Justice Week in America
They arrested Cindy Sheehan for loitering in front of the White House. Michael Brown who happens to still be on the FEMA payroll explained to a Republican dominated committee that none of the delay with Katrina was his fault. At one point, he claimed that Governor Blanco specifically excepted New Orleans from her request for Federal aid story on strange Brown claim. A military court sentenced Lynndie England to three years behind bars today for her role in the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Tom Delay was indicted for violating Texas campaign law. By my count, that’s one mother who lost a son to the war who got arrested, one young woman who volunteered for the army who remains one of the highest ranking individuals to be tried and convicted in the Abu Ghraib scandal, one guy who probably helped kill over a thousand people who’s now getting paid to be a consultant to FEMA to help the agency understand what went wrong when he was director of FEMA, and one guy who was involved with the Clinton impeachment who now screams that he’s the victim of a politically motivated investigation. That’s a lot of news for a three day stretch.
Cindy Sheehan’s arrest reminds me of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, two suffragettes, who were arrested during World War 1 for protesting in front of the White House. They were thrown in a women’s prison after refusing a plea bargain. Paul went on a hunger strike. Their resistance played a role in pressuring President Wilson into endorsing giving women the vote. The story was turned into an HBO movie, Iron Jawed Angels, with Hillary Swank playing Alice Paul. Social movements require a variety of movers. In her day, Alice Paul took a front line role as the one who actively confronted the establishment. In particular, Paul criticized Wilson for getting the US into World War I on the allies side in the name of “Democracy” and self-determination when American women had no such right yet.
As a sidenote, Paul who lived until 1977 was the author of the first “equal rights amendment” in 1923 and late in her life opposed the linkage of the Equal Rights Amendment to abortion. In fact, Paul also supported Joseph McCarthy and either acquiesced to or purposely shied away from the racial integration of her own political movement. This shouldn’t diminish what Paul accomplished. It is, however, a reminder that we shouldn’t assume that because someone took a stance that matches our modern notion of feminism, it means that she was “modern” in all ways.
I don’t know how or in what ways Cindy Sheehan’s role in the pro-peace movement will evolve. I do know that she has been very good at focusing anger at George the Abysmal and drawing attention to her simple question “What are we doing in Iraq?” I also believe that the pro-peace movement needs to take a critical next step. When Martin Luther King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial, he did not just call for the end of segregation, he called for a “dream”, a different vision of what America could be. At least rhetorically, we have come to honor King’s dream. Republicans and Democrats both take pains to appear in photo opportunities with people of all races that often self-consciously pay homage to King’s dream. While I often question the sincerity of these photo op moments, there’s little doubt that enough of the vision got embedded in our national psyche that King’s dream outlived him. I’d like to see leadership come forward from within the pro-peace movement to articulate a vision of what America needs to be.
I have thus far been disappointed in the leaders of the Democratic party on this score. I lool back at the anti-war movement during Vietnam and remember 1968. There were two leaders of the anti-war wing of the party, one was Gene McCarthy who focused heavily on opposition to the war. The other was Bobby Kennedy who once he decided to openly oppose the war and LBJ also began to link it to other deeper issues about the kind of country America needed to be. In particular, one of his campaign bits was “We can not build our future or our children’s future on the misery of others.” I was in middle school at the time, but that notion remains a political touchstone for me. I believed at the time that the Democrats of that time indeed had the high moral ground even if the war happened to have been escalated by a Democratic administration. In the 37 years since the Ambassador hotel. I’m not sure anyone else has come forward politically to articulate a vision for America needed to change that managed to resonate for me. I confess that I’m one of the few people who thinks that Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech identified the problem, he just didn’t necessarily find the right way to get America to hear the message. Of current politicians, John Edwards is the only one who comes close with his “Two Americas”.
Today, I believe that the US is suffering from a spiritual crisis not because we don’t say “God” enough in public places, but because we have normalized a belief that free enterprise is the only freedom that matters. Our public discourse has slipped to a point where “freedom” to do business masquerades as a moral end in itself. The American system faced a similar spiritual crisis at the end of the 19th century when it began to accept reforms that softened laissez faire capitalism. With protections for workers, anti-trust, conservation, national parks, America’s leadership recognized that “Justice” mattered as much as freedom. Instead, we live in a culture where Bill Gates is a computer genius because he made a lot of money from an operating system. There is an interesting parallel between Bill Gates the “computer genius” and Thomas Edison the “the scientist and inventor” of his time. The more telling thing is that most current Americans have no Einstein, Schweitzer, Dororthy Day, or Mother Theresa to hold up as heroes for something other than being either wealthy or on the cover of People Magazine.
The president’s current version of why we’re in Iraq seems to be that Saddam was a bad guy and we now can’t let those oil fields fall into the hands of terrorists. No one mentioned the latter as a problem in Iraq before the war. In other words, he can now come up with reasons to stay, but he can’t clearly explain how we got there in the first place in morally defensible terms. For me, I want someone who can find a way to communicate that it’s the war that’s anti-American and that protesting the war is to defend deeply American values.
If there is to be a core vision, this is what would resonate with me. All Americans are entitled to dignity and respect. Cindy Sheehan identified one element of the necessary level of respect. If you ask someone to die for his/her country, there needs to be a good reason that can be readily understood. Victims of natural disasters and emergencies must receive the same consideration for aid and support regardless of race or class. We’ve never had a country where that’s been true. Those who work hard should be rewarded, but not at the expense of denying basic opportunities and justice to those who have simply had bad luck, haven’t had a chance to compete fairly, etc. Americans should also strive to live in a world that is safe and sustainable. At a minimum, being pro-peace implies much more than unilateral withdrawal. For example, Richard Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam was hardly about peace for the long term. I believe that being pro-peace is about having a government that respects all its citizens enough to make sure they all get a fair chance in life. If people go to war on behalf of a country, those people deserve to know why, they also deserve to have good schools for their children, affordable health care, safe healthy places to live, etc. Just as important, if you send other people’s children to war, you must send your own. If it is a national cause, then all segments of society must be expected to make the same commitment to national service. Similarly, I think there should be sacrifice to supply a floodproof floor of opportunity at all, certainly if you happen to make more than 200 thousand per year.
Three of my grandparents were immigrants. I don’t know that any of them ever voted, though they all contributed to their communities. They didn’t come to the United States for “democracy”, though my grandfather spent much of his life supporting democracy in China. They came here because they saw the United States as a place where they would get a fair chance despite the fact that they had been born poor and in another country. All in all, they got that and they used it well. Because he got that, my grandfather, who was far from a perfect guy, felt a responsibility to make sure that others also got a fair chance to succeed. He lent money to start businesses, paid tuitions, paid for civic projects, and played an active role in his own community. As he understood it, that was America, a sort of expansion on the GI Bill. While this sounds classically Republican in some ways, I also know that he would have been horrified to learn that soldiers were being sent to die in a war based on a lie, that Americans didn’t get food and water in a natural disaster, or that politicians (of both parties) simply seemed to sell their votes. Americans have certainly done those things in the past, but it violates the American spirit and it’s unpatriotic in the most literal sense.
This week, there has almost been too much “news” to comment on. I just want to stop feeling like I live in a country built on other people’s misery. The creepiest thing about the Lynndie England case is that in a better society, she’d just be a villain. Instead, I see her as both victim and villain and wonder why the real villains of Abu Ghraib haven’t been prosecuted yet. After Terri Schiavo and Monica, I just happen to feel that Tom, I killed my dad when he was still conscious, Delay is the last person who should complain that anyone has politicized the justice system. At times, I just wonder if political corruption is like flypaper for certain politicians. I suppose I’ll need to find a good pest control guy to enlighten me about how they get caught stuck to money and away from doing their duty. I don’t know what Cindy Sheehan’s future is, I do know that it eventually has to shift from anger at George the Abysmal to advocacy for a better America. I also know that if there is going to be a better America soon, it probably won’t be run by anyone like Michael Brown and that whoever put that guy there can’t be serious about making America better (my pet theory is that the president put him in charge of a department at Homeland Security because he thought Brown knew Arabia since he'd judged Arabian horses). In the end, none of us are measured by whom we blame, but what we build for those we leave behind. I’d even settle for a society where “No Child is Left Behind”, as long as we meant everything that the phrase implied. If any of that happens, America will have recovered the spirit that led so many people to believe that it wasn’t simply interested in empire but was about a dream.