Monday, August 22, 2005

The popular but powerless left?

Gary Younge, whose Guardian article about Cindy Sheehan was critiqued on TAE last week, gives us more Sheehan clap-trap in a commentary that ultimately laments the lack of political leadership on the left.

He does come ever so close to admitting the truth about the Sheehan phenomenom – that she has been exploited by the left and her celebrity is the function of a PR marketing job.

The story of collective struggles is all too often filtered through the experience of an individual. In a bid to render the account more palatable and popular, the personal takes precedence over the political. As a result the story may reach a wider audience; but by the time they receive it, the agendas and the issues involved have often become distorted - to the detriment of both the individual and the movement.

The story of Cindy Sheehan, the 48-year-old woman whose son Casey was killed in Iraq in April 2004, is one such example.

And later:

With the help of PR consultants she was packaged as a grieving Everymother who wanted answers.
But of course Younge does not acknowledge his own role in retailing the package being sold by the PR consultants, and he even goes on to contradict himself by sugggesting that, contrary to his claim that the portrayal of Sheehan has been detrimental to "the movement", she has given it a voice that it heretofore has lacked. In doing so, Younge proceeds to engage in a whole new Sheehan marketing campaign.

The reason Sheehan has become such a lightning rod is because [the anti-war] mood has found only inadequate and inconsistent expression in Congress. It has been left to her to articulate an escalating political demand that is in desperate need of political representation. This marks not only a profound dislocation between the political class and political culture but a short circuit in the democratic process. The mainstream has effectively been marginalised.
Thus the anti-war movement becomes transformed into “mainstream” thought. No longer is Sheehan even a grieving “Everymother”; she’s now been promoted to the role of sole torch carrier for a “marginalized” majority. And what, exactly, is this “mainstream” position that is so marginalized? Younge doesn't seem to sure.

He claims that the left (he says “we”, something to keep in mind when reading his straight news reporting) has "a political agenda that can command considerable mainstream support.” But he never articulates what that agenda is. The closest he gets to an explanation is to say that it is "anti-war". But what does that really mean? If it means simply disapproval of having liberated Iraq, then it is fairly meaningless. Afterall, that boat has sailed, and it’s not coming back. Such after-the-fact anti-warism (even if held since before the war) is not a policy position that any politician can sensibly advocate, nor is it at all productive. One might as well be opposed to the colonization of America.

Of course, if Sheehan is representative of what it means to be anti-war, then it is pretty clear what “anti-war” means…immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq. However, even by Younge’s own accounting, “The number of those who want all the troops withdrawn remains a minority at 33%”. So how does this translate into a “marginalized mainstream”? Your guess is as good as any.

And he finds evidence of this popular support for his unspecified “radical stances” in the strangest of places. He notes that a new German political party, called simply “The Left”, is attracting 12% at the polls. Such popular support! He also cites Paul Hackett’s nearly successful (which is to say unsuccessful) congressional campaign in Ohio, in which, according to Younge, Hackett ran on “an anti-war platform”. While it is true that Hackett opposed the war prior to its start, and he vilified Bush in extremely impolitic terms, this is what Hackett’s policy was on Iraq according to his own campaign website:

The Iraqi people and government are grateful that we eliminated their brutal dictator. They are capable of running their own government and building a democracy. It won’t look like ours; nor should it. But in order for them to succeed, we must not withdraw our troops before the Iraqis are ready to stand on their own.
If that sounds strangely familiar, it should. It's Bush's policy as well.

The fact that Younge cites both Cindy “pull ‘em out” Sheehan and Paul “must not withdraw” Hackett as evidence of the mainstream attraction of the left just shows how incoherent the anti-war" left is. Its agenda is little more than the single connecting thread of Bush hatred.

Younge closes with this lament.
We [on the left] wield political influence; we lack legislative power.
Such wishful thinking. One must wonder how Younge has managed to measure this alleged political influence in the absence of a show of legislative power. In a democracy, doesn't the one manifest itself in the other? With thinking like this, it is no wonder that Younge's left is leaderless.


Anonymous JohnM said...

I read the Gary Younge article on Monday during a flight and I had a different thought.

First of all, although aware of the story of Rosa Parks, I did not know that she was a keen supporter of Malcolm X, who never fully embraced King's strategy of non-violence. Gary comments that In a bid to render the account more palatable and popular, the personal takes precedence over the political. As a result the story may reach a wider audience; but by the time they receive it, the agendas and the issues involved have often become distorted - to the detriment of both the individual and the movement.

In other words Gary thinks that something was lost when the true radical nature of Rosa Parks was hidden and instead she was instead portrayed as a poor, tired seamstress. By extension the same is true when Sheehan is presented as merely Everymother.

This is a bizarre line of thought. Surely, by presenting Rosa Parks as every-women, it became possible for ordinary American citizens to empathise with both her predicament and her non-violent protest. At the time, Malcolm X was one of the leading figures within the separatist Nation Of Islam. If it had been widely know that Rosa had a long history of radical agitation and was a supporter of an organisation, which was associated with political violence, would that empathy had been possible? I sincerely doubt it. King’s movement eclipsed the Nation of Islam precisely because it's supporters recognised that no progress would be made under such an extreme agenda.

If we follow Gary’s logic, then he ought to be glad if Sheehan’s radical history and utterances are put firmly in the public arena. However, the mainstream left is not promoting this and is instead focusing on the supposedly inferior Everymother aspect. The truth is being revealed by the blogosphere. Some critics on the right may indeed have made nasty comments but the ones I have read have focused attention upon Sheehan’s own words and revealed her past activism.

The net effect is that Sheehan’s true radical nature IS being exposed to public gaze but not by a left who frankly, would rather it was kept in the dark.

If Gary truly believes his thoughts about Rosa Parks, he ought be cheering for Hitchens!

12:28 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


You are correct. I did allude to this point briefly, pointing out the contradiction between his belief that Sheehan has been detrimental to "the movement" while at the same time asserting that she has become the sole voice for a cause that has heretofore lacked one.

But you've fleshed it out even more. One does wonder, if Younge wants Sheehan's radicalism to be more widely known, why he so mischaracterizes Hitchens' critique of her.


1:13 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home