A Thoreau for Our Time
Why Cindy Sheehan Matters
By JEFF BIRKENSTEIN
"I mean [the Iraq war] is bad
and I want it over, but . . . I mean you just have to ignore [the protestors]."
-as explained to me by a woman, in
town to support Bush's second inauguration, over Subway sandwiches in the food court of Smithsonian's National Museum of American
History, Washington DC, January 22, 2005
"To announce that there must be no
criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but
it is morally treasonable to the American public."
"Should I keep back my opinions at
such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason toward my country. . ." Patrick
and the gang don't get it. Neither does Karl Rove. Of course, George W. Bush doesn't get it. They just don't understand why
I was standing on a sidewalk with about 250 other people a few of weeks ago, one person lost amidst a sea of handmade signs
and dripping candle wax. Oh, sure, in theory I headed to downtown Olympia, WA in support of über-Iraq-War protester Cindy
Sheehan. But amidst all the ugly, if typical, personal attacks against her, what Sheehan detractors/Bush supporters do not
understand is that her exact words in this interview with CNN or that one with MSNBC do not matter. To be honest, I don't
even follow Sheehan's every movement or monitor her every word. Certainly I sympathize with her loss, but I am unable to internalize
her loss as my own. Empathy versus sympathy, I suppose.
Rather, as an American citizen, I
am concerned with this nation as a whole and how, finally, we are beginning to challenge Bush and his policies, policies which
are expending vast amounts of American blood and treasure on a country that was no serious threat to the United States before
Bush launched his invasion. I went to that rally because, I now realize, the long and illustrious tradition of American civil
disobedience has changed, and changed utterly, from the "law-breaking" days of Rosa Parks. While this New Civil Disobedience
involves obeying the law (that is, breaking storefront windows and throwing Molotov cocktails are counter-productive),
at the same time it requires that those who feel compelled to do so must-dammit!-speak up. As philosopher John Lukacs
explains, today, perhaps more than ever before, the masses-of which I am a proud member-matter:
The world is governed, especially
in the democratic age, not by the accumulation of goods, but by the accumulation of opinions. History is formed by, and politics
dependent upon, how and what large masses of people are thinking and desiring, fearing and hating.
I went to the protest/vigil to follow
Sheehan's lead, yes, but to also do my part in wresting the political monologue away from Bush and his neocons (or is that
the neocons and their Bush?) and changing this country for the better by honestly and openly debating our current state of
Sheehan has expressed virtually no
new ideas in her protests. Rather, she has given face and credibility-sadly, she earned her credibility with the death of
her son-to sentiments that have previously existed. Before Sheehan, expressing these ideas of patriotic dissent have come
only in fits and starts, mostly fits. Examples abound. For instance, when Condoleeza Rice was about to be confirmed as Bush's
second-term Secretary of State, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, while desiring no questions of the soon-to-be-sworn in
Secretary of State that might be construed as a challenge (such as, "Why didn't you do more to respond to the August 6, 2001
Presidential Daily Briefing entitled 'Bin Laden determined to strike in US'"?), begrudgingly allowed that "Partisanship has
its time and place." But, he continued, "We are at this point in time a nation at war. We need the strength of all our resources
to fight and win and I'm disappointed that others, on the other side of the aisle, have taken this moment to wage a partisan
campaign" against Rice's nomination.
In response, Senate Minority Leader
Harry Reid got angry: "Silence is not an important part of American history but debate is," he said. "'Shut up and vote' is
not democracy." That Reid also got it wrong did not interfere with the spirit of his message. Whether Reid wants to admit
it or not, silence and its evil twin, acquiescence, have been important, thought rarely beneficial, to the history of the
United States. Or, put as only Lewis Lapham could: "It is at least conceivable that our freedoms of speech have made us speechless
and that the force of reasoned argument (out of favor in the opinion polls, of no interest to the producers of American
Idol) is as ineffective as the firelock on old [Rip] Van Winkle's gun." The silence of the populace indeed enabled many
dubious government exploits over the course of our history. At times silence can be golden and even productive, but the examples
are rare, even when well-intentioned. For instance, when Gore finally conceded the 2000 election (even if he didn't acknowledge
losing) he said: "For the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession." Bush, for
perhaps the first time in his public life, readily agreed with Gore: "Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans
share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements." While we know Rove doesn't agree with
his boss, Bush's idea was one of unity, of a common good greater than any one American. Though I question the genuineness
of both speakers, I certainly understand the sentiment.
Despite their pleas, however, our
country today finds itself more bitterly divided than at any time since the Viet Nam War. From the party of the loyal opposition
on down, we have been what I suspect is a silent majority of dissenters. But the time for silence is now over. And even if
we are not a majority, then we are certainly millions upon millions and must not accept what deTocqueville described as the
"tyranny of the majority" which "erects a formidable barrier around thought." As Paul Krugman says, we must speak up. We must
engage the opposition at every turn and let them know that they have "no right to lecture the rest of us about patriotism,"
especially this bastardized version of what English professor Richard Kaye calls "New Patriotism" where all dissenters are
"unpatriotic." I wonder, would the American people have allowed Bush to go into Iraq had he and his cabal been fully forthcoming?
Obviously, I don't know. But I do know that we, the silent dissenters, bear even more responsibility than Bush's supporters
because we at least see what is happening to this country and did not speak up loudly enough. As the Minneapolis-St. Paul
Star Tribune puts it:
In the case of Iraq, the American
public has failed [its soldiers]: we did not prevent the Bush administration from spending their blood in an unnecessary war
based on contrived concerns about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. President Bush and those around him lied, and the rest
of us let him. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes.
The silence is ending and the people
are beginning to make their voices heard. Only time can tell if it will it do any good in terms of our miserable situation
in Iraq. Sure, there will always be the naysayers like letter writer Cathy Derusha in the Seattle Times who writes
that "If you don't like what our nation has to offer, go somewhere else," a feeble command in the spirit of Samuel Johnson's
famous claim about patriotism being "the last refuge of a scoundrel." What is immediately certain is that the long-simmering
debate that Cindy Sheehan has put a face to is good in and of itself. Bush claims that the "best way to honor the lives that
have been given in this struggle is to complete the mission," but Bush himself has changed the reason for his invasion so
many times that Sheehan's questioning, if at times unfocused, is noble nevertheless. She is breaking our collective silence.
What we have needed all along was a non-politician, a non-talk show host. It is evident that she is no consummate saleswoman
out to steal Bush's thunder as has been charged, just a genuinely grieving and pissed off mother, one in a long and growing
tragic line of devastated relatives of the dead and wounded. If she were a "professional" she would have followed what White
House Chief of Staff Andy Card said about trying to sell the war: "You don't roll out new products in August." Sheehan's voice
is noble, that is, if the long history of civil disobedience in our country is still thought to be a good and democratic act.
But even after all the administration's-to
put it charitably-willful ignorance and deception of the last four years, Sheehan and anyone else who wants to speak out against
Bush and in support of our troops will-against all logic-suffer an enormous hue and cry. Treasonous! Unpatriotic!
(Many people still actually believe that Bush hadn't decided on attacking Iraq until just before the missiles flew, though
even Trent Lott unwittingly disputes this in his new book, Herding Cats: A Life in Politics). But this verbal flogging
need not hurt. The messengers like Cindy Sheehan, me (in my own small, quiet way) and you need not be cowed. These attacks
come from people who, for whatever reason, have tied their political and/or intellectual future to Bush and Rove's cart to
such a degree that they must defend him at all costs. It is important to understand that such broadsides spit on our collective
sense of what it means to be free in a democratic America.
There are many excellent, famous and
relatively recent examples of spirited, non-violent protest. (And in this essay, I am discussing only non-violent,
peaceful protesting. Remember: the New Civil Disobedience requires only that you speak up. I have no use for, nor would I
ever sanction, any other kind). You are probably already familiar with many of them. Who has not marveled at the nobility
and bravery of that Chinese man in the instantly-iconic photo? You know the one. Even though we might never know his
fate, he stands forever-unflappable and heroic-before four massive, hulking tanks in Tiananmen Square, which is enough. And
about Rosa Parks' civil disobedience, Helen O'Neill of the Associated Press writes what we all believe: Parks' "simple act
of courage spawned a movement, inspired a generation and helped change a nation." And then there is the dream of Martin Luther
King, Jr. . . . From Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela to Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar (Burma) we have seen time and again that
when people feel they must, in the words of our Constitution, "petition the Government for a redress of grievances," this
cannot be done silently.
The above examples of civil disobedience
are universal in their appeal and make the current fuss over Sheehan all the more mystifying, especially because-perhaps counterintuitively-many
conservative Republicans support such peaceful protest. For instance, local Seattle conservative radio talkshow host and former
gubernatorial candidate John Carlson on his January 10 broadcast urged people to protest the certification of Democrat and
then-governor-elect Christine Gregoire's inauguration, claiming that such protests are a necessary "national news visual"
and can be a "great day of education" (here in Washington state we just suffered a mini-Florida 2000; though the political
arguments were reversed, the Democrat won by the people's vote and not the court's). And when Viktor Yushchenko, during Ukraine's
Orange Revolution, exhorted his supporters not to "leave this square until we secure victory," President Bush's official election
envoy, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), agreed with the need for peaceful protest because of "a concerted and forceful program
of election-day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or co-operation of governmental authorities." The protest
was successful and Yushchenko is Ukraine's president. Little blood was shed.
But as an American Literature teacher,
I readily admit that former Soviet-bloc countries are not my area of expertise. Instead, in order to better understand this
growing call for protest that Sheehan has, miraculously, brought to the fore, I prefer to return to what I do know something
about: the American classics and, specifically, Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. After Thoreau (1817-1862)
was jailed for a week in 1846, he explained his reasons for voluntarily submitting himself to incarceration in the now classic
essay-often required high school reading even if few Americans can remember why. Thoreau was concerned with a laundry list
of grievances, including slavery and the payment of the poll tax, which in part funded the 1846-48 Mexican War, a war he thought
was imperialistic and unnecessary.
Thoreau's essay is as relevant today
as it was when he published it 159 years ago, if, for some, uncomfortably so. Thoreau argues:
The government itself, which is only
the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people
can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government
as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.
Literary critic Tina Chen puts it
Americans entered Vietnam with certain
expectations that a story, a distinct American story, would unfold. When the story of America in Vietnam turned into something
unexpected, the true nature of the larger story of America itself became the subject of intense cultural dispute. On the deepest
level, the legacy of Vietnam is the disruption of our story, of our explanation of the past and vision of the future.
Wow! With but a single word substitution
in both quotes (i.e. switch out Mexican for Iraqi and Vietnam for Iraq), we can begin to see what's at stake here. It is interesting
to note that in his zeal to not be the president his father was, the current President Bush is overturning even his
father's claim that, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." Of course, Bush conveniently rejects the
Vietnam syndrome as easily as he embraces the legacy of the American Revolution. Indeed, the model of the American Revolution
may hold true for Iraq, but probably not in the way Bush means it.
Though every justification for Bush's
Iraq war that I have heard has been disproved at this point (except for the latest which isn't provable or unprovable, that
we are "dying" to bring democracy to Iraq), such facts are not the purpose of this column and have been explained in myriad
other articles. I only want to explain why Sheehan's bravery has struck a chord, and why people who must freely speak their
minds and assemble peaceably in cities and towns across America is the current form of civil disobedience and among the highest
forms of patriotism.
Though many Americans feel that protesting
Bush's government is noble, roughly half of Americans still support Bush's war (witness the "Cindy Sheehan doesn't speak for
me" counter-protests). Despite overwhelming evidence of Bush's subterfuge, at our core we don't want to believe that our president
would mislead us on issues this important, on issues of life and death. We want to trust our president, want to believe that
his or her policies are for the "general Welfare." But to ignore the obvious, to give over to a blind faith in our leaders,
is a danger that threatens the republic, as Thoreau understood well: "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least
degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man [and woman] a conscience, then?"
Though many conveniently misunderstand
any protests against Bush as some sort of irrational hatred of the man himself, it is Bush's own government that has invited
the necessity for speaking out. At every turn, he has ducked important questions about his version of the War on Terror, belting
out empty platitudes regarding complex situations such as "They hate us for our freedom." Yet, immediately following the 9/11
attacks, we now know, it was the Bush administration that sought to rein in the freedom of Americans who dared to question
For instance, Secretary of Defense
Rumsfeld said that "critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy are encouraging terrorists and complicating the ongoing
U.S. war on terrorism." Or, for those who might question the Patriot Act, former Attorney General Ashcroft argued that such
"tactics only aid terrorists." Not to be outdone, former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned that "there are reminders to
all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Similarly, Lynne Cheney and the vanilla-sounding
American Council of Trustees and Alumni published the hyperbolically-titled Defending Civilization, which essentially
argued that our nation's universities should unquestionably lockstep to the president and his post-9/11 policies and, indeed,
had failed to exhibit the proper amount of "anger, patriotism and support of military intervention."
Such threats (is there another word?)
to American freedom continue. And they would not surprise Thoreau in the least: "A very few," he wrote, "as heroes, patriots,
martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist
it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it." And yet I am still amazed that the relatively benign
act of attending a rally and speaking up or, dressed in black, standing silently at a vigil for our dead soldiers could even
be even considered "civil disobedience." Though called a "squatter in a ditch," Sheehan is apparently breaking no rules and
is not physically threatening anybody. And the vigils around the country to support her were the same: nonviolent and legal.
Such acts hardly seem like the civil disobedience of old. But, alas, we live in a time when the ubiquitous yellow car ribbon
reading "Support our Troops" is often a veiled call for unquestioning support for our commander-in-chief. Even Sheehan's sister-in-law
continued the tactic of charging anyone who might question the president's policies as an anti-patriot: ". . .the rest of
the Sheehan family supports the troops, our country and our president." Though I suspect Sheehan might claim to support all
on this list but the president, for Bush's supporters it's all or nothing. We live in a time when, according to the Scripps
Howard news service, 2005 presidential inaugural parade protestors were "ordered not to look directly at President Bush."
No doubt a nod to modesty, as even the Secret Service must realize our little emperor wears no clothes.
In Civil Disobedience, written
more than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, Thoreau explained why the grievous wrong of slavery continued even
though so many opposed it:
"There are thousands who are in
opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them."
Thoreau knew that merely having an
opinion was not enough. This remains true. One must act in accordance with one's convictions. And for many in today's
America, this means one must protest.
In 2004, George W. Bush's face graced
the cover of Time magazine as person-of-the-year. Time asked various historians to assess Bush's future legacy,
and, with one notable exception, they believe Bush's historical prospects are not good. Yet these are historians guessing
in the present about the future view of what will then be the past. But today Americans are compelled to do more than to watch
the future from the sidelines and feel that, now-right now-action is required. And if not now, when? For, as an unnamed
Bush aide told New York Times reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
And while you're studying that reality-judiciously, as you will-we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can
study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to study what
we do." Without action from the people, Thoreau explains, we, as American citizens, abrogate our responsibility to history,
nay, our responsibility to the present. "How can a man be satisfied," Thoreau asks, "to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy
it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved?" In other word-as Bushophiles understand all too
well-faith without works ain't worth much.
To our current way of thinking, Thoreau
can be a little much to take, a little over the top. Though he voluntarily submitted to confinement, today such a thing has
broader ramifications. Most of us are unwilling to volunteer to be arrested-such an act might follow us around for years to
come. Today civil disobedience starts with a vision of change and the will to do something about it, whether this means standing
on a corner and yelling, holding a sign, or standing quietly with a candle in hand.
We are all busy, we all have lives
and families to care for and, perhaps, acquiescence to the woeful status quo seems the safest and easiest option. Also true
is that any form of protest is a daunting task, for one wonders what real effect such a protest will have on an administration
that attacks any dissent. But you are not alone. Even Bush feels the pressures of today's America; when referring to Sheehan,
he said it was important "for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life." But if a quote such as this from our commander-in-chief
brings despair, Thoreau reminds us that a person "has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything,
it is not necessary that he should do something wrong." So, do not worry if the effects of such protest are not immediate,
or if you cannot march in the street. Instead, do what you can when you can (in a conversation, on a street corner, or in
a letter to the editor or a politician) and be confident that, one way or another, your actions will have an effect, for,
Thoreau presciently says, "it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever."
Geoffrey Stone reminds us in his excellent
book, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, what Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927:
"Those who won our independence .
. . knew that . . . fear breeds repression."
Certainly encouraging fear is a hallmark
of Bush's strategy post-9/11, but as a device employed by politicians is historically nothing new. For those who would speak
out, there is an antidote to such fear-mongering: "courage," Brandeis argued, "is the secret of liberty."
Lives are at stake in what the New
York Times' Bob Herbert calls "the assembly line of carnage in George W. Bush's war in Iraq." In a tangible way, America's
future and its freedom are up for grabs in a way that I have personally never known before. Now is not the time for what,
in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne Jr. calls "Get-along-ism [hyphens added]." We live in a time when, according to
a study released in February, "more than one in three high school students said [the First Amendment] goes too far" and a
time when we passively allow George W. Bush to define freedom for us, apparently without any sense of irony: "See, free nations
are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other. Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction." Yes,
against such a depressing situation-a situation in which even Republican Senator Chuck Hagel observes that the White House
is "completely disconnected from reality"-now is the time for civil disobedience, for making your voice heard. At the very
least, your non-violent protest, in whatever form it takes, will have the full force of our collective and celebrated American
history behind it. And even if, as Ambrose Bierce claimed, "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," we, the American
people, need not mutely accept an unjust war in our name. We can also learn-and teach-by speaking up and listening critically.
And when we hear Vice President Dick Cheney-who "had other priorities in the '60s [besides] military service" yet, if drafted,
would have been "happy to serve"-claim that the Iraq insurgency is in its "last throes," it is up to the rest of us to move
America toward what letter-writer Tom Miller called in the New York Times "the tipping point."
As I have learned more than once in
my own life, a solution cannot be found until we are honest with ourselves about the problem and about our responsibility
for that problem. But neither a mea culpa nor a solution will ever be forthcoming from this administration,
so as a country we are doomed to slouch toward the next election-Bush's war stuck in the quicksand of hubris, infallibility,
and record profits for the oil and defense industries-when we can hopefully move in a new and better direction. But the outcome
of the '06 and '08 elections will be affected by what we do now. And things are changing. Coupled with Bush's incompetence
and obvious lack of interest in the victims, hurricane Katrina may have already made Cindy Sheehan yesterday's news. But this
time the people's anger is immediate. And loud. Even reporters, who cannot be embedded in their own country, are asking the
hard questions. The people are being heard. After all, "They that give up essential liberties to obtain a little temporary
safety," Benjamin Franklin wrote, "deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Jeff Birkenstein is
a professor of English at St. Martin's College in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org