Blogs > Cliopatria > more sheehan, more theater

Aug 18, 2005 8:45 am

more sheehan, more theater

Edmund Morris writes that Cindy Sheehan" cannot expect a president to emote on demand."

But, dollars to donuts, this is not really what Ms. Sheehan wants. At any rate it is not what she is doing. She is staging an impasse, defining the terms of her protest in stark, photo-friendly images. It may be a pity that such inarticulate drama should attract more attention than reasoned argument would. But it is certainly not untrue that it does. And it would be political idiocy of the highest order to stick to reason knowing it is less effective than an available alternative.

Meanwhile Morris misses a chance to tell us something we really want to know about Reagan. After all,"emote on demand" is one of the tricks of the movie star's trade, and Reagan was a movie star once. But Morris does not like talking about Presidents as thoughtful manipulators of their publics -- his TR, his Reagan are heartfelt men, not thinkers. At least, he doesn't like talking about Presidents he likes this way: see what he says about Clinton.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Cindy Sheehan claims that she wants an answer from the president about what the war is about. But the obvious question is: why does she need to hear that from the president? John Negroponte delivered a letter to the UN Security Council in March 2003 explaining the legal justification for the war. The document is easily obtainable and in the public domain. If a person was sincere about wanting answers to questions, surely she could evince some awareness of such a document and discuss its contents. But she hasn't. Why not?

I'm a little unclear why staging a PR impasse is materially different from demanding that the President emote on demand. Given the inscrutability of the purpose of her demand, she could just as well be demanding that the President emote on demand. That guess is as good as any other. After all, under what conditions would Sheehan regard the impasse as resolved? A unilateral withdrawal of troops after an hour-long meeting with the president (and only with him)? A withdrawal of US support for Israel after her embarrassing claims about how the war is all about Israel? A really, really satisfying answer that meets her assent? A groveling apology? A verbatim reading of the Negroponte letter?

Let me pose a question here I've posed elsewhere ad nauseum and to which I have not heard anything like a satisfactory answer. If Sheehan's protest is really about principle, why is it limited to Iraq? Are soldiers not dying every day in Afghanistan? Is Afghanistan not in a quandary-like predicament? And who exactly are they fighting there? Not "Al Qaeda," but an insurgency by the Taliban, an organization--to use a well-worn phrase--that "never attacked us." What are we doing in Afghanistan now that Al Qaeda has been wiped out there? We're building a nation on exactly the same premise that governs our efforts in Iraq: that giving Afghans or Iraqis a stake in a free country will diminish the allure of terrorism. The initial justifications for war in both cases have receded, to be replaced by a new one. But it is the same one. Where, I would like to know, is Cindy Sheehan on that issue?

You've told us that Morris missed a chance to tell us about Reagan's propensity for manipulation. Well isn't that old hat--decades old? What about the utter manipulation by Sheehan. After a coy response to it, you justify it on the grounds that irrationality is more efficacious than reason. The assumption seems to be that because her son died in Iraq, her arguments are unassailable (or arguments are dispensable).

But the hard fact is that she has no arguments at all, nor have such "arguments" as she's presented been subjected to a scintilla of genuine scrutiny. And your post simply collaborates in that collective act of appeasement.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

If the president came out and shed a tear, the protest would only be over because the protesters would have been victorious. The president's shedding a tear would be a show of contrition on his part amounting to an admission of guilt for having sent troops to Iraq. (And if the protesters didn't get quite that sort of admission from him, I don't at all see why the protest would be "over".) If "efficacy" is the issue, nothing would be more efficacious (by Sheehan's standards) than an emotion-laden admission of guilt. So I still don't see the material difference between PR and demanding emotion-on-demand.

On justification, you're simply flouting your own words. You said it was "idiocy" to "stick to reason" because reason is inefficacious here. That means that an intelligent concern for political efficacy requires the violation of reason--something you are clearly praising. Since you yourself admit that Sheehan's protest is irrational, you're thereby justifying her irrationality--and contributing to irrationality generally. There's no escaping the fact that when you praise something you're justifying it. Likewise when you recommend it as a course of action. You've done both.

A rather strange thing to do, I might add, considering that Sheehan's protest is supposed to be one directed against the (supposedly) irrational decision by Bush to wage war. But then, the abdication of reason leads to strange things.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

In fact, this passage about Bush is faint praise, but in any case, it isn't exactly what you said about Sheehan.

Take the original passage absolutely verbatim; substitute "Bush" (or any other name) in and it does indeed become praise on precisely the grounds I've identified.

The original, unmodified passage says: Sheehan's engaging in reasoned argument would have been preferable to her indulgence in irrationality, but indulgence in irrationality is a justifiable second-best. That is both praise and justification. If you can find a way around that interpretation, feel free, but do it without re-writing the original passage.

An analysis of what someone's done along with its evident effect is perfectly compatible with praise for the action, depending on how one phrases the analysis. So your gloss on the passage involves a false dichotomy.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Is claim #4 a recommendation or not? Answer: it is. To say that someone would be an idiot not to do x, is to recommend that they do x. To admit that x is irrational, and yet to recommend it anyway, is to recommend the avowedly irrational. That is exactly what you've done. I find appeasement or encouragement of the irrational disagreeable.

Regarding the last question in your second paragraph: it's a loaded, question-begging question. I would never concede that avowedly irrational methods of discourse are "effective" at anything worth accomplishing. Your contrary claim--now pretty explicit--is exactly what I've been objecting to all along. It is smarter not to to indulge in irrationality at all, not to make excuses for it, and not to appease it. The smart thing to do is to reject it altogether, and reject any conception of politics (or anything else) that requires it.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

In post 66893, you say that unlike Morris, you don't see anything "wrong" with someone's doing something "smart and calculated"--even if the something is irrational.

Well, if you don't see "anything wrong" with it, you clearly see a lot right with it, and there is no way, short of brazen self-contradiction, to deny that that amounts to both praise and recommendation. Your later claim not to have offered "a word of praise" for Sheehan is a contradiction right out of a logic textbook.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/19/2005

Could be both. I'm sure about Flanders (of Flanders and Swann, "The Reluctant Cannibal"), though.

Worth noting that the NYTimes letters today features quite a few folks who had similar thoughts on the article.

Eric Rauchway - 8/19/2005

"The original, unmodified passage" actually says

She is staging an impasse, defining the terms of her protest in stark, photo-friendly images. It may be a pity that such inarticulate drama should attract more attention than reasoned argument would. But it is certainly not untrue that it does. And it would be political idiocy of the highest order to stick to reason knowing it is less effective than an available alternative.

We have here
1. An assessment that Sheehan is staging an impasse, producing "stark, photo-friendly images." This is an observation of what is occurring. The link I provided shows stark photos of these images. It strikes me as difficult therefore to contest this description.
2. A concession that it is, at some abstract level, a shame that such inarticulate images should move people, or any rate, that they should move the media, more than a reasoned argument.
3. An observation that these images nevertheless do move people.
4. And a conclusion that, knowing 2 and 3, someone would be an idiot to prefer less-effective reason to available 1. This is of course the conclusion to which the other protesters came in the linked article.

I'm at a loss to know what you find disagreeable here. Would you like to contend that the images are not stark or photo-friendly, or that they do not move the media to publicize the protest? Would you like to argue that a reasoned argument would be more effective at attracting attention than this symbolic speech? Would you like to argue that it would be smarter to eschew effective symbolism and adopt ineffective argument?

Eric Rauchway - 8/19/2005

I've said not a word of praise for Cindy Sheehan. Put the shoe on the other political foot and you'll see what I mean:

President Bush's visit to the troops in Iraq on Thanksgiving was a marvelously effective piece of political theater, though it did little to justify his case for the war. It was a smart and calculated piece of drama for the camera. It's a pity that such gestures seem more effective than reasoned debate, but the President would be a fool to stick to reasoned debate when we know that imagery and gestures are effective.

Right? No praise for the President, just analysis of what he's done and its evident effect.

Eric Rauchway - 8/19/2005

I thought that was Louis B. Mayer: "The most important thing, kid, is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

Eric Rauchway - 8/19/2005

<em>I'm a little unclear why staging a PR impasse is materially different from demanding that the President emote on demand.</em>

Because if the President were to come out, trailing television cameras, and shed a tear while he consoled Ms. Sheehan, the protest would be over. Its effectiveness depends on his refusal to do this. You will note that the people who have mounted similar protests are entirely aware of this. In the article to which I linked, one protester says, "I hope he doesn't speak to her so this can keep going forward."

I'm not seeking to <em>justify</em> what she's doing, I'm pointing out that it's very smart, and calculated. And unlike Morris, I don't see that there's anything wrong with people in the public sphere doing things that are smart, and calculated.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/18/2005

...whether you mean it or not. (Michael Flanders)

Seriously, though, I agree: Morris's characterization of Sheehan is deliberately narrow, both to suit his knowledge base as well as to suit his political bias.

Of course, Bush has a shocking inability to sound sincere (to me) even when he's saying something that he clearly (seems to) believes in, so it's not clear that Sheehan would be satisifed with any explanation given, on an emotional level.