Reviving Democracy in Portage County, Ohio
A few days after I hosted a Moveon.org Candlelight Vigil in Support of Cindy Sheehan on the steps of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Kent an elderly man phoned me. He said he had been a working person all his life and asked how he could help stop the war: "God knows," he pleaded, "we don't want no more wars."
I heard those sentiments many times from the approximately 100 people who attended the vigil (the only one in Portage County.) About 75 of them had signed up with Moveon.org; the rest came from the church and community and from Portage Peace (www.portagepeace.org) and the Portage Democratic Coalition (www.pdcohio.us )
I had registered the vigil barely 36 hours before it began. I contacted church officials and rustled up a volunteer to ring the church bell, notified the Record-Courier, and wrote out some simple guidelines: no speeches, no signs, just a respectful silence or quiet conversations about the moral dimensions of the war that was killing Americans and Iraqis. Many vigil participants ignored my instructions about signs and held "Stop the War" posters printed from Moveon.org. or hand-lettered on cardstock. When a teen held up a sign that said "Bomb Texas, Not Iraq" I suggested that advocating violence was not a message we wanted to display, and he put it away.
As I walked among the crowd and listened to friends and strangers, I heard strong moral convictions that this war is obscene, unjust, unfair, unnecessary, and deep compassion for the families suffering losses. I heard a longing for a society that shares better common purposes than mindless faith in God or country, shameless materialism, heartless politics, or endless war and violence. I heard an urgency fo find ways -- now, here in Portage County -- to make things different, to act on moral convictions, to protect our young people and comfort the families of the fallen, to repair the terrible damage to the people of Iraq, to create a more humane world.
Afterward people phoned supporting the vigil. The Social Justice Committee of the U-U Church went forward with plans for a Teach-In and video screenings about the war in Iraq, and a bus to the September 24 Washington rally. A quibble broke out over whether the church should engage in such "political" activities. (U-Us quibble all the time. It's what they do best, and ultimately, it's educational, and moves us forward.)
The Record Courier reported the vigil (the only one in Portage County) in a well written news article, but made no editorial comment except for a garish cartoon on its Sunday editorial page captioned CARTOONS for the HARD of HEARING" and emblazoned with the words "MUSLIM EXTREMISTS ARE TRYING TO KILL US" suggesting that those who advocate getting out of Iraq lack common sense, are ignorant and foolish, and deserve to be blown away.
Meanwhile, the Randolph Fair opened, Portage County's annual celebration of the earth, plants, animals and farm families that feed us, and of the human arts, crafts, machines, and organizations that enrich our lives I took my granddaughter, who has reached age at which the rides are more important than cows and chickens. From the ferris wheel she looked down to locate tempting rides. I saw parking lots full of trucks, vans, and SUVs of fairgoers and the nomads who transport rides, games, food and souvenirs, observing that we live in a culture based and dependent on oil.
Among the extravagances of fair food (grease sweet, salty or spicy; hot, unnaturally colored confections, gargantuan portions, exotic combinations) and the multi-colored balloons and trinkets on offer at the booths and tents, there was no hint of the war in Iraq, of the anxiety of military families, or even of the hardship of high gasoline prices. American flags, of course, and a lot of "Support our Troops" loops on cars and pick-up trucks, but not signs or slogans on t-shirts -- either for or against -- the war or Cindy Sheehan..
Our small vigil in Kent ended with the tolling of the old church bell. A few people left, but most stayed, talking in small groups, not wanting to give up the feelings of friendship, common purpose and hope they found there. They had come because Cindy Sheehan gave them a handle by which to grasp the moral question of what we are doing in Iraq. They wanted to talk about the politics and costs of war, and the atrocities being committed in their names, with their money, without their consent.
Between the vigilers and those who support the war in Iraq is a large mass of people who tune out and keep their heads down, anxious about their jobs, the cost of food, gasoline, heat, electricity, and prescription drugs, uneasy about their children's future. The mainstream media saps their trust in one another and subtle political technologies undermine their confidence in democracy and their faith in their convictions.
The funny thing about democracy is that it only works when it works -- when the people take charge and tell their leaders what they want and don't want. It's not democracy when leaders tell the people -- especially when leaders lie. It's also not democracy when the leader of one nation tells the people of another nation what they want and don't want -- at the point of a gun.
In raising questions about Bush's war in Iraq, Cindy Sheehan is reviving democracy, restoring our confidence in our moral convictions, and emboldening us to tell our leaders and would-be leaders:
"We don't want no more wars."