Too Late for Mothering: Martha Stewart, Cindy Sheehan and Our Headless Head of State

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

In George and Martha, the new book by performance artist/provocateur Karen Finley, the George in question declares, “I want to destroy the world.  Destroy America.  Destroy our economy.  Destroy young happy Americans with a future.  Destroy culture.  I enjoy seeing youth die."  Turn two pages forward and behold a watercolor interpretation of Edvard Munch’s "The Scream" -- it is indeed George W. Bush screaming in the picture, standing in front of a motel bed with sheets way under 200-thread count -- it's the President Hotel, of course, where Martha Stewart and the GWB are meeting as part of a decades-long clandestine affair, this time on the eve of Martha's scheduled prison sojourn.  Turn another page and behold a lamp consisting of a porcelain poodle with the shade decorated in flowers, clearly a design by a Martha on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

 George is still screaming: "Bin Laden is in me!  Bin Laden is hiding in me!  I swallowed bin Laden."  If Mommy Martha must soothe Baby George with a searchlight up his ass, then perhaps we can excuse the mother of our nation for declaring, "I should have called my magazine Dying.  Martha Stewart Dying."

But wait: is Martha Stewart the mother of our nation?  She declares, "George, I need to redesign the world... I can transform the horror of the panty headdress into dust ruffles.  I can transform the hooded prison garb into the perfect black dress."  This demented George and Martha up the ante on their namesakes in Edward Albee's infamous play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  While Albee portrays the domestic sphere as endless war, Finley goes one step further -- Finley's George will destroy the world, while Martha would like to redecorate. 

The genius of Karen Finley’s spoof is that her characters become only slightly less pathetic than their real-world counterparts -- objects to laugh and cringe at, but not to consume.  George, snorting coke and cracking up; Martha, dominating and then giving in -- this is surely as American as bombs over Baghdad.  George and Martha share interior mindscapes warped as much by pop psychology as power.  While George snorts lines of the best cocaine, Martha tells herself, "his problem will go away if I can keep the focus on me... What we have both sacrificed is intimacy, our privacy.  We both became our parent' s ideal.  But we are insecure and hide our unloved selves from the public at all costs."  This lack of parental love overhangs the narrative -- it's what drives George to drugs, mass murder and gratuitous stupidity; Martha to mothering, smothering and sensible megalomania. 

We know Freud is in the house when Martha declares, "You're a stupid little Bush.  You were named after a vagina."  This is only a warm-up.  Martha continues, "Iraq is the mother that you control and destroy.  You greedily devour her milk, her oil and you kill all of her children.  You occupy and invade your mother.  Your preoccupation with Iraq is maternal stalking madness."  If this analysis seems cheesy and overwrought, take a look at who Martha has chosen as paramour, a drug-emboldened Georgie Porgie, screaming at his father over the phone, "Don't compare your war with my war!"

In such a satire, we can't help but want it to go further, for bin Laden to actually exit Bush’s ass and enter the story line, for Martha to upholster the air.  But Finley sticks to the creativity inherent in her characters, which consists of nostril tantrums and Baby Wipes fantasies.  If Martha is the hero in this sad tale only because her billion dollars doesn't keep her out of jail, her headless drawings of the Head of State in various forms of sexual humiliation/ecstasy serve as counterpoint to her relative powerlessness.  When George tells her she doesn't even need to visit the slammer -- she does have a special relationship with the President, after all -- she chooses prison because, "It looks like what I feel like inside."  If this self-aggrandizing sob story makes you wince, that is the point. 

The scariest thing about George and Martha is that the truth can only be worse.  Take the following example from an "Open Letter to George Bush's Mama," one of the letters, essays and speeches included in Dear President Bush, the new book by antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan.  Sheehan quotes Barbara from an appearance on Good Morning America where Barbara declares, "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths?  Oh, I mean, it's not relevant.  So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"  Sheehan is at her strongest when she responds, "[My son] Casey came home in a flag-draped coffin on April 10, 2004. I used to have a beautiful mind too... Casey's beautiful mind was ended by an insurgent's bullet to his brain, but your son might as well have pulled the trigger."

In Sheehan's quest for accountability, she draws attention to the way the US military-industrial complex furiously creates fictitious enemies in service of its imperialist agenda: Communism, terrorism, Bird Flu, social movements in Latin America.  Sheehan is, of course, one of those fictitious enemies; she describes a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, when she and other relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are prevented from bringing along photos of their dead relatives because these are considered "political statements." Then Sheehan blasts "antiwar" Democrats for doing little more than their Republican warhawk counterparts to end the killing in Iraq. 

But Sheehan's analysis is limited by deification-in-process.  As the editor's note to Dear President Bush declares, "above and beyond all else, Cindy is a Mother.  Not just a Mother, but Mom Laureate, Subcommandante Momus, Nobel Peace Mom, Dr. Mom, Jr., Mahatma Momdi..." Sheehan undoubtably galvanized thousands of people to antiwar activism when she confronted President Bush near his ranch in Crawford, Texas with the unanswered refrain, "what noble cause did my son Casey die for?" Nevertheless, it is unfair to compare Sheehan to the spokesperson for a decades-long underground revolution (Subcommandante Marcos), the martyred symbol of the US civil rights movement (Martin Luther King, Jr.), or the God of nonviolent resistance (Mahatma Gandhi).  Sheehan repeatedly states that she is not speaking for every mother, but she simultaneously falls prey to bouts of self-aggrandizement, such as her remembrance of seeing Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ a few days before Casey left for Iraq: "of course, since I became a mom over 26 years ago, I have identified with Mary as she sobbed at the foot of her son’s cross and cradled his lifeless body in her arms." 

More dangerously, Sheehan espouses simplistic mothers-as-nurturers rhetoric: "I believe it is our motherhood -- not just our feminism, but our motherhood -- that makes us such strong warriors for peace." Sheehan dissects patriotism as an ideology of terror, yet invokes “matriotism” as a foil to militarism.  Such a simplistic reversal (i.e. if mothers controlled the world, everything would be different) reeks of an essentialism that weakens Sheehan's logic. This shortcoming is evident when Sheehan repeatedly praises the "bravery" of her son Casey for supporting his military buddies in Iraq -- if this is matriotism, it looks suspiciously like patriotism.

            Sheehan is most compelling when she returns to the specifics of her struggle, as when she reveals, "I wish I had refused to allow my son to go to Iraq.  I wish I had knocked him out and taken him to Canada... or anywhere far enough away from the war monster.  It's too late for me and my son, but it's not too late for you."

Mattilda, Bernstein Sycamore is the editor, most recently, of That's Revolting!  Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.