A Letter to a Republican Senator

The organizers of the Women’s March on Washington have asked participants to send a postcard to their elected representatives, as part of their 10 Days/100 Actions campaign. This is what I wrote. It . . . wouldn’t fit on a postcard.

I live in Texas, so a version of this will be sent to Senators Cruz and Cornyn, as well as Democrat Al Green. I hope they read it and take it to heart, but in the event that doesn’t happen, I hope you find some value in it. Thanks for reading.

Dear Senator,

My name is Jennifer, and I’m a constituent of yours from Houston. I confess that my politics differ from yours a great deal, but if I can, I am about to ask something very important of you. I am not asking you as a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or conservative, a Trump voter or a Hillary voter or a Gary Johnson voter. I am asking you as one of the constituents you serve. And I am asking you, most of all, as a fellow patriotic American, someone who loves her country dearly and wants to see it continue to stand for the things it stands for. I hope that you will hear me.

I was one of the 22,000 people who attended the women’s march in Houston last Saturday. As you may already know, we were asked by the organizers of the original Washington march to continue expressing our First Amendment rights by writing to those who represent us in federal government. I had intended to write about healthcare or immigration, both of which are issues very important to me, but then I read that President Trump’s administration had forbid a number of government agencies, including the EPA, the USDA, and the NIH, from speaking to the public or to reporters. And I read the ominous suggestions that Trump would be closing press access to certain media organizations soon.

If I am going to be honest with you, Senator, that terrified me.

I am a second-generation American. My parents were born in Communist China in the early 1960s. They lived through the worst atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, and they lived through the aftermath of Mao’s death. They lived through the opening up of China in the 1980s, and the subsequent crackdown that resulted in Tiananmen Square. They lived in a place that was not free, where dissent was crushed and the spread of information strangled, where they knew only the party line, a pack of lies spun about a great, invincible leader, and how privileged they were to live in a country that was actually struggling under poverty and famine.

As I said, my parents lived to see the death of that invincible leader. They came to understand that for their entire childhoods, they had been living a lie. I think my parents loved — still love, in some ways — the country of their birth, but they were horribly disillusioned, especially after the reforms of the early 80s proved to be fleeting. They made up their minds that they would leave, and they wrote their ways out: they studied, and worked, and were eventually accepted to universities in the United States, where they became residents and then citizens.

My mother is a scientist, a chemical engineer. She has done work on drugs, on biofuels, for organizations from the NIH to NASA. She raised two children in her footsteps, one a biologist, one studying computer science, and I’ve always believed that part of the beauty of America is that it welcomed her, that it gave her a chance to stay and contribute. My mother is a lifelong Democrat, but somehow she always speaks of the first President Bush, who played a large part in enabling her to stay, with incredible respect. Some things go beyond politics.

I know my mother cherishes the freedoms she has as a citizen of this country: the right to vote, the right to speak her mind, the right to make her own happiness and fortune. Her children do, too. I often look across the ocean at the place of my parents’ birth, a place where all news is state-run and carefully censored, where the government has sometimes gone so far as to ban certain emojis, and I think of how lucky I am, to live in a place where dissent is not just permitted, but welcomed. To live in a place that’s free.

But: Senator, our freedoms will only exist as long as we protect them.

I am not dismayed by the president’s actions because I love the EPA, or dislike the president, or disagree with his position on climate change. I am not dismayed by his actions because I think that journalists are perfect. I am dismayed because I believe that dissent, whether I agree or disagree with it, whether I think it is valid or fair, is the lifeblood of a democracy. That we cannot have freedom if we do not have transparency and the ability to speak our minds, to speak the truth as we see it, to engage in debate and the competition of ideas. I am dismayed because I fear us becoming the country that my parents fled almost thirty years ago.

We live in a country where the right to burn the American flag is constitutionally protected — not because we think the burning of the flag is right or good or appropriate, but because we recognize it, at its core, as an act of critical speech, an attempt by the burner to say they feel their country is doing something so wrong it must be powerfully renounced. Because we understand that this kind of speech, even if we disagree or think it is in bad taste, must be protected above all; that we must give dissent room to be heard, or risk plunging our nation into the abyss.

Senator, I believe, despite our differences, that you love this country and want to protect it, so that is what I am now asking you to do. I know Donald Trump has spoken about tightening libel laws, so that newspapers will no longer be able to write the unflattering stories about him that he dislikes. Do not let him. When he brings this legislation before Congress, do not rubber stamp it. When he tries to gag agencies who present a version of the facts he disagrees with, speak out and decry his actions. Senator, you do not have to like the EPA to recognize that individual agencies must be allowed to present the truth as they see it, that we need more sources of official information than the ones that the president personally approves. You do not have to agree with the New York Times to know that the press must be allowed to criticize public figures, even the President of the United States — especially the President of the United States. Do not let us devolve into a country where government agencies serve as one man’s personal mouthpiece, or where publications that disagree with the government are cut off from access.

Thank you for listening, and I hope that you take these words to heart. I would very much like to hear from you or your staff about what you are doing to protect the free speech of Americans at this crucial time. I can be reached at the address on this letter, at [REDACTED], or at [REDACTED].

All the best to you, your family, and your staff.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Dou