Monday, August 15, 2005

Cindy Sheehan and the Logic of Capitalism

Does Cindy Sheehan have the right to a private audience with the President? I'll venture yes and no, and I'll explain both. On the one hand I don't think that Sheehan is technically within her rights to make such a demand of the President. After all, in a Republic we aren't governed directly by the sovereign head of state. If Cindy Sheehan really has a problem with the Iraq war then she can write to her congressional representatives about it like everyone else. She can vote for the presidential nominee of a different party next time. If she wants to speak up about her differences, she has that right as well. Taking her demand literally, I don't think that a government could function effectively if every citizen had the right to expect redress from the head of state in the same way that they could expect it from their next door neighbor (does Sheehan have the right to sue the President for her son's death?)

Yet, that rather wooden analysis completely ignores what makes her protest so powerful. What Sheehan is really getting at is something a lot deeper, a kind of deep injustice at the heart of capitalism. It's the same truth that Michael Moore latched onto in Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine. It is a kind of quixotic quest to locate the agent responsible for an injustice in a system whose very design is to endlessly defer responsibility. George W. Bush was raised in this system, it is his very life-blood. He understands its nuances, its hidden egresses, its subtleties. He is a master sophist of the first rank. The fact that he has become a two-term President without ever having to accept responsibility for a single fault in either his private or public life is an extraordinary achievement, unrivalled by any politician of his generation. He has never met his equal. Cindy Sheehan knows this, and she knows that the closer she is to Bush, the closer she is to the cause of her son's death. She can't prove that, but it is paradoxically her very powerlessness - the irony she is generating by her act of protest, which gives her a fighting chance. For once nobody can claim that Bush is the underdog. He's not the loveable sad sack being unfairly pummelled by Al Gore or John Kerry. Rather, he looks like what he is: the most powerful man in the world ignoring the righteous anger of an aggrieved mother. Bush can shovel brush, ride his bike, and fish for bass furiously, trying every trick in the book to regain his image as the loveable bumpkin who's just too humble and naive to criticize. And he can do it all while hiding behind his professional army of right-wing smear artists. But Cindy Sheehan thinks she has the man in charge right in her sights, and she wants an answer.

Which brings me to this past week's gospel reading. Yes, it's true that the Canaanite woman really doesn't have a right to demand from Jesus what she wants. Jesus is technically correct that his mission was the renewal of religious life in the occupied villages of Palestine. Yet, the Canaanite woman saw something deeper than that, and recognized that in her powerlessness and her desperation that she had become powerful: she had a claim on Jesus that not even he knew he had. And when she pointed that out to him, he admitted it. Bush once said that Jesus is his favorite philosopher. If that's true, he has an obligation and an opportunity to do the same.

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