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  • Writer's pictureSara Sharpe

Letter 7: Dignified dissent was a thing, once upon a time

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

Dear Friend,

In my first letter, I implied that things blew up between us when Trump was elected. The truth, however, is that we’d been growing apart for decades. Whatever else was happening, things took a turn for the worse after 9/11, for reasons that make sense, I think; fear makes everyone testy. Since then, political discourse has become increasingly less civil. I will say I remember a kinder time. My kids don’t, but I do. May I relay a quick story?

In July of 2002, I was in Europe with my then partner, a singer-songwriter on the cusp of releasing his 12th album. The album, written in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, featured a song about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” who was captured while fighting in Afghanistan. The song offered a sympathetic view of 21-year-old Lindh. “I don’t condone what he did,” my partner wrote at the time. “Still, he’s a 20-year-old kid. My son is almost exactly Walker’s age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic Jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion, too…. The culture here didn’t impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in. I’m trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn’t arrive there in a vacuum.”

I'm just an American boy raised on MTV And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads But none of 'em looked like me So I started looking around for a light out of the dim And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word Of Mohammed, peace be upon him…

As you might imagine, the song was met with a fair amount of outrage. Morning talk show host Steve Gill took his outrage to a live audience in Nashville, comparing my partner to Jane Fonda during her “Hanoi Jane phase,” and claiming the song “celebrated and glorified a traitor to this country.” Someone sent us a clip of the show, which we watched from our hotel room. No stranger to controversy, Steve (partner Steve, not talk show host Steve) essentially shrugged his shoulders and went about his day.

The thing I remember most vividly from the clip is the commentary from the conservative, Nashville audience. I don’t remember a single person defending the song itself. It was offensive, they said. Unpatriotic in the extreme. The wrong song at the wrong time.

But one after another, even while expressing horror at the song itself, they defended Steve’s inalienable right to pen it. Here was a radical artist writing a sympathetic song about an American citizen who had taken up arms with the enemy, scarcely a year after the tragedy of 9/11. The audience could have villainized Steve in no uncertain terms. On the one hand, such a reaction would have been understandable; our collective wounds were still raw. But unlike the show’s host, the audience didn’t villainize him. Instead, they defended his artistic freedom; because, I think, a commitment to a free exchange of ideas – without fear of being shunned or shamed – was still deeply embedded in our American psyche. Gill’s audience, even during a time of profound national pain, held true to this most basic American value.

Don’t get me wrong, friend: This audience didn’t give an inch. They detested the song in no uncertain times. But their responses, as I recall, were dignified and fair-minded; befitting of an aspirational Democracy.

It was a different time.



Jacob, Ian, Trenna and Steve engaged in some dignified dissent. Or something.

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