her actions.

What is the source of this discomfort? I think the clearest source of discomfort is the American and Protestant sense that certain emotions should not be displayed in public. We see a level of impropriety in displaying "bad" emotions in public and in any display of strong emotion. There is very little political in this discomfort, we just feel that we shouldn't be seeing this and wish she wouldn't be stirring up our emotions like this.

Another level of discomfort comes from the feeling that she and others are exploiting the death of her son and her resulting grief. While this discomfort isn't especially political, the discomfort itself is being exploited in a political way. The right-wing narrative that she is a bad mother is based on this. It allows them to claim her grief in insincere and that the death of her son means nothing more to her than a political opportunity.

Because the majority is inclined to take her grief at face value, the Right itself has trouble consistently pushing this argument. When they face the middle, they back off and embrace the middle narrative of Sheehan as an innocent captive of partisan interests. This is implied in their loud trumpeting of the false anecdote of Sheehan "changing her story." That anecdote allows them to give respect to her grief in the past, while claiming that she has been corrupted into an wholly partisan creature who is not worthy of our sympathy in the present.

There is an interesting reflection here of the Right's tendency to divide people into categories of deserving and undeserving. Whether or not a person is deserving of our human kindness, sympathy, or charity is not determined by their need or circumstances. It is instead determined by innate markers of character. To the Right, Sheehan's response to her son's death showed the wrong character and so she forfeited her right to our sympathy. All of us have a little of this type of judgmentalism in us, but it becomes more absolute and more central to the world-view the further right you move. On the far right, it's easy to say she was always undeserving and leave it at that, but to appeal to the middle they must temper their judgment (or the public statement of it) and say that, while she might once have deserved our sympathy, she no longer deserves it.

The most overtly political source of discomfort is the issue of patriotism. We have been taught that in a time of war, we must all put aside our differences and unite to face our common foes. Patriotism means rallying around the flag. There is a long historical precedent for this and a large literature of the consequences of failing to do so. Although people will give lip-service to the concept of freedom of speech there is an implied "but" to the endorsement where war is concerned. "Supporting the troops requires you to shut-up and support the president" is an effective argument with too many people.

But now, a large number of people no longer support the war or the president. This makes many of them uncomfortable. War should make things nicely black and white and this war has not. It doesn't matter that most wars fail to bring moral clarity, for some reason, we still expect the next one to do so. Cindy Sheehan makes people confront the uncomfortable ambiguity of their feelings about the war. While they find her a sympathetic character and are starting to support her political position, they aren't sure they should. The accusation that supporting her makes them unpatriotic, frankly stings.

In the long run, I think the symbol of a grieving mother is more powerful than an accusation of lack of patriotism. While Cindy Sheehan might make people uncomfortable, she has probably had the effect of forcing people to clarify their positions on the war in their own minds. I'm not sure that she will have changed many minds, but I think this firming up of positions has probably been to the benefit of the anti-war side. And, since that's my side, I think that's a good thing.

No comments: