—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Media Monitor
26 August 2005

Cindy Sheehan, George W. Bush ... and the ghost of Christopher Hitchens

Let's begin by recounting some history too recent to forget. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin launched his invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he did so on the basis of a terrorist threat from PLO guerillas in south Lebanon, and he told the Israeli people that the army would complete their mission within days. The 'threat' was, of course, non-existent: the PLO had launched no attacks over Israel's northern border in a year, and the Palestinians even proved unprovokable in the face of Isreal's repeated bombing raids. Yet the Israeli army, then under the helm of Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, had at that stage been planning an invasion of Lebanon for a year: the scheme was to create a new Lebanese government dominated by a Maronite Christian junta allied to Israel - an arrangement which would leave Lebanon a bulwark against Palestinian (or other Arab) hostility directed at Israel. Therefore some sort of casus belli had to be found, however indigestible and outlandish. Then along came the attempted assassination - in London - of Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to Britain. The shooting was carried out by the Palestinian terrorist group Abu Nidal, who were openly at war with the PLO. Following this non-PLO non-provocation, columns of Israeli tanks poured over the northern border into Lebanon. Within 48 hours, they had reached Beirut.

The denouement? Far from getting out of Lebanon within days, as Begin promised, the IDF became trapped in the Lebanese quagmire for years. (Their fate was sealed with the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Maronite militiaman hand-picked to become the new Lebanese Prime Minister.) The war literally outlasted Begin, who, a year after the invasion, resigned as Prime Minister, fell into deep despondency, and became a recluse. Eventually the populace he had frightened into acquiescence turned on him. Protestors outraged at his lies and the consequences of those lies refused to leave him in peace, and kept up a 24/7 demonstration outside his home, regularly updating a sign with the latest death toll from the continuing war.

Sound familiar? It should. The fraudulent threat from a vastly weaker foe; the long-planned invasion; the absence of a provocation; the initial walkover victory followed by a quagmire nobody saw coming; the inability of vast military power to turn an enemy state into an 'ally against terror'. On and on it goes. Oh, and the protestors outside the premier's home.

Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, has been at the helm of the ongoing protest outside President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Her grief is palpable but neither overstated nor overplayed; she plainly knows that her son died uselessly for a lie; and she has herself stated that she wants no other parent to have to experience what she went through.

Like Begin, Bush to date has not attended a single funeral of a soldier killed in his war. And like Begin, he has remained cloistered in his castle, haunted by the protestors outside. When he emerged it was not to meet with Mrs. Sheehan, but to seek stage-managed support within a Republican-voting stronghold. His psephologists seem to have selected Idaho as 'safe ground', and Bush duly flew there on August 24 to address a crowd of 9500 people, including military personnel. With robotic predictability his spin doctors also located an anti-Sheehan for him to extoll the virtues of, and on cue he praised one Tammy Pruett, who has four sons serving in Iraq and whom Bush quoted as saying: 'I know that if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country.'

After Rudyard Kipling's son died during World War I, the poet mournfully wrote: 'If they ask us why they died, tell them that their fathers lied.' Well, George W. Bush has indeed taken up Kipling's 'white man's burden' of bringing civilisation to a third world country, and the results thus far have been as predictable as any from the colonial era.

Mainstream media reaction in the United States to l'affaire Sheehan has followed the same dreadful trajectory as that of Elian Gonzalez and Jessica Lynch. In all three cases, relatively insignificant individuals have been briefly placed in a highly concentrated beam of limelight because of their presence at the centre of a major political issue. And in all three cases, the larger political issue has been mostly forgotten while the press focused on the individual's plight. In the case of Gonzales, one could at least say that the coverage dragged on because the custody issue itself dragged on. But the national Lynch obsession carried on long after her well-filmed rescue was over, and the media bilge-pump tooks months to run dry.[1] So devoid of content was the Lynch story that it snowflaked into meta-stories: while waiting for her to come home, for example, one TV channel ran a news feature about the battle between TV channels for the first interview with Lynch. In short, the Jessica Lynch affair self-diluted into news about news. The Crawford protest is in similar danger of being trivialized to death.

But what about reaction to the Crawford protest from right-wing media pundits? Well, that too has been predictable. MSNBC's White House correspondent Nora O'Donnell, for example, coined the delightfully Orwellian term 'anti-war extremists'. Ann Coulter, still struggling to get in touch with her feminine side, spewed that the Crawford protest movement was 'engaging in Stalinist agitprop', and that Mrs. Sheehan herself was 'a C-list celebrity trolling for a book deal or a reality show'.[2] Such attention-seeking antics from Ms. Coulter are by now commonplace. What was not entirely expected was the manner in which the more educated and worldly Christopher Hitchens finally lost patience, shed politeness, and embraced the darkness.

It's possible to disagree with the political position of a grieving mother, and still do it politely and tactfully. After all, even a perfunctory show of respect will at least not alienate the undecided, and might even make those who oppose your own views think twice. Moreover, there are issues of basic decency here which one would hope don't require elaboration.

Hitchens, however, is an apostate, and when one defects from left to right one has to go all the way, adopting both tone and dogma. He simply cannot abide the idea of someone speaking from a morally authoritative position greater than his own about the war to which he gave full-throated endorsement. Some contrarians get a kind of adolescent thrill from knowing that they are crossing the line. But usually - as was once said of Jacques Cousteau - they know exactly how far to go in going too far. Hitchens, however, now wears his vulgarity on his sleeve and declaims that his behaviour is a principled position taken at some personal cost to himself.

So what do we learn from Hitchens about the bereaved mother who has decided not to descend into post-grief solipsism, but to canalize her personal mourning into an effort to stop a now-proven-fraudulent war? Apparently we learn that 'she is spouting sinister piffle' and 'LaRouche-like drivel'. Additionally, 'we must now say that, as well as being a vulgar producer of her own spectacle, and an embarrassment to her family, Cindy Sheehan is at best a shifty fantasist.' The protest movement in Crawford? 'What dreary sentimental nonsense this all is, and how much space has been wasted on it.' Mrs. Sheehan's sorry situation? 'Is Cindy Sheehan exempt from any verdict on her wacko opinions because of her bereavement? I would say that she is not.' Her dead son? 'I think one must deny to anyone the right to ventriloquize the dead. Casey Sheehan joined up as a responsible adult volunteer. Are we so sure that he would have wanted to see his mother acquiring "a knack for P.R." and announcing that he was killed in a war for a Jewish cabal?'[3]

Much of this is beneath both comment and contempt. But do note that the writer who denies 'the right to ventriloquize the dead' enthusiastically exercises the right to ventriloquize the Sheehan family, whom he claims are 'embarrassed' by their mother. (The corollary of this incautious admonition, of course, is that since Casey Sheehan himself was part of this family, he is among the dead being ventriloquized by Hitchens.)

The 'Jewish cabal' smear (which presumably inspired the 'Larouche' smear which Hitchens subsequently admitted in Counterpunch that he would withdraw) refers to Sheehan's artless remark that the Iraq invasion was 'a war for Israel', which, in my view, formed barely a fifth of the impetus for the invasion. Nonetheless, Hitchens must rephrase the remark so that it passes over the threshold into outright scurrilousness, and then juxtapose Mrs. Sheehan with revolting demagogues like David Duke and Pat Buchanan, whom Mrs. Sheehan did not invite to her side. Hitchens is an educated fellow - he is surely familiar with the adage that an idea is not responsible for the kind of people who believe in it. I could, as a counterpoint, take the example of the pro-Bush anti-protestor who drove his pickup truck into Camp Casey and mowed down a fieldful of white crosses planted in honour of fallen sons in Iraq. I could, as a cheap shot, speculate that this literal trampling of figurative graves has come from a true Bush loyalist, and represents the hard core of his constituency. But that would be too facile, low, and - at this stage - Hitchens-like.

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1 Even as late as August 15 2005, Time posed 10 Questions for Jessica Lynch
2 Ann Coulter, 'Cindy Sheehan: Commander in Grief', Front Page, 18 August, 2005
3 Hitchens, Slate, 'Cindy Sheehan's sinister piffle' (15 August 2005); 'What Cindy Sheehan really wants', (19 August 2005)