Friday, June 12, 2009

Cindy Sheehan visits Austin

When I entered the Unitarian Church on Wednesday evening to hear Cindy Sheehan speak about her new online book, "Myth America," I saw Cindy in a hallway studying a framed poster of "100 Unitarian Universalists Who Made a Difference." She gave me a hug (though she doesn't really know me), and we looked at the poster together, noting some people we hadn't known were Unitarians -- astronaut, Laurel Clark, for example, who was killed in the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003. And author, Sylvia Plath. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, my father's dissertation subject, was a Unitarian. And, of course, Thoreau. Cindy noticed how many were writers. In the lower right corner of the poster was a little mirror, subtitled, "You here."
"I'm a Universalist," said Cindy, looking in the mirror. "But I don't think I'm a Unitarian."

In the church sanctuary, Thom the World Poet coincidentally - or not - riffed on these themes in his free form poetry and word play, backed by musicians improvising along with him. He urged attendees to fill the front pews first, to recognize the uniqueness of this evening, of this particular selection of people, which would never be gathered quite this way again. We are unique beings, single units, but we are also part of a whole, indivisible from one another. Fences, barriers, borders, are constructs. Separation is illusion. "Let's de-program, unprogram, re-program," said Thom, noting that we were not holding programs in this congregation.

Displayed in back of the altar where Cindy spoke were three verticle banners, part of the church decor. The first read, "To Come Alive." The middle banner read, "To Seek Truth," and the third, "To Heal Our World." Coincidentally - or not - the banners became perfect headings for what she had to say, in just that order.

"People tell me I should just get on with my life," Cindy said. Do they just want her to fade away? The death of her son, Casey propelled her into the peace movement and his death is part of her life still. Parents whose children have died for any reason report similar feelings -- life never gets "back to normal." Outliving a child is not the normal course of things. And, as Cindy says, "There can't be healing until there's accountability."

Cindy described her visit two days prior to the street in Dallas where the former president has retired. She carried a sign asking the same straightforward question she brought to the gates of the Bush ranch in August 2005: "For What Noble Cause?" In the face of a "let's move forward" climate that would like to bury the memory of her son, Cindy's insistence on accountability, "even if we don't succeed," she says, is a way to not forget Casey.

If the former president won't face the question of causes of war, the answers keep Cindy up at night. She said that she began writing her new book when the title sprang into her head one night and she decided she'd better get up and just start typing. She settled on addressing ten myths that she felt she had been taught about the US, and as she travels on her book tour, she keeps adding to the list in her talks.

In this book, Cindy divides Americans into two classes: the "robber class," and, of course, "the robbed." While I don't find it helpful to categorize people like this, I can't deny many of the facets of truth about theft, nor the pervasiveness of the myths she explores. The first myth she names, "The USA is the greatest country in the universe" finds overt and subtle expression in our churches, schools, families ... even in our new, more universalist president's addresses to the world.

I agree that class divisions are the most significant of all the divisions American's have created in this country, despite the "everyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps" mantra and our meltingpot history. And I agree that wars usually serve to profit the wealthy, increasing the distance between the very wealthy and the very poor. But, I also think there is responsibility to be shared among most Americans. Who is a robber, really? Is it the CEO of Halliburton or Xe? How about the person who knowingly buys stock in companies that profit from war? Or the teacher whose retirement benefits come partly from investments in banks, or insurance companies, or oil companies or weapons manufacturers? Most of us, maybe all of us, are tied into some level of complicity, and I think it's instructive to consider how, rather than divide ourselves into perpetrator and victim. In important ways, most of us are both.

Actually, Cindy seems to address this point in her book's "revolution conclusion." She said she wanted to leave her readers with suggestions for positive action. Examples she cited in her talk at the Unitarian Church included: work at the local level in politics, "where it has some effect"; take savings out of the big banks and establish accounts in credit unions; stop using credit cards; simplify possesions; buy local. In such ways, we each seek accountability rather than wait for former or even current presidents to do it.

Although Cindy and I are the same age, we have traveled different life paths, and her conclusions echo the ones I reached in the 1980's when I first moved to Austin after college. I have never used credit cards, for example, but I was also privileged to be able to attend college without student loans because my father was a professor. I didn't have children, so it's been easier to lower my living expenses and to stop driving a car. I haven't had to live with the pain of the death of a child, so it's easier for me to see our former president as a man who should be tried for war crimes, but not labeled "a murderer."

What I appreciate most about Cindy Sheehan's continuing activism is that she is not afraid to stand up to what whe sees as wrong-doing. She speaks and writes plainly and with humor, too. She hasn't, as many would like her to do, just gone away. If a democracy, as Pete Seeger says, rests on an obligation to participate, Cindy has done that. She knows her First Amendment rights, and she uses them. She is an eager student of history and has embraced the methods of historical nonviolent movements.

In many ways, there are and have been grassroots movements rising up in the US which are now acknowledged as being so mainstream that the major media have jumped on the bandwagon to amplify them. News about green building, supporting local business, growing more food at home, supporting public transportation, recycling, increasing bicycle use ... all this is becoming the rule rather than the exception, and it's happening because it really must.

Will war collapse of its own dead weight, like the big banks, insurers and auto makers? As people withdraw their support from the pillars of war and establish alternative, sustainable economies, will the US withdraw military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and its hundreds of bases worldwide because there is simply no more money for or interest in retaining them?

I don't know. The drive for power, to retain power, is very strong, but so is the power of necessity. Maybe we will become true Universalists because we must acknowledge our reliance on our common planet's resources. We will never unite about everything, but our diversity is what makes us healthy. Different paths seem to be converging into shared conclusions. Every person's experience is one's own truth, yet because we are all parts of the whole, we see that our experiences are intermingled in countless ways. Sharing our stories is the opposite of robbery. Seeking truth can heal the world, and we can live on.

No comments: