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Sheehan Breakthroughs, Unbridgeable Divides, and Taboos Unbroken
By David Swanson
The Washington Post today wondered out loud whether Cindy Sheehan might be a "catalyst for a muscular antiwar movement." In translation, this is an assertion that Cindy Sheehan has already become an accepted reason for the corporate media to finally acknowledge the existence of, and consequently help to build, the antiwar movement. There has, of course, been a major anti-war movement longer than there has been a war. And Cindy Sheehan has been speaking eloquently at anti-war events for many months. What has changed is primarily the media.
A website called Blue Oregon noticed this yesterday and wrote: "the Oregonian appears to be using Cindy Sheehan as cover to mention the lies upon which the war was justified." Yes, the Oregonian used the L word:
"The misty scrim that obscured our view of the war -- wishful thinking, distortions, outright lies -- is rapidly dissolving. Americans increasingly see the war as it is, and know it's going badly. Little wonder that when a gold-star mother parks herself inconsolably in Crawford, Texas, asking hard questions and spurning glib answers, she strikes a nerve."
But it's not been two months since the media, still refusing to call lies lies, was pretending that evidence of lies (like the Downing Street Memos) was "old news." Now, it's new news, thanks to Cindy. And thanks, also, to the polls, which show public opinion of the war sinking very low. But, most of the thanks goes to the Cindy Sheehan media phenomenon. The media should not base its coverage of presidential lies on public opinion that has managed to form despite the media's silence. And, in fact, comparison with other issues suggests it really doesn't; in many cases strong public opinion is not enough to generate coverage.
When Cindy became a story, many anti-war activists put in hundreds of hours debating and strategizing how to make the "message" focus on lots of families who lost kids in the war and want it to end, rather than just one mother. But for all the framing and messaging attempts, non-reporters (other than Cindy) had very little control over what happened with this story.
Then, when Cindy left to visit her ailing mother, some worried that the media, notoriously unable to cover a movement, would drop the ball and move on to celebrities or sex in some other town. The greatest measure of what Cindy has done is that this has not happened. Cindy has not only left behind her in Crawford and around the country a growing and inspired movement, but she has left behind an ongoing news story about the movement.
On Friday, Reuters' article began: "Supporters of anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan on Friday vowed to stay near U.S. President George W. Bush's Texas ranch in her absence…." And the Associated Press's article began: "Although their leader had just departed because of a family emergency, anti-war demonstrators here didn't miss a beat, marching closer to President Bush's ranch to deliver handwritten letters."
The Rocky Mountain News on Saturday began an article with the headline "Coloradans to join war protest camp near Bush's ranch," and this opening paragraph: "Karen Trietsch squatted in her living room Friday, finishing the lettering on her neon-pink sign that proclaimed: 'Bush lies, Thousands die.' 'We can no longer view this war as a Nintendo game on CNN,' said Trietsch, 37, who leaves today for Crawford, Texas, with more than a dozen friends."
Of course, people have made similar remarks since before the war started, but they haven't been in lead paragraphs.
The movement has a lot of work to do, and as plans are formalized this week for events in Washington on September 24, 25, and 26, we will see how well it is done. And, of course, the media has very far to go. For one thing, it still gives disproportionate coverage to supporters of the war.
However, there still are supporters of the war in considerable numbers around the country. And there appears at first glance to be an unbridgeable divide between them and us. An AP story from Crawford on Saturday began: "A patriotic camp with a 'God Bless Our President!' banner sprung up downtown Saturday, countering the anti-war demonstration started by a fallen soldier's mother two weeks ago near President Bush's ranch. The camp is named 'Fort Qualls,' in memory of Marine Lance Cpl. Louis Wayne Qualls, 20, who died in Iraq last fall. 'If I have to sacrifice my whole family for the sake of our country and world, other countries that want freedom, I'll do that,' said the soldier's father, Gary Qualls, a friend of the local business owner who started the pro-Bush camp. He said his 16-year-old son now wants to enlist, and he supports that decision."
Opponents of the war recoil from this in horror. "God Bless Our President" is a little too theocratic for most of us. A man sacrificing his family is a little too patriarchic for us. (How about leaving it up to the wife and kids to decide whether to sacrifice themselves?) But the big divide here is not one of values or patriotism or courage or malice or racism or empire. The big divide here is between those who believe the war was based on good reasons and those who believe it was based on blatant lies that have been extensively documented. I'd sacrifice my life for the sake of the world. Many people would. But I believe this war is driven by imperialism propped up on fearmongering falsehoods. Gary Qualls would probably insist on protecting his family from being slaughtered to enrich an oligarchy that plays him for a fool. But he believes the war is protecting his family and everyone else's, or at least everyone else he knows and thinks about.
I don't want to discount self-deception. Those who want to support a war will turn a blind eye to exposure of the lies that launched it, just as those who oppose a war will be more tempted to cook up wacky theories about its architects that pile imaginary treasonous plotting on top of the solid case already established. But it does seem to me that the most effective way to change opinion about this war is to educate people about the evidence that the war was launched on the basis of lies.
Public opinion polls show a majority believing that Bush lied about the reasons for the war – and a near majority wanting impeachment proceedings begun. They also show a growing percentage of Americans wanting to end the war, and another large slice of the public wanting a gradual withdrawal begun. These numbers – belief that Bush lied and belief that the war should end -- have risen together, the former staying ahead of the latter.
But here the media has played another trick on us. The desire to end the war, while lower in the media's own polls, has become a respectable position in the media's news stories. Meanwhile the belief that the president lied about the war and should be impeached for it, while stronger in the media's own polls, has been almost taboo in news stories. Certainly the I word is completely forbidden in public (that is, corporate controlled) discourse.
And this way of thinking has been accepted thoughtlessly by most Democrats in Congress. While 58 percent of Democrats favor impeachment (Zogby), most progressive Democratic congress members are afraid of the idea. They and their staff members recite the same mantra endlessly: "That would allow the Republicans to attack us." If you don't believe me, call up your congress member. Even call up some of the most progressive members of congress just for kicks. Ask them why in the world they haven't introduced articles of impeachment. They will say the following words: "That would allow the Republicans to attack us."
But what could be better for a Democrat than to be attacked by Republicans over this war? This war is going to drag its supporters down, and any remaining faith in our governmental system along with them, unless an anti-war party develops.
Democrats say they can't attempt things because they are in the minority. But if they do not attempt things that people want, they will stay in the minority.
The case for impeachment is overwhelming. The evidence is compiled at www.afterdowningstreet.org The congress member who speaks up first will be the hero of a muscular anti-war movement.
David Swanson is creator of MeetWithCindy.org, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, a writer and activist, and the Washington Director of Democrats.com. He is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and serves on the Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, TNG-CWA. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as Communications Coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson obtained a Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 1997. His website is www.davidswanson.org