Cindy Sheehan’s announcement that she will no longer be an active public figure in the antiwar movement has provoked a revival of harsh criticism of her, not only from the right, as expected, but from the left as well. Tammy Bruce is particularly cutting, as was the Democratic Underground.
I never thought the common explanations for her behavior, pro and con, adequately explained her motivations. We like things to be simple in our public figures, enacting the myth that we have assigned to them so we can put them in a box. It’s intellectually and emotionally tidy that way.
It has been an interesting exercise for me to look at the explanatory power of the various simplifications of Cindy Sheehan and where they fall short, in order to find a combination which covers the waterfront. I would first like to clear out the debris of discussing personal attractiveness. This should be irrelevant, but both men and women, both right and left, are likely to disparage their opponents’ appearance. Conservative men have been brutally insulting regarding Ms. Sheehan’s looks. I don’t get it. Most of the unflattering caricature and snide remarks relate to traits related to age. I think we should expect mothers of servicemen to be older than Lindsey Lohan, shouldn’t we?
Tangent: men praise or criticise women’s basic attractiveness, women are more likely to evaluate style. I suspect that women are making an indirect comment about themselves when they pronounce judgement on other women – too overdressed, too cheap, too the-90’s-are-over-honey. These are equally irrelevant, just a different focus. I also don’t think that people care that much, even when they are the ones making the comment. Most people, when you press them, would agree that Hillary Clinton’s figure and Katherine Harris’s eyeliner aren’t important. I conclude from this that people say these things not because they are relevant but because they hurt. In an appearance-oriented society, where women are already self-conscious, you can make it sting. Our usual complaint is that people are being shallow with these evaluations. I think gratuitous cruelty is closer to the mark. Cindy Sheehan isn’t especially unattractive, and people just used that as one more way to kick her. You can get something of the same effect with male public figures, calling Bush a chimp or Kerry “Lurch,” but the intensity isn’t the same.
Back to Cindy are her motivations. She has been accused of being an attention whore. There’s likely something to that, but really good attention whores start earlier and are better at keeping it once they’ve got it. As applause addicts, sudden attention might go to their heads, causing them to miscalculate the long-term effect on your popularity of cozying up to Hugo Chavez, but they generally avoid those mistakes. Real attention whores are more calculating than that, protecting the supply of their drug for later. Ms. Sheehan clearly enjoyed all the attention. She played to it, she got energised by it, she came back for more. Yet in the end she acquiesced in dropping out of sight. There might be some attention-seeking in her method of exit, but she could do more to keep in the public eye. Rosie O’Donnell keeps ratcheting up the outrageousness to stay visible; Cindy Sheehan could have done the same. As nice as the attention was, in the end it wasn’t everything.
On the pro side are those folks who claim that she’s just a sincere grieving mother who opposes this war, a noble sacrificing type willing to endure all this criticism for the sake of her cause. Well, maybe. But people with a single cause tend not to water it down by throwing in every criticism that comes to hand. They try not to get into the whole “corporate fascists” routine or tying it into kicking Israel. Those extras are for people whose cause is broader, who want a whole basket of changes in the economy, social policy, and education. Could Cindy Sheehan be a clumsy one-issue person, who cares mostly about the war but has these few other things she gets carried away with? Perhaps. But where does Chavez come into that, or Cuban medical care? A True Believer can get distracted, or seek coalition partners, but usually don’t spread themselves that thin. The myth of the anti-war specialist also doesn’t explain enough. From the start, she has wanted to change more about America than just being in Iraq.
Blog comments often call her stupid or brainless. That can’t be. It takes some wit even to take vapid cliches and put them in your own words, and Ms. Sheehan went well beyond that. I don’t think she’s going to go on and study neuroscience with her free time, but she’s not stupid. Naïve may be closer to the mark, or unwitting. Moonbat? One of those who believe that because it would be a better world if certain things were true, we should pretend they are true to help them along? Folks who believe only herbs are necessary for healing, or that you can reason with tyrants are certainly spread out across the IQ spectrum, so it’s not an intelligence issue per se (All together now: Imagine there’s no countries…). That could be what’s up with Cindy, believing that if we could just get rid of George Bush and a few neocons, sanity would be restored to the world and the Belgians would help us out in putting pressure on Iran.
But that also leaves unexplained a moderate parcel of facts. She’s disillusioned with the Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and is walking off the stage. Moonbats just switch to another venue and promise to keep up the struggle. Also, Cindy didn’t start with a lot of these views, but picked them up from her supporters and handlers along the way.
Supporters and handlers. This intrigues me. She has clearly been used by people who could not care less about her or Casey, but have causes and power grabs of their own in play. Spokespeople can get caught up in being Vox Populi, and submerge their own personalities under the group identity. If you are the “face” of the antiwar movement, or the “voice” of it, then that’s sort of an enormous personality in itself. There are people who are so weak in their own core that being a figurehead is the closest thing they have to having a personality. Teddy Kennedy seems to fit this, being the outspoken representative of whatever is most important to Massachusetts Democrats, however that changes over the years.
This would line up well with the theory that this is the grief reaction of a mother whose purpose in life seems to have gone away. That he died for values in opposition to hers would be a further erosion of her own sense of worth. I can relate to that. If my children died, I would wonder what the whole point of my life had been. If they died in some way that was a negation of my values, it would go down even harder. Additionally, when one can identify some evil as having caused the death – drunk driving, neocon agenda, spina bifida – then parents often find purpose in removing that evil so that others do not share the same grief. At its best, this is the healthy defense mechanism of sublimation. Our own reality cannot be changed, but perhaps we can change things for others. It is an important distinction to keep in mind that even a foolish cause intellectually can be a healthy response psychologically. We turn our grief into self-sacrifice, though it is no guarantee that we give ourselves wisely.
People who have endured great grief can go on to smile, and laugh, and resume normal life, and this casts no shadow on their sincerity. That Cindy Sheehan is able to enjoy herself with friends, or being fussed over and listened to does not in itself invalidate her grief. But to take such enjoyment in the particular acts she did verges on celebrating her grief rather than his life. That undermines the sublimation explanation.
No single explanation satisfies me