Thursday, August 18, 2005

Wrong Choice or Right Chance: Whichever's Buying Breakfast

Yesterday the Post printed Christopher Hitchens' most recent Slate column, in which he takes a stab at the sad and hopelessly backward thinking that compels Cindy Sheehan to do all the strange things she's been doing in her son's name.

The article begins by shooting down Maureen Dowd for her thoughts on the matter. In particular, this utterly absurd slab of rhetoric: "The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute." Honestly: how do you figure, Maureen? I mean, let us, for just a half second, extract the lugubrious weight of emotion you've invested in this statement, and just look at it on its own merits ... Nope. Sorry. Not so. I mean: moral authority? Absolute moral authority?! Absolutely not, I’m afraid. As a rule—unless they are quite exceptional individuals (and Ms. Sheehan, with all due respect, rather clearly isn’t one)—parents who are forced to bury their own children tend to be the last people capable of any kind of moral authority on the matter. Let alone the absolute kind. (If, even, such a thing can be said to exist … And, I can’t help feeling, that in a different story Ms. Dowd would never grant any one person, under any circumstances, this kind of clout. Consider, say: the sort of person who lost their son or daughter in Iraq but continues to support the war and their son's/daughter's decision to participate in it.) The reason why persons like Ms. Sheehan can have no such power is fairly simple: those under extreme emotional strain tend to do rash, unreasonable and, very often, immoral things as a consequence. Understandably, yes. Justifiably? Absolutely justifiably?! No, no, no! And Cindy Sheehan is the proof.

But there are two points, to my mind, that Hitchens doesn’t give enough attention in his column. First: this conflation of the word ‘moral’ with what Ms. Dowd is really getting at: emotional. It bothers me no end—and, indeed, should bother all thinking persons—that morality, in the so-called post-religious society, has taken on this kind of vague, soft and cuddly and, in effect, meaningless character. Morality, to the average person, is politeness, or a kind of remote consideration of one's neighbour. It is (to use a very ugly, trendy, and indeed, highly suspect word) empathy. But this fact that the profound and transcendental meaning attributed to the word by philosophers and theologians for millennia past doesn't so much as twitch the needle of recognition in the contemporary mind is not an indicator of a radical change in its content or quality. Rather, it signifies only that, either: (a) we have forgotten what the word means, or (b) we are incapable of understanding what it means (that is: we are stupid), or (c) we have chosen to be immoral. The fact, in any case, remains: morality has nearly nothing to do with one's conscience, one's gut, or one’s feelings. It certainly has nothing to do with the (albeit, again, understandable) visceral and unchecked emotion of a woman who has seen her son's life cut short long before its time. Moral behaviour requires a very real discipline, humility, and a rigorous control of the emotions. It also requires intelligence. Dowd, to use Davies' phrase again, corrupts not only language but thought by reducing morality to this half-baked expression of raw hurt, and does much to make an already complicated situation something near intractable. It is, alas, precisely the absence of real moral consideration in all this that makes Cindy Sheehan’s position so hopelessly untenable.

Which brings me to the second point. In his last paragraph, Mr. Hitchens only just touches on what is—to me, anyway—the crucial problem in re. Cindy Sheehan’s little Crawford Ranch camp-out. He suggests the shadow of some risk in her, as he puts it, “ventriloquiz[ing] the dead,” but doesn’t go so far as to say what the risk actually is. To me anyway, it is quite clear, and is nothing short of a challenge to the basic condition of a free society: the necessity of individual free will, be it in service of a wrong choice or a right one.

The facts, as I understand them, are these: Casey Sheehan was not compelled against his will to join the US Army. Quite the contrary—given the rather obvious absence of compulsory national service—he chose to join up, and chose, in so doing, to give his life (if necessary) in the service of his country. And he did.

His mother then says: "He was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel. Am I stupid? No, I know full well that my son, my family, this nation and this world were betrayed by George Bush who was influenced by the neo-con PNAC agendas after 9/11. We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because the terrorists hate our freedoms and democracy … not for the real reason, because the Arab Muslims who attacked us hate our middle-eastern foreign policy."

To be sure: Ms. Sheehan is saying nothing new here. (In spite of her assumed I-learned-all-this-after-the-fact tone.) Hell, these arguments existed before the dust of the Twin Towers even had time to settle on the corpses. And they were in full force and on the lips of a large portion of the American population when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq. And so Casey Sheehan went to Iraq, and died in Iraq, knowing full-well the arguments why he shouldn’t.

The very real problem, then, of Cindy Sheehan’s ventriloquizing the dead is that it would appear, rather incontrovertibly, that her son actively rejected the conjecture (which, in spite of her so-called moral authority, is all it reasonably can be said to be) that his government was lying to him. Which, of course, means that Cindy Sheehan might now be betraying her son in much the same way that she accuses the American government of doing …

She asks “Am I stupid?” to which, along with her own rather obtuse answering of the question, we are also expected to reply resoundingly: no! But, given that her son apparently didn’t share her convictions, one wonders what her answer could possibly be if she was asked if he was stupid.

There’s so much irony at work here I’m at a loss as to how to give it any sort of useful synthesis. For it seems to me that Ms. Sheehan’s greatest problem (that is, her greatest regret) is that her son was given the right, and took advantage of it, to choose. For his choice—if we are to employ the prevailing cynical and short-sighted rule of cause and effect—resulted in his death. Never mind the quite acceptable view that it is possible that young Mr. Sheehan died for something noble and good, and that many to whom we owe our current state of freedom had to make the same sacrifice; his choice has come between a loving mother and her son. And so it must be to blame. Choice itself, I mean. It must be wrong. (Alas, would that young Casey was provided with one of Liberal Fundamentalism’s great immunity idols; would that he had something like ‘a woman’s right to choose.’)

Casey Sheehan chose, and the end result did not satisfy the contemporary understanding of what constitutes a moral choice, i.e. the least amount of discomfort for the largest number of (relevant) people. So his mother—in defiance of that choice—has apparently chosen anew.

Liberal Democracy’s new ambition? Actions without consequences. Choosing, that is, without the agony of choice.