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 Writer's Desk 

January 25, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 39



Pat Morrison Quiet Dissent

Jeff Severns Guntzel, NCR staff writer

Dan Sinker gets an e-mail from the White House every day. It is always the same message: "Thank you for e-mailing President Bush. Your ideas and comments are very important to him. Because of the large volume of e-mail received, the President cannot personally respond to each message."

Sinker is the editor of a magazine out of Chicago called Punk Planet*. The magazine, now in its 11th year, runs articles on politics and underground culture.

As soon as it became clear that Mr. Bush -- who did not have Sinker's vote -- would be calling the White House home for the next four years, Sinker fell into a funk. So he hatched a plan: He'd send an e-mail to the president. Every day. For four years.

"Well, it looks like we'll be living together for another four years," went the first letter. "I will admit right out front here that I'm not all that happy about this turn of events. I have been working hard for the last four years to see to it that this didn't happen. But best laid plans, as they say, and here we are. Together again.

"So I thought instead that I'd try a different tack," Sinker continued. "You're not going anywhere and I'm not going anywhere, so I figure it's about time we get to know each other. The fact of the matter is that I know quite a bit about you -- you are, after all, the leader of the free world (or so they tell me) -- but you probably don't know all that much about me. And, as a result, you probably aren't thinking about me, or others like me, when going about your daily business. So, Mr. Bush, I've decided to become a part of that daily business …"

And he's done exactly that. Well, sort of. The president, obviously, is not getting his e-mails. But a lot of other people are. Sinker posts his e-mails on a blog called Letters to the President.

"After spending a day depressed over the results of the 2004 election," he explains on the blog, "I decided that simply being upset wasn't helping. Instead, I wanted to channel that energy in a more constructive way, so I decided to open a dialogue with the person that was creating so much tension in my life."

The blog is getting hundreds of visitors every day.

Sinker's e-mails to the President bounce softly -- somehow -- between the political (and sometimes polemical) to the deeply personal.

"I hope you didn't try to call my house tonight," Sinker wrote in an early December e-mail, "because the phone had been in use for almost four hours straight, calling family and friends to share the news from today's ultrasound. The old cordless phone was beeping in low-battery protest as Janice and I converted our dreams -- a boy, believe it or not -- into little electrical pulses that shot out across the country and into the ears of those we love the most. It's a draining process, packing that much emotion, wonder, and excitement into such a tiny phone cord, and once we were through we were both exhausted, but oddly wired, and so we took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood to try and calm ourselves enough for sleep."

In another e-mail he was distant and angry.

"Dear Mr. Bush," he began.

"Coming home tired from a taxing day at work yet elated from an evening midwife appointment, the last thing I wanted to read was an article that started like this:

"Sad to the depths of his 4-year-old soul, Jack Shanaberger knew what he didn't want to be when he grows up: a father. "'I don't want to be a daddy because daddies die,' the child solemnly told his mother after his father, Staff Sgt. Wentz 'Baron' Shanaberger, a military policeman from Fort Pierce, Fla., was killed March 23 in an ambush in Iraq.

"Almost 900 US children will be spending the holidays this year without a parent because of your war, Mr. Bush. Today, I don't even want to talk to you. Dan."

Last week, in an e-mail sent on the eve of the inauguration, Sinker ticked off the challenges waiting for the president in his second term: the defecit, the war, the economy…

"Are you up for it?" he asked.

"During this fall's debates," he continued, "you mentioned that being president was 'hard work.' But there's a difference between saying it and doing it. In your case, the work … only grows larger and more insurmountable. And I'm just curious if, as you skidded across the dance floor on the still-slick leather of your new fancy-dress boots, gripping Laura's hand just a little tighter to keep from spilling to the floor, you had a moment of worry -- just a passing flash, even -- that perhaps you might have been better off if the other guy was being sworn in tomorrow.

"I suppose it's too late for those kinds of wishes," Sinker added, "though I'm sure you're not alone in the thought."

I asked Sinker if his e-mails hadn't crossed from therapy to a sort of resistance.

"It's definitely an act of dissent," he said, "but it's not about writing 1400+ angry letters to the president.

"That's one big misconception that I think a lot of people have -- especially among the people that know me. Everyone expects it to be really angry, really divisive, really fact-driven. But that was never my intention."

"To me," he said, "it's dissent by simply not allowing myself to be marginalized. Not allowing my point of view, my life choices, my feelings and hopes and dreams to be ignored just because they're not in keeping with 'mainstream' society. It's very much in the spirit of 'the personal is political.'"

Small -- but deeply serious -- statements like Sinker's are everywhere these days. Waiting for the train at Manhattan's 116th street station recently, I was browsing magazines at a newsstand when I spotted a back issue of Time on a shelf close to the ground. It was the "Person of the Year" issue. The person was our president. His portrait, naturally, was the cover. But under one eye, someone had scribbled a large "N." Under the other, an "O." I smiled a sort of George W. Bush half-smile and walked over to the track to look for the light of my train.

Listen to part of Jill Scott's "My Petition" here: Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds 2. But please, this writer implores you, if you want to buy the album, buy it from an independent music store.
Some are a bit subtler than the Subway Scribbler. I've been listening a lot to Jill Scott's beautiful and ever-so-slightly disguised protest song, "My Petition." It's an R&B song -- complete with soft, sexy guitar and lazy, muted drums. Scott's voice is syrupy-sweet, every word just kind of pours out in slow motion:

"You say you mean good for me, but you don't do it. / You say you have a plan but you just don't go through with it. / How do I trust you -- how do I love you, when you lie to me repeatedly?"

It's love gone bad, right? Sort of. She continues:

"You say that I'm wrong for stating my opinion to you. / You'll say that I'm wrong and there'll be quiet consequences too. / But I know my rights, babe. / There'll be no law abridging the freedom of my speech or the right for me to petition for remedy of grievances."

The song is unlikely to enter the timeless canon of protest songs, if only because the lone peace rally folksinger could never recapture Scott's lost love nakedness -- the key to the song's thin disguise.

Certainly there are those who have risked -- and will risk -- more than Sinker or Scott (or the Subway Scribbler) in their expression of opposition to our president's actions and ambitions. But, for Sinker at least, a life lived solely in extreme resistance obscures the meaningfulness of a more quiet dissent.

"Projects like mine aren't about changing everything," he said. "Because, like it or not, we can't change this. We tried. We all tried very, very hard. Instead, these projects are about simply living with the reality that's among us. Mine is literally about living with this reality. About documenting my life and doing it in a way that maybe resonates with some other people as well. Which is not to say that trying to create real change isn't worth it. It's just to say that to only work towards that is probably going to burn a person out, or make their lives very one-dimensional. And to me, that's just like handing them victory anyway, because they beat you if that happens."

* In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am also a contributing editor for Punk Planet and Sinker is a dear friend.

Jeff Severns Guntzel's e-mail address is jsguntzel@ncronline.org
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