The fallacy of authenticity

Posted: Aug 17, 2005 12:00 AM

"Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan, an American soldier who was killed in Iraq.."

That's the sentence Cindy Sheehan and her increasingly lugubrious PR machine want every news story about her to begin with. Nobody likes the idea of criticizing a woman who's lost her son in such circumstances. The hope has been that the high wall of Mrs. Sheehan's "moral authority" will allow her to say whatever she pleases and that nobody will say boo about it for fear of seeming insensitive to what must be unimaginable anguish. Still, even some of her supporters must realize that her anguish has caused her to find meaning in a wildly partisan, orchestrated publicity stunt.

What's interesting, to me at least, is that Mrs. Sheehan represents simply the latest installment in a long, nasty, desperate ideological campaign - and one that demonstrates the logical limits of identity politics.

Anybody who's been on the receiving end of the "chickenhawk" epithet knows what I'm getting at. Various definitions of chickenhawk are out there, but the gist - as if you didn't know - is "coward" or "unpatriotic hypocrite." The accusation is less an argument than an insult.

It's also a form of bullying. The intent is to say, "You have no right to support the war since you haven't served or signed up." It's a way to get supporters of the war in Iraq, the war on terror, or the president simply to shut up.

But, there's a benefit of a doubt to be given. There are many people - I know because I've argued with lots of them - who don't believe the "chickenhawk" thing is intellectually unserious.

Obsessed with "authenticity" and the evil of hypocrisy - as they see it - they think the message and the messenger are inextricably linked. Two-plus-two is four only if the right person says so. We hear this logic most often from adherents of identity politics, who give more weight to the statements of women, blacks, Jews, and others for the sole reason that they were uttered by people born female, black, Jewish or whatever. People who grew up poor are supposed to have a more "authentic" perspective on economic policy than people who didn't, and so on.

Don't get me wrong - experience is important and useful, including the experiences that come from being black or gay or otherwise a member of the Coalition of the Oppressed. But valuable experience confers knowledge, it doesn't beatify. And identity isn't an iron cage. It is not insurmountable. And, at the end of the day, arguments must stand on their own merits, regardless of who delivers them.

Indeed, the notion that there is a single, authentic black perspective strikes me as fundamentally racist in its essentialism. And the idea that women adhere to a female logic unique to them strikes me as definitionally sexist. But the left doesn't care, because this perspective is indispensable for attacking "inauthentic" blacks or other supposed traitors. What was it that Harry Belafonte said the other week? That blacks who work for the Bush administration are, in effect, "house slaves," akin to the high-ranking Jews in the Hitler regime (never mind that no such Jews existed).

The chickenhawk charge is the misapplication of the same faulty logic. There are war heroes who oppose the war, and there are war heroes who supported it. John Keegan is the greatest living military historian, and he never saw a day of battle. George McGovern flew 35 combat missions in World War II. I'll take Keegan's guidance on military matters over McGovern's any day.

Recently, desperate Democrats championed the campaign of Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran running for Congress in Ohio, because he opposed the war and called the president an S.O.B. Just as others had done before with Wesley Clark and Max Cleland, Hackett's supporters suddenly declared that their hand-picked veteran had the indisputable, irrefutable moral authority to say what other anti-Bush liberals had been saying all along. But how does that make the content of those charges any more - or for that matter, less - accurate?

Maureen Dowd wrote of Sheehan in The New York Times this week that "the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute." This is either a sincere but meaningless platitude or it's a charge made in grotesquely bad faith. Surely Dowd recognizes that there are a great many mothers of fallen soldiers who believe the war was worthwhile. Is their moral authority absolute, too? If so, then moral authority can't really be very relevant to public debates. Or does Ms. Dowd claim that only those moms-of-the-fallen who say things critical of George Bush have absolute moral authority?

If that's the case, does Dowd truly believe - as Sheehan seems to - that this war was fought to line the pockets of Texas oilmen and to serve the interests of a treasonous Zionist cabal inside the United States? I think that's batty, and I'd need proof to believe it. Mrs. Sheehan's word isn't good enough for me on anything - save the fact that she loved her son.