If you were watching President Obama's Thursday speech, you know that all did not go quite according to plan; the president's attempts to outline the future of drone warfare and Guantanamo Bay were repeatedly interrupted by the questions of a single woman.
Medea Benjamin is not at first glance the kind of person you would expect to find "heckling" a Democratic president whose 2008 campaign promises, in keeping with the overall mood of the country at the time, spoke of a need to move beyond the militarism of the Bush years. For Benjamin and others, however, it is precisely these promises that are the crux of the problem — specifically, the fact that several of them have not been kept.
Benjamin is a co-founder of CodePink, a "women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement" founded in 2002 to protest the then-impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although the group has broadened in focus since its inception and has ties to a wide range of non-profit, primarily left-leaning groups, it is fair to say that its principal concern remains U.S. militarism, and it was this militarism that Benjamin denounced last Thursday when she called for the president to close Guantanamo Bay and to ground the unmanned aircraft (a.k.a "drones") that the administration has been using to off various leaders of Al-Qaeda (almost certainly killing some innocent bystanders in the process).
Critics of Benjamin's actions — including the president himself, who remarked that "she wasn't listening to [him] in much of what [he] said" — have accused her of something like ingratitude; if Benjamin had paid attention, the argument goes, surely she would have realized that the president was addressing her concerns. Benjamin herself, however, denies this, saying that she was "hanging on every word" and failed to hear what she was hoping to — a concrete timeline.
It is, of course, possible to fault her for breach of etiquette, and many have. But Benjamin has a response to these charges as well: "Some say it's rude to interrupt the president, but it's rude to kill innocent people with drones."
Here, then, is the question that no one is asking. Benjamin's methods may be intentionally sensationalistic, but are they completely uncalled for? Regardless of whether or not you agree with Benjamin's position, it is hard to deny that there is a distinct lack of accountability in U.S. politics; as anyone who has written to a local, state, or federal official knows, it is next to impossible to even get a response, much less a thoughtful attempt to address the problem. When the stakes are as high as they are in questions of drone policy, is it really so unreasonable to expect governmental responsiveness, or to be disappointed and exasperated by the absence of it?
"Unreasonable" is, however, precisely what many have termed Benjamin. In a CNN interview, Benjamin was asked whether she might not be "hurting her own cause" by acting "a little crazy." Practically speaking, of course, Carol Costello may be right, but at a more fundamental level, it is troubling to think that passionate conviction can be written off as hysterics. Benjamin did not sound "crazy" to me; she sounded angry. And while I do not personally agree with everything Benjamin has said, the issues are serious enough that she has a right to be frustrated without being dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, there is a long-standing tendency to dismiss female outrage in particular as the byproduct of emotional disturbance. Certainly, a male activist posing similar questions would have been labeled obnoxious and rude, but would he have been subjected to the sort of name-calling that Benjamin herself has been? Clearly he would have been spared some of the more patronizing terminology — and I include in this everything from Rush Limbaugh's "babe" to President Obama's vaguely condescending "young lady" — but I would be willing to bet there also would have been far fewer comments accusing her of being a "whack job," a "nutter," or "barking," or, for that matter, complaining about her "screeching wail."
At a very basic level, Benjamin was simply doing something that more of us should probably be doing; she was, in her own words, "speaking out." What's more, in an era of fierce partisanship, she chose to criticize the policies of a Democratic president rather than to simply fall into lockstep. And yet the coverage of Benjamin's actions have focused far less on what she said than on how she said it. Rather than engaging with the issues Benjamin and others like her have raised, we have elected to simply write them off as buffoons. For a country that prides itself on independent thought and action, that is problematic; personally, I would rather listen to the real conviction of someone like Benjamin than the carefully studied doublespeak of yet another politician.