I was 10 years old in the early '70s when I asked my father -- a Jordanian immigrant -- if I could paint his Volkswagen. For some reason, he assumed I was planning a nice, high-gloss, all-over job in silver. Instead I painted a peace sign on one door and a "flower power" symbol on the other. With very pretty results too, I thought.
His dismay was palpable. He announced he was getting rid of the car.
"But Dad," I pleaded, drawing on my latest social studies lesson, "this is what it means to be an American. This is freedom of expression!"
"No," he said, without a trace of irony, "having a beautiful car is what it means to be an American."
Lately, with the dire threat of war committed in our names -- a war that so many of us question -- I have been giving some talks about the Middle East. After my talks I am frequently asked by concerned, unhappy Americans, "What can I do? How can I help?"
When I tell people to take a little time to contact their representatives in government, they look at me as if I had suggested they fly to the moon. "Why, what good will that do?" one man asked bitterly.
"Oh, right, like they care," another said.
On the flip side, a city councilwoman once told me: "I just don't hear from people. Not as many as you would think."
I wonder if we have gotten so comfortable and isolated within the deep machinery of our country that we are forgetting how to speak. The rationale seems to be: If we keep our lawns mowed and our cars shiny, everything -- and everyone -- will take care of itself. But speaking out is one of our great freedoms -- perhaps our greatest.
As a professor who teaches writing, I have seen how desperately difficult it can be for people to speak. Students hand out their writing to the class with disavowals and apologies: "This is really rough. I can already tell it's no good." Year after year I have had students who sit silently in class and only later come and fill my office with the music of their inner lives -- stories that could have made our classroom so much richer.
Our government appears to be disturbingly free of dissent at this volatile moment; even our media frequently seem docile and one-note; opposition voices are rare and marginalized. I have not met a single person who is confident about waging war on Iraq. A noted novelist recently asked me, "Do you know anyone who's in favor of this war? I don't!" But in voting to end the debate and give the president authority to use force against Iraq, the Senate's top Democrat, Tom Daschle, told colleagues, "I believe it is important for America to speak with one voice." After a decade of teaching writing workshops, the only times I have seen a class speak with "one voice" are the times when people feel frightened or pressured into going along with the loudest or pushiest voices in the room.
At home, many of us love the idea of freedom of speech and expression, but we are also leery of it. True free speech -- the kind that pushes against the status quo, that takes up space and rattles people -- that sort of free speech comes with demands, of courage and integrity, to name a few. True freedom of speech seems like something we would rather not have to resort to -- an emergency measure. After years of disuse we barely believe it still works -- we imagine it only works for the intense, fast-talking, machine-like "experts" we see on TV.
Perhaps one of the most striking examples of courage I have seen was that of a young student who had recently immigrated here from another country, where they certainly do not have freedom of speech. She stood up in class, holding the first story she had ever written, and she was so terrified by the idea of actually reading her own words aloud that she began shaking and weeping. But it was her turn to read her story and she would not stop: She read all three pages to the end, crying throughout. And when she finished, she sat and smiled at us. And she thanked us. Her story was lighthearted: The lesson was in watching her read it.
You cannot always worry about whether you are an expert or you have done enough homework. If you are against a war on Iraq -- if you are merely questioning it -- you must say so now.
And as for our carefully decorated family car, well, after a few months my father ended up trading it in. He said the dealership deducted $100 from the trade-in value because of the paint job. He swapped his Beetle for a Lincoln and car payments, and he discovered some other, trickier all-American values -- luxury and comfort. I was sad to see my artwork go, but it was okay. I knew I had said my piece.
Diana Abu-Jaber is a novelist who lives in Portland, Ore. She will answer questions about this article in a Live Online discussion at 1 p.m. on Monday at www.washingtonpost.com.