Outspoken activist Cindy Sheehan demonstrates her soft side before the start of the Democracy and Dissent panel discussion at Drury University recently.
After her son U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan was killed while serving in Iraq, Cindy Sheehan has found it incredible that anyone would try to marginalize her by holding up signs calling her a "disgrace." She considers her anti-war actions based on a primal level only a mother can understand. She also defends the right to protest by those opposed to her in order to justify her right to her opinions.
"We need to find common ground," Sheehan said. "If you sat down with me for 10 minutes we could have a rational discussion."
Calling attention to the rightwing media's portrayal of her as "stupid without credentials," Sheehan said she raised '"four amazing kids," published three books and was demonstrating her "humanness" in wanting to sacrifice her entire life to change something that she saw that was "so wrong." While she joked that she was awarded a sixth grade spelling bee medal, she also reminded everyone that she had the privilege of speaking her mind last month to Iraqi parliamentarians, that she had provided input in several Congressional hearings and was continuing to meet with Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), and most importantly that because of her actions the world knows there is a peace movement.
She thinks that the nation has been "rocked to sleep" and is not really concerned about the war. Taking a stand, she said, is more than putting a magnet on one's car supporting the troops. And in assessing priorities, people, she said, are more concerned over what's in Anna Nicole's refrigerator than about the war.
"'The Man' really doesn't want us to make a difference," Sheehan said. She called attention to the belief that her voice couldn't be heard amongst a cacophony of voices.
When thinking about Bush her anger increased, and it evoked a series of sound bites. It may be this passion that overrides her more maternal side and that of doing something to prevent another mother from weeping.
We're descended from another King George, she said. If we didn't protest, we'd all be speaking English... If you ever put President and Bush in the same paragraph, put quotes around President...The Bush Administration uses 1984 as a play guide: war is peace and cowards are heroes...And if you step away from government that lies like it's the truth, you don't have power any more.
When Bush, whom she said went AWOL, was given a Purple Heart. Sheehan said it demeaned her son's Purple Heart.
Why aren't millions of us in the streets demanding George Bush resign? That's something Sheehan says the world doesn't understand.
"We the people are sovereigns," she said, meaning that we are independent and free not only to exert influence at the ballot box but to hold our elected officials accountable for doing their jobs. "We don't deserve a cowardly commander-in-chief," she said, but one who really "defends America, not to defend Halliburton, and not to make Dick Cheney richer."
"Every time an Iraqi soul is killed our soul is killed," she said, adding that Americans need to face the reality that America is not the center of the universe but a small part.
"It's a specious argument that we don't support the troops," she commented in defense of her group, Gold Star Families for Peace. "They [the troops] are honorable brave people."
And to show her support for the troops, Sheehan said that she has turned over her land that she owns in Texas for the development of a therapeutic center for the wounded who return home.
The military strategist speaks
Sheehan, at left, shares ideas with Col. Michael Meese. While Meese said his thinking runs counter to hers, he remained open to an exchange of ideas, an important component of civil debate and dissent.
Col. Michael Meese, who as General David H. Petraeus' chief economic advisor, helped coordinate security and reconstruction efforts in Baghdad, would have suggested to the outsiders that the panel discussion was a good example of informed civil debate. While he admitted that he and Cindy would not agree on much, he would consider the ability to talk to each other critical. He called the lack of interaction between groups an "echo chamber effect" and gave as an example listening to one's favorite radio talk show host rather than studying both sides of an issue rationally and open-mindedly.
While Meese said he wasn't speaking on behalf of the government, he did wear his army uniform bedecked with medals. (He happens, by the way, to be the son of Edwin Meese III, the 75th attorney general under President Ron Reagan and a member of the bi-partisan Iraqi Study Group.)
The gist of his speech was that dissent should be civil and well-informed. He chastised educational establishments for not providing courses dealing with the study of the military and its role in national security. He even called attention to the shortfall of the Drury catalog with its two "military" courses, one on the study of the Civil War and the other on marching techniques.
He also called for more broad-based participation in the military citing the miniscule percentage of Ivy League graduates who enter military service. On this subject he suggested that the audience read, AWOL-unexcused absence of America's upper classes and what it means to our country by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. The authors ponder the question, how did we change from a nation where military service was a duty of citizenship -- akin to paying taxes or serving on a jury -- to one where simply being asked to consider time in uniform is an infringement of civil rights? Meese like the authors believes that the schism between America's military and its opinion-making class threatens the nation's welfare.
The apocalyptic discourser
Drury's own Rick Maxson, pictured at right, a rhetorical scholar and member of the communications department, would have invited in the outside flag wavers simply to redefine what it means to be patriotic. While he easily charged up the audience by convincing them to sing after demonstrating the power of song--how could one not wave a flag, no matter what side of the fence one sits, singing America the Beautiful--he reiterated several rules for dissent. Chiefly among them are to hit the pause button before reacting, check why dialog failed, or in essence to be a student of protest.
Not wanting his ideas to be confused with "disloyal subversion," Maxson said, "I like a little rebellion now and again." Without dissent he said we get: the Bay of Pigs, the Challenger tragedy and sex in the most respectful of churches.
Maxson described the power of institutions and how they squash dissention. But he implied that sometimes one's conscience becomes such an overriding force that no amount of brainwashing can control it.
"Never underestimate the persuasive power of a morally outraged mother," Maxson told the crowd, showing his affinity with Sheehan's cause. "Unlikely people become social movement activists."
As an example, he cited Betty Williams, an eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner, who gathered 6000 signatures on a petition for peace days after the untimely death of three Catholic school children. They had been killed instantly by an out of control car driven by an Irish Republican Army fugitive fatally shot by British authorities. Williams had witnessed the deaths while she was walking nearby.
Consider also Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Her daughter was hit by a drunken hit-and-run driver as she walked down a suburban California street.
Dissenters to the Iraqi War, Maxson pointed out, are not disaffected Hippies but instead comprise a multi-generational group like "Plumbers for Peace."