Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.
~ Mark Twain
I got both into and out of active politics while in my late twenties, shortly after my graduation from law school. I was impressed with Barry Goldwater; became executive secretary of my state’s Republican party organization; and got elected as part of our state’s delegation to the 1964 Republican national convention. My initial enthusiasm for political action quickly dissolved in the realism that politics was nothing more than a vicious racket; that trying to reform the process was as pointless as trying to clean up the Mafia. 1964 was the last year in which I devoted any of my energies to such purposes, including voting.
During my short stay in the political circus, I noticed attributes of both "liberals" and "conservatives" that carry over in the present. In terms of how they communicated with the general public, liberals were brighter and more clever than conservatives. Like snake-oil peddlers or good magicians, liberals could put on a show to bamboozle people to embrace their programs. In contrast, conservative policies were presented with the level of excitement one would get from reading the annual report of a corporation.
With the failure of its economic and social interventionist policies becoming more evident in recent decades, liberalism has had a difficult time rationalizing its existence, and has become as useless to its constituencies as legs on a snake. Modern conservatism, on the other hand, has become anchored in maintaining the status quo, a purpose often tied to police, military force, and other instruments of institutionalized order. With liberalism in a thoroughly lobotomized state, conservatives find themselves in an open field with which to pursue their preferences for expanded coercive policies.
There is, however, a cost to politics that none of the participating parties can afford to confront: the diminution of respect for the worthiness of the individual. Politics both degrades and destroys life, nowhere in a more depraved manner than in the institution of war. For centuries, young men and women — and their families — have been told fantastic lies to get them to throw themselves on a grenade in furtherance of some allegedly "noble purpose." The current war in Iraq is but the latest chapter in this swinish endeavor, with administration liars and their media megaphones constantly changing the rationale for the resulting death and destruction.
One woman has chosen to call all of this into question. Cindy Sheehan — whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq last year — has been waiting outside George Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch for him to come out and explain to her "what was the noble cause Casey died for"? She openly confronts the Bush administration’s claim that ending the war now would "dishonor" those who have died. She responds that "by sending honorable people to die, they so dishonor themselves. They say we must complete our mission . . . but why would I want one more mother to go through what I have, just because my son is dead?" She wants to tell Mr. Bush "don’t you dare spill any more blood in Casey’s name."
This is powerful language, not just because it comes from a mother whose son was killed as a result of an act of unprovoked aggression by the United States against Iraq; but because her words are a clear challenge to the collective mindset upon which every mob depends for its power. Cindy’s stance is reminiscent of that of Wang Wei-lin, the young man who confronted the row of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. When the human spirit stands up to the cold, faceless, dehumanizing, destructive machinery of the state, there is a release of emotional energy whose force transcends material calculation.
Cindy’s efforts have met with the unsophisticated response one has come to expect from modern conservative voices. The reptilian "see-act" reactions of such people as Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and John Gibson, only scratch the surface of the thoughtless rage with which conservatives confront a world beyond their ken. So, how did the Bush-leaguers propose to deal with Cindy’s actions? By threatening to have her arrested…, in the name of what has become the default explanation for state excesses: "national security"! As Mr. Bush gushes about Americans fighting for "freedom," his administration threatens Cindy with arrest for exercising hers!
The liberal establishment — the left wing of the state’s bird of prey — would have been just as indifferent to Cindy’s plea as are the conservatives. Liberals would not, however, have been so unbelievably stupid as to attack a lone, grieving mother, and threaten her with arrest. A liberal president would have met with this woman to "feel her pain" — with full media coverage, of course — before proceeding with the conduct of his bloody warfare.
Because the state depends, for its existence, upon the enforcement of collectivized thinking, Cindy Sheehan — along with her message — must be marginalized. Lies must be metabolized by the body politic; the immune system must remain on the alert for viruses of truth and understanding that might infect individual minds and enervate the collective organism. Such responses remind me of the apocryphal description of lobsters in a pot of water who, upon seeing a fellow crustacean trying to escape, pull him back with the others.
In an effort to render Cindy’s thoughts inconsequential, the established order has paraded onto television families whose sons died in Iraq. One spoke of the "very noble cause" for which his brother had died, and praised America for the willingness to "sacrifice our people." When asked about Cindy’s actions — which it was the network’s purpose to have this man criticize — he responded that we should "praise the sacrifice," and the fact that the soldiers had "died for a cause greater than themselves." The mother of another dead soldier — when asked to contrast her position with Cindy’s — stated "we support our president," adding that she believed her son had died for a noble cause.
Other relatives of Casey Sheehan issued a statement — at whose behest it was not made known — disagreeing with Cindy’s "political motivations" and "publicity tactics." Of course, their public statement was free of "political motivations" and lacking in "publicity tactics," as they concluded that the rest of the family "supports the troops, our country, and our President."
I have no quarrel with the families of dead soldiers wanting to believe that their children died for some important purpose. Even Cindy Sheehan’s question to George Bush asks for an explanation of the cause for which her son died. It is a part of human nature to want our lives to have some transcendent purpose, and when young people die before they have had an opportunity to define and act upon such a meaning for their lives, it is truly sad. To believe that there was something "noble" in the death of a young man or woman becomes a way of surmounting the feeling that their lives were meaningless. Such emotions are often found following the murders of small children, with parents engaging in efforts to draft a piece of legislation or create a foundation, either of which might bear the name of a fallen child.
In Gaelic, the name "Sheehan" means "peace maker." It is precisely the desire of Cindy and millions of others to foster peace and prevent additional deaths — whether of Americans or Iraqis — that underlies the campaign President Bush and other statists strive to marginalize. This war has been nothing but one string of ever-changing lies from the beginning. The spinmeisters continue to exploit the suffering that their lies, forgeries, and deceptions have created for untold thousands of people. The twisted-ribbon bumper-stickers that read "support the troops" have a hidden message that often comes through in the course of further discussion: "support the war and support President Bush; sacrifice the troops."
As this psychopathic administration now scans its world atlas for new targets upon which to direct its forces of "shock and awe," it is time for all of us to understand that there is nothing "noble" in the systematic slaughter of people. There is no "honor" in bringing grief and suffering to others; and no transcendent "purpose" in being part of a collective of fungible human beings to be exploited for whatever ends suit those with ambitions over the lives of others. "Life" belongs to living individuals, not to the state, a message each of us must impart to our children and grandchildren as they learn to resist the seductions of those who would destroy them. It is also time for Americans to take a stand with Cindy Sheehan and help this country rediscover its soul, and return to the sense of decency from which it has so aimlessly strayed.
We might begin our transformation with the lesson offered by a friend of Kurt Vonnegut as the two returned from Europe following their World War II soldiering. Vonnegut asked this man what he had learned from his wartime experiences, to which his friend replied: "not to believe my government."
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.