cindy sheehan and the moral left

Last Thursday I went to an anti-war rally at RMIT. Cindy Sheehan was amongst the speakers for it, and since peace is what I’m trying to pursue, it seemed like a good thing to experience.

First Jim Dolce played some songs: one about Coretta Scott King (wife of Martin Luther King Jr.), and he finished with John Lennon’s Imagine. He asked people to join in, and if you ever had any doubt that Australians don’t do well with public group singing, this was it. His version was moving (on the ukelele), but that was offset by the uncomfortable uncertainty of the crowd’s involvement.

Kerry Nettle, the Greens senator, spoke first. The Greens, I think, play an important prophetic role in government; they’ll never have a majority, but they can speak what the majority in the house are too afraid to admit. And she’s young: 32 I think, which helps.

Then Dr Salaam Ismael spoke. Interesting, since his name literally means ‘peace’ in Arabic. Anyway, he’s an Iraqi doctor who started the “Doctors for Iraq” organisation. It’s basically a collection of Iraqi doctors who are trying to undo the damage the war has done. Courageous work, and they’re really up against it. His stories and pictures were harrowing, and gave you a good idea of how bad it is there. And it’s bad. He was refreshingly not anti-American, although he was certainly scathing of what they’ve done there. Basically he was saying that the war was supposed to make things better, yet they’ve been made much worse. The destruction and loss of innocent civilian life and livelihood is absolutely inexcusable.

Finally, Cindy Sheehan spoke for a while. If you’ve never heard of Cindy Sheehan, she’s the woman who has been giving George Bush a hard time in America over the Iraq war, as her son was killed in combat over there. In fact, she’s pretty much the face of the anti-war movement in the US. It’s weird, because when she got up and started to speak you realised that this was not a woman who was born to lead an anti-war movement; this is a woman who was born to be a mother. Not in the symbolic, “mother of a movement” sense, just an ordinary mother. I mean that with the utmost respect for motherhood as the highest vocation on earth. But the overwhelming sense was that this woman is just like any other. No special gift for public speaking, no charisma, no stage presence. Seriously, she could seemingly not be more innocuous. The only difference between her and anyone else is that she did something about what she believed.

And it fascinated me, this idea that she was just an ordinary mother, because we think that we somehow need to have special talents, or special connections, or whatever else, to change the world, or make a difference. She has changed it because she’s been prepared to go above and beyond what most people would. Let’s face it, there are probably almost two and a half thousand American mothers who have a reason for the Iraq war never to have happened; but she’s the one who camped on Bush’s doorstep for 5 weeks. She’s the one who has gone to jail four times for political dissent (no other reason than that). She’s the one who has travelled around the world petitioning world leaders to stop this war. All because she was prepared to do what it takes.

Someone once said the difference between the way the world is and the way it can be is the difference between what we do and what we can do. That is, if only we all did whatever it took, in the way she has done, there would be no hunger, no oppression. We’re capable, just not willing.

The other thing that struck me (and strikes me at all of these kind of clearly-leftist meetings) is the blatant hypocrisy of the angry rhetoric. It was toned down slightly because this was organised by a coalition of almost 80 peace, justice and other groups, rather than the one or two (usually socialist) organisations that usually do these things, but it was still pretty obviously one-sided. It just makes me feel less sympathetic, and alienates a lot of people, when the talk is as extremist as it usually is. And the hypocrisy frustrates me – all this talk of tolerance and love and peace and the dignity of all human life punctuated by hateful descriptions of John Howard or George Bush as evil, bloodsucking tyrants. What the…?

I find it frustrating because I want to work with them, even where our opinions differ, but the extremism alienates me. These people talk of the nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, yet fail to notice (or just outright reject) the “love your enemies” message that was central to those activists’ lives. The reason I still go to these kinds of things is because I think it’s important that we align ourselves with people who share our convictions about the world, even when we differ greatly with those people in some respects. Ched Myers talks about this in Who Will Roll Away the Stone. In his chapter entitled “Why do you disciples not live according to the tradition?” he challenges our desire to work only with those who agree entirely with us, in favour of a more diverse, collaborative approach.

This, amongst other reasons, is why nonviolence is the only way to peace. Nonviolence, far from being simply the absence of violence, is the active embracing of all people. Warmongers, enemies, murderers – everyone is capable of being won over by the protection and affirmation of their essential humanity. And even if they’re not, you have acted with integrity and consistency.

So I’ll keep going to these kinds of things, and maybe even get more involved. And I’ll keep speaking the message of peace through nonviolence.

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2 thoughts on “cindy sheehan and the moral left

  1. Simon,

    Your reflection brings to mind the peace march I took my children to, the one down Swanston Street when the war first began. On one hand it was an incredibly invigorating and moving experience to march with so many people, to feel as though our little voices were being heard as we ‘spoke’ together. On the other hand I remember feeling so estranged in amongst those of very extreme perspectives. What a motly and uncomfortable alliance. And feeling, too, as though I wanted to cover my children’s ears when these same people used the rhetoric and language they did. All in all though, my children have never forgotten it. That one event, so full of contradictions, has stayed with them and kept them engaged with the issue in all the time since. Not such a bad result I guess.

  2. I wonder if these people (already I’m using bad language, oh dear) understand that LANGUAGE is violent. Words wound and can stir people. What a revolutionary approach to decide that one’s physical actions will not be violent, and one’s verbal actions will also not be violent.
    🙂 Jude

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