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February 5, 2006 - The War of the Shirts (and other matters)

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One of the more interesting events at the Tuesday evening State of the Union address was, before the president spoke, this


Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq who reinvigorated the anti-war movement, was arrested and removed from the House gallery Tuesday night just before President Bush's State of the Union address, a police spokeswoman said.

Sheehan, who had been invited to attend the speech by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., was charged with demonstrating in the Capitol building, a misdemeanor, said Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberly Schneider. Sheehan was taken in handcuffs to police headquarters a few blocks away and her case was processed as Bush spoke.

Schneider said Sheehan had worn a T-shirt with an anti-war slogan to the speech and covered it up until she took her seat. Police warned her that such displays were not allowed, but she did not respond, the spokeswoman said.


Her own account of what happened is here, and of course this caused some alarm among the civil libertarian crowd. She wasn't unfurling a banner. It was a t-shirt, basic black, with the words "2245 dead. How many more?"

Whether or not this was "in support of our troops" - it does seem she doesn't want more of them to die - can be debated. But as this seemed to be some sort of unauthorized "demonstration" they took her away. And to be fair, Beverly Young, wife of congressman Bill Young of Florida (he's chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, by the way) was asked to leave the gallery because she was wearing a shirt with the words "Support the Troops - Defending Our Freedom" on the front. She was treated a bit more nicely, but still, Congressman Young, who had no problem with the Capitol Police hauling Sheehan out, was all over the airwaves Wednesday being outraged about his wife. Curious, Sheehan was handcuffed and hustled out, and the congressman's wife was treated nicely, even if she was loudly calling the Capitol Police "idiots" the whole time.

This was odd. It set a strange tone for the evening.

Even odder, it wasn't only those lefties - who actually seem to mind massive secret warrantless government surveillance of all citizens (they must have something to hide, right?) - who had a problem with this.

From the libertarian right, John Cole at Balloon Juice (that would be hot air), offers this


I am second to no one in my public disgust for Cindy Sheehan. She has, in my opinion, brokered her legitimate grief over the loss of her son for more than her fair share of limelight, which she has used to gallivant across the globe spreading her idiotic political beliefs while trashing this country at every opportunity, all the while shmoozing with every odious scumbag and dictator who will embrace her. Suffice it to say, I am not a fan.

Regardless of my opinion of Sheehan, this really honks me off...

It was one thing when I thought she was arrested for unfurling a banner in the Capitol or some sort of civil disobedience. But arrested for wearing a t-shirt? WTF? What the hell is going on? Someone fill me in on why an anti-war t-shirt is a criminal offense.


So his readers did fill him in, noting 40 USC 5104 (e) (2) (C) might apply –


(e) Capitol Grounds and Buildings Security. - ...

(2) Violent entry and disorderly conduct. - An individual or group of individuals may not willfully and knowingly - ...

(C) with the intent to disrupt the orderly conduct of official business, enter or remain in a room in any of the Capitol Buildings set aside or designated for the use of either House of Congress or a Member, committee, officer, or employee of Congress or either House of Congress...


But then one has to decide there was an "intent to disrupt" and there things get muddled - in the broadest sense, how do you differentiate between disagreement and disruption?

Imagine a hypothetical - in a discussion of some problem one party is explaining the problem and what he or she sees as the best solution, and a second person suggests the premises offered are incorrect (the problem is being wrongly defined) and the potential solution is thus no solution at all. The first person then says the other is being disruptive and should be asked to leave. The second party says, no, this is not disruption - it is disagreement. But is it? Or is it pointless disruption? It depends on which side you're standing - one side can say "my intent was to disagree" and the other side can say that was not the intent at all, as it just looks to them like an attempt to disrupt everything and be a royal pain in the ass. Judging "intent" can be tricky.

But what if we're dealing with a t-shirt?


Note this circuit court ruling –


Believing that the Capitol Police needed guidance in determining what behavior constitutes a demonstration, the United States Capitol Police Board issued a regulation that interprets "demonstration activity" to include: parading, picketing, speechmaking, holding vigils, sit-ins, or other expressive conduct that convey[s] a message supporting or opposing a point of view or has the intent, effect or propensity to attract a crowd of onlookers, but does not include merely wearing Tee shirts, buttons or other similar articles of apparel that convey a message.


Well, that's a kick, and someone must have looked that up after the speech.  As we see here, within twelve hours the Capitol Police say they will ask the US attorney's office to drop the charges, and a top Capitol Police official, speaking off the record (no name, for obvious reasons), added, "We screwed up." She didn't violate any rules or laws, and neither did the congressman's wife.  Later the head of the Capitol Police say the same thing officially.


Well, we live in odd times, as noted here


It isn't okay just because two women had their constitutional rights thrown over the balcony last night at the State of the Union. That just makes it worse. It suggests that what happened to Cindy Sheehan wasn't an accident. We have a government in power that tolerates NO dissent. And making these arrests in the moments before the president's State of the Union address is simply sickening in its symbolism.

Beacon of hope to the world? It's embarrassing what the Bush administration has turned our country into in only five years. And the only thing more embarrassing is that Republicans, who used to believe in freedom, who pre-Bush would have yelled and screamed about this kind of un-American behavior, continue to sit back silently in order to protect a president who betrays ever principle conservatives claim to endorse.


Over the top? Maybe, but in terms of "atmospherics" the whole thing becomes emblematic of something or other. It feels like late-thirties in Germany must have felt. And there's a lot of support for the original Sheehan arrest out there (see this). Anger and fear. They're wonderful things. And as tools of power, as effective as you could want.

And the whole thing seems emblematic of the administration in a general way - do something bold and dramatic to prove how uncompromising and tough you are, then be faced with reality and be shown to be more incompetent than principled.

See First Amendment attorney Glenn Greenwald here (emphasis added) –


This is nothing more than a naked attempt to stifle dissent and to create a criticism-free bubble around George Bush. Presidents routinely use all sorts of propagandistic imagery at the State of the Union to decorate their speeches with an aura of regal patriotism. We always see weeping widows and military heroes and symbolic guests of all sorts who are used as props and visuals to bolster the President's message both emotionally and psychologically. The State of the Union speech is hardly free of visual messages and propaganda of that sort; quite the contrary.

But we apparently now have a country where the only ideas allowed to be expressed in our Nation's Capitol while the President is speaking are ones which glorify the Government and its Leader and where dissenting views are prohibited and will subject someone to arrest. Message cleansing of that sort belongs at a political rally in North Korea, not in Washington, DC.

There have been stories here and there of the Secret Service and other federal government agencies exercising the police power of the state for no purpose other than to stifle dissent. Virtually every appearance of George Bush is meticulously and vigilantly staged to ensure that he is surrounded only by agreement and adoration and almost never dissent of any kind.

This is plainly unhealthy and disgustingly contrary to every defining core American value. Our leaders aren't entitled to reverence and worship and aren't supposed to want it. Criticism, dissent and divergence of opinion are things which the founders did everything possible to foster, and the idea that someone is dragged out of a speech by the President for silently and peacefully wearing an anti-war t-shirt is disgraceful and embarrassing.

And these attacks on dissent are particularly ironic given that they occurred in the midst of a speech by a President who loves to lecture the world on the virtues of liberty and who holds himself out as the Chief Crusader for freedom and democracy.

In fact, as Cindy Sheehan was being dragged out of the Royal Speech, His Majesty was regaling us with the importance of respecting civil debate, the virtues of diversity and freedom, and the need to protect minority views. It's as if there was some universal force that wanted to provide the most compelling demonstration possible of how disingenuous his speech was, and came up with the idea of having Cindy Sheehan dragged out of the hall for doing nothing other than wearing a t-shirt politely expressing criticism of Bush's war.


Well, it showed something.


And the late apology and dropping the charges may be simply a wink-wink nudge-nudge to the "cult of personality" in support of the president - they did get her out of there, didn't they?

From a few miles west, in Santa Monica, Digby at Hullabaloo, has some thoughts.

Like many of us, he was "sort of disappointed that she'd decided to do any kind of stunt" - and he wasn't surprised she was hustled out. But then he says he realizes he's beginning to lose his awareness "of being a frog slowly being brought to a boil." We all know the metaphor.

Digby notes the president saying you had to support the troops (and implicitly not wear naughty t-shirts) –


Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy.

With so much in the balance, those of us in public office have a duty to speak with candor. A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little. Members of Congress: however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our Nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission.


Digby -                                                   


Nice trick. Speak with candor as long as you support me. It's the same trick that rhetorically conflates dissent with treason, using the phrase "aid and comfort." In this case, his speechwriters very deftly forced the entire congress to leap to its feet to applaud their own irrelevance - they ended up cheering the assertion that "second-guessing" in "hindsight" is unpatriotic and that their only option is to do as he orders. Nice democracy we've got here.


Well, it's what we've got.

The Other T-Shirt

From the State of the Union –


Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research, human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.


Human-animal hybrids? What the heck was THAT about?

Over at the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum suggests this was "just a garden variety shout out to the religious right."

Yeah, there are lots of scary stories out there about evil scientists and the evils of science. And all over the web, the day after this, there were snide photos - the cheesy bad guys in green fur from the old Star Trek series (with Shatner in the sixties). Human-animal hybrids! Beware! Everyone had lots of fun with this.

But there are evil scientists and the evils of science. Drum digs up this


Down syndrome is a very common genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21... We would love to have an animal model of Down syndrome... So what scientists have been doing is inserting human genes into mice, to produce similar genetic overdoses in their development.

... These mice are a tool to help us understand a debilitating human problem.


Have to stop such things, right? Drum say Bush is trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, "but what he's really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions."

Is Bush's overt message "We aren't going to let the mad scientists make monsters!" while his hidden message "We aren't going to let the doctors help those retards?"

Probably not. Some staffer stuck it in the speech at the suggestion of some evangelical leader with deep pockets. It's unlikely Bush follows such things.

But that leads to this. If you click on the link you will find you can purchase a "Human-Animal Hybrid" t-shirt, with the quote from the State of the Union speech on the front. It's black, and the words are in white - just like Cindy Sheehan's t-shirt. And note the image of the chimp in the necktie, on all fours, with a profile somewhat like the president's.

Ah well, last year there was a section of the State of the Union about how we needed to pass legislation to rid professional sports of large guys on steroids, and the business about sending a manned mission to Mars. There's always something.

But then, it's not just these wags who don't take the president seriously. There's a larger problem.

There was a bit in the speech about the out-of-control cost of healthcare in America. It seemed the president was saying we're all over-insured and he was saying things about Heathcare Savings Accounts. The idea there is you can divert some funds, tax-free, to a special account and that'd be your insurance. Some companies offer this option, along with health insurance, to shed the full cost of insuring their employees. Now this is supposed to be the new model. You get a tax break - a deduction or credit.

Of course, if you're like almost half the people in need of insurance you're in a very low tax bracket, or in the zero bracket - so reducing your taxes further is kind of a joke. But it sounds good. If it's your own money you'll spend it wisely and the whole healthcare system will become "market based" - the invisible hand of competition will fix everything.

It's nifty theory. But even Business Week has trouble taking it seriously, as here


President George W. Bush is right when he says the US should add a dose of market competition to its health-care system. But giving the wealthy a big new tax break for tummy tucks may not be the best way to do it.


Business Week? He's lost them? That's cold. Of course, the man did confuse an individual investment strategy with national healthcare policy.

But then, it's not only Business Week not taking the president seriously. There's an even larger problem.

Try this - Battleground of Ideas - Christopher Dickey in Newsweek, Wednesday, February 01, 2006. The subhead is "Bush's State of the Union Message confirmed the Arab world's view of the US president as a caricature who talks about strength and determination while projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion."

He's no cub reporter. He's been over there a long time. He gets out and about –


Prime time in the United States falls in the darkest hours before dawn in the Middle East - prayer time, in fact, for the Muslim faithful, the moment when the muezzin calls out (most often on a cassette tape over loudspeakers) that prayers are better than sleep. So only a few people in the region listened to President George W. Bush deliver his State of the Union address last night. But they know the message, now, almost as well as they know the call of the muezzin; it has been repeated so often, so relentlessly, and so mechanically. The difference is that many believe the muezzin, and few believe Bush.


Now why would that be?

This –


We shouldn't be surprised. The State of the Union, perhaps more than any other speech the president makes, defines the way the administration wants to see its world. But its narrative is so foreign to the thinking of most people in the Arab world that they've come to hear Bush's language as a kind of code: "liberation" means occupation, "freedom" means war, "victory" means victims, "reconstruction" means chaos, "democracy" means following directives from Washington. Bush, whatever his intentions - and I think he should be credited with some good ones - has come to be seen as a caricature, talking about strength and determination, projecting an image of stubbornness and confusion.

Journalists from the region are trapped in a sort of twilight zone between these two relentlessly opposite versions of the past and proclamations about the future. "You are caught between two extremes and neither is right," says Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper. The United States comes with its agenda, but with no real understanding, while the old guard in the Middle East is unwilling to admit it has failed, decade after decade, to deliver on its hollow promises of dignity and progress. In the midst of contradictions, people cling to traditions "in their bubble of anachronism," says Safadi. Those who are attacked or denigrated by the Bush administration, like the Baathist regime in Syria, find themselves lionized by the Arab public. Those applauded by Washington are dismissed as pawns. The result on the ground is often the opposite of the Bush administration's stated desires. "Democracy has a new enemy in the region, which is the support [for democracy] by the United States of America," says Safadi.


Dickey provides far more detail, but this is the core. We talk about strength and determination, and project an image of "stubbornness and confusion."

Hey, you don't have to be in Jordon to see that. Hurricane Katrina. Remember?

We talk about strength and determination, and project an image of "stubbornness and confusion." That about sums up the State of the Union speech, and the t-shirt theatrics around it - an agenda, but with no real understanding.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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