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Memorial Day musing about women, media and peace activism

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 29th, 2007

I woke up today, the day after Memorial Day, to an Associated Press article about Cindy Sheehan leaving the anti-war movement. “‘It’s up to you now’: Sheehan quits,” the headline blared. The AP story opened this way:

“FORT WORTH, Texas - Cindy Sheehan, the soldier’s mother who galvanized an anti-war movement with her monthlong protest outside President Bush’s ranch, said Tuesday she’s done being the public face of the movement.”

The AP piece quotes from Sheehan’s statement (as I do below) about the smears and attacks she’s been forced to endure, yet instead of seeking commentary from any peace movement activist or spokesperson who could contextualize the meaning or impact of Sheehan’s decision, the newswire gives two good-riddance paragraphs to pro-war opponents so they could get in one last dig:

“Kristinn Taylor, spokesman for FreeRepublic.com, which has held pro-troop rallies and counter-protests of anti-war demonstrations, said dwindling crowds at Sheehan’s Crawford protests since her initial vigil may have led to her decision. But he also said he hopes she will now be able to heal.

‘Her politics have hurt a lot of people, including the troops and their families, but most of us who support the war on terror understand she is hurt very deeply,’ Taylor said Tuesday. ‘Those she got involved with in the anti-war movement realize it was to their benefit to keep her in that stage of anger.’”

(The Guardian ran a similar piece, sans sniping from the opposition.)

To me, Sheehan’s decision to back away from the media spotlight should direct our attention to the impact of media coverage on issues of war and peace, activism and apathy, and, of course, on women in the public eye.

Announcing her “resignation… as the ‘Face’ of the anti-war movement” on her Daily Kos blog, Sheehan’s own headline was even more bleak: “‘Good Riddance, Attention Whore,’” she writes:

“I have endured a lot of smear and hatred since Casey was killed and especially since I became the so-called ‘Face’ of the American anti-war movement. Especially since I renounced any tie I have remaining with the Democratic Party, I have been further trashed on such ‘liberal blogs’ as the Democratic Underground. Being called an ‘attention whore’ and being told ‘good riddance’ are some of the more milder rebukes.”

The fact that social justice movements often eat their own — especially damaging to progressive feminist women who are often the first to be called upon to sacrifice by giving time, energy, resources and scut work and the last to be given recognition, respect or resources — is of dire importance to the Left, but I’m going to leave that to others writers to explore. WIMN’s Voices is a media criticism blog, so I want to focus today on what Sheehan’s reluctant resignation means about the media landscape.

The first issue is that Sheehan didn’t choose to be “the face” of the anti-war movement. There are some who have, and who are damn good at it, but who haven’t been able to generate the firestorm of coverage Sheehan has. Sheehan’s protest came from a place of deep grief and anger about the death of her soldier son — her motivation was to get justice for her son by ending the war she felt took his life for false reasons, not to become America’s leading voice for peace. But media like a sexy story, and diverse, lifelong activists from MADRE, the international women’s human rights group that has been advocating an end to war in Iraq while also providing desperately needed humanitarian aid there as well as important research and commentary about the devastation that U.S. invasion has wrecked on Iraqi women — their work is complicated, their political engagement long-term and intellectually developed — but those attributes that make them successful as advocates? Decidedly unsexy to the media gatekeepers, who much preferred to elevate Sheehan as a sort of EveryMom whose political anger was rooted in love for her fallen hero son, a woman whose anti-war voice they thought was finally worth listening to.

Problem is, they hadn’t been listening to women’s anti-war voices before Casey Sheehan was killed.

When the thousands of people who protested in solidarity with Casey’s mom when she camped out at President Bush’s ranch, the Selective-Memory Bureau at ABC’s World News Tonight rushed to report a so-called “reality check” that “public protests thus far have been relatively small” and that Sheehan was not representative of a large anti-war movement in America.

Yet there has been a vibrant, passionate and active anti-war movement in this country for the past six years – it’s just that this movement has been ignored, marginalized and maligned from the beginning. In the first days and weeks after 9/11, when hundreds of New Yorkers and thousands of others protested against military retaliation against the Afghan people, media called them the “Blame America First crowd.” For example, Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter blasted feminist writer Susan Sontag and other dissenters, saying that it was “ironic” that “the same people always urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.” (The calisthenics that Newsweek went to in order to randomly bring in this misogynistic rape metaphor is a clear indicator of just how deep the bias against women’s voices is ingrained in corporate media culture.) And by February 15, 2003, when nearly a million demonstrators took to the streets in cities across America — and many more internationally—to protest US war on Iraq, media underrepresented their numbers, and branded them “unpatriotic,” “un-American” traitors. So, clearly it’s not that there was no anti-war movement before Sheehan arrived on the scene, as ABC wanted us to believe – it’s that the many women (and men) who speak out have found themselves either ignored or bashed by America’s leading print and broadcast news outlets, who then turn around and say the movement doesn’t exist, or it’s irrelevant, or it’s so fringe as to make no difference.

But invisibility is often a blessing compared to the harassment high-profile antiwar women have received from media (and, based on media impact on public opinion, from some elements of the public) when they’ve spoken out.

Which brings me back to Cindy Sheehan who, sadly, seems to be sharing the same fate as Stacy Bannerman, a military wife, vocal advocate with Military Families Speak Out, author of When The War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind — both have given everything they have to the peace effort and have lost their marriages as a result. (You may remember Bannerman from her confrontation with Richard Perle)

Had Sheehan and Bannerman not been raked so thoroughly over the coals by a hostile media (and by longer-term activists who saw them as threats to existing programs and personalities), they and their families might have been better able to cope with the never-ending, ever-hungry, all-encompassing needs of an uphill-battle for peace over the long-term.

Instead, Sheehan writes today on Daily Kos:

“The first conclusion is that I was the darling of the so-called left as long as I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party. Of course, I was slandered and libeled by the right as a ‘tool’ of the Democratic Party. This label was to marginalize me and my message. How could a woman have an original thought, or be working outside of our ‘two-party’ system?

However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the ‘left’ started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used. I guess no one paid attention to me when I said that the issue of peace and people dying for no reason is not a matter of ‘right or left,’ but ‘right and wrong.’”

Sheehan’s entire blog post is heartbreaking — especially when she explains why she believes that, no matter how hard she tried to make it not so, her son, Casey, has died in vain. She’s also quite politically astute, calling into stark relief the difficulties of making political change both in and outside the system in a country so ingrained in two-party politics that actual political leadership, true political awareness and will on the part of the population, and the impact of political decisions on people’s lives all get lost in the horse race. And, of course, there is the unfortunate truism that women in social justice movements — as they are when they become media figures — so likely to get trashed not only based on the content of their commentary or their advocacy, but on their sexuality, their appearance and their supposed domestic failures — Sheehan is hardly the only woman — peace activist, feminist, politician, actress or other — who has been regularly called “ugly,” “whore,” “bad mother,” “crappy wife,” “evil woman,” and the like.

She continues:

“I have also reached the conclusion that if I am doing what I am doing because I am an “attention whore” then I really need to be committed. I have invested everything I have into trying to bring peace with justice to a country that wants neither. If an individual wants both, then normally he/she is not willing to do more than walk in a protest march or sit behind his/her computer criticizing others. I have spent every available cent I got from the money a ‘grateful’ country gave me when they killed my son and every penny that I have received in speaking or book fees since then. I have sacrificed a 29 year marriage and have traveled for extended periods of time away from Casey’s brother and sisters and my health has suffered and my hospital bills from last summer (when I almost died) are in collection because I have used all my energy trying to stop this country from slaughtering innocent human beings. I have been called every despicable name that small minds can think of and have had my life threatened many times.”

“I have also tried to work within a peace movement that often puts personal egos above peace and human life. This group won’t work with that group; he won’t attend an event if she is going to be there; and why does Cindy Sheehan get all the attention anyway? It is hard to work for peace when the very movement that is named after it has so many divisions.

Our brave young men and women in Iraq have been abandoned there indefinitely by their cowardly leaders who move them around like pawns on a chessboard of destruction and the people of Iraq have been doomed to death and fates worse than death by people worried more about elections than people. However, in five, ten, or fifteen years, our troops will come limping home in another abject defeat and ten or twenty years from then, our children’s children will be seeing their loved ones die for no reason, because their grandparents also bought into this corrupt system. George Bush will never be impeached because if the Democrats dig too deeply, they may unearth a few skeletons in their own graves and the system will perpetuate itself in perpetuity.

I am going to take whatever I have left and go home.”

That’s the same, sad sentiment Stacy Bannerman expressed to me several weeks back, when I’d wanted to get her booked on a cable news debate show about ant-war activism. She told me that her sacrifices hadn’t been appreciated, that she’d given all she possibly could, and so she was going to take time away from the movement. This is a huge loss, as Bannerman was one of the more persuasive, articulate, effective progressive anti-war spokespeople on the scene.

What we’re seeing is a lesson in how media choose to create leaders who aren’t necessarily prepared for the long haul. And then, they proceed to do their best to crush their appointees. Sheehan’s fade from public spotlight highlights the need for long-term strategic thinking and long-term commitment on the part of peace activists — ending the Iraq war is clearly not going to be an overnight job, just like “peace” will not develop in the Middle East or elsewhere throughout the world (Darfur, anyone?) without consistent, long-term vigilance, action, and the energy that can sustain both. But her resignation to stop doing anti-war activism also provides an education about the need for more inclusive, more reflective media that are interested less in punishing women who speak out than they are in producing solid investigative journalism and in the public service of watchdogging power.

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