Not One Damn Bit of Good?

By Farhad Manjoo

Published January 22, 2005 1:57AM (EST)

For all the pomp, circumstance and fundraising dollars it entails, a typical American presidential inauguration is a remarkably ordinary experience, a day that many Americans, whatever their political affiliations, spend doing pretty much nothing special. But this year, as part of a curious protest called "Not One Damn Dime," some small number of left-leaning Americans spent Inauguration Day doing pretty much nothing at all, on purpose.

"On 'Not One Damn Dime Day' those who oppose what is happening in our name in Iraq can speak up with a 24-hour national boycott of all forms of consumer spending," advised, the Web site at the center of the protest. Participants were specifically proscribed from shopping at K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target, malls, convenience stores, fast food joints and supermarkets; from purchasing gasoline, or rides on any form of transportation, whether public or private; and, indeed, from spending any money at all, whether cash or credit, to purchase anything. The protest, to quote the site, was meant to be both maximally effective -- an attempt to "shut the retail economy down" -- but minimally intrusive on the lives of the youngsters who took part: "There's no rally to attend. No marching to do. No left or right wing agenda to rant about. On 'Not One Damn Dime Day' you take action by doing nothing. You open your mouth by keeping your wallet closed."

It remains unclear, one day later, just how loudly and clearly the nation heard the message delivered by these do-nothing protesters Thursday. When buying our ritual snack at Starbucks in the morning, or picking out a nice Coho salmon filet at Whole Foods in the evening, we at War Room certainly failed to detect any slackening of the consumer spirit in the very blue region where we reside. Neither, too, did the president, in his remarks yesterday, appear concerned by the sagging fortunes brought about by the protesters, and though we watched a lot of TV coverage of the proceedings, we didn't see any commentators mention the Not One Damn Dimesters, either.

On the other hand, on Thursday and Friday both the Dow and the NASDAQ slid down, and we'd be remiss not to wonder if Wall Street traders weren't at least a little bit spooked that Not One Damn Dime Day would remind politicians "they work for the people of the United States of America, not for the international corporations and K Street lobbyists who represent the corporations and funnel cash into American politics."

"We're still trying to figure out what it all meant," said Laura Carmen, one of the organizers of the protest, in an interview on Friday afternoon. But she added that she and others in the group have received many letters from people across the nation attesting to the success of Not One Damn Dime Day, and that "from a symbolic standpoint it was a huge success -- a reminder of the possibilities of what can be done." Carmen said that her own Not One Damn Dime Day was a "fulfilling and busy one," and she managed to get along just fine without spending any money. Because she'd purchased a monthly pass for transportation, she could get to work without spending anything, and she worked out a similar arrangement for food. "I got up extra early and I made pies -- blueberry pies and apple pies -- and lentils for later in the day," she said, explaining that she'd purchased all the ingredients earlier.

To War Room, consuming resources that you previously purchased would seem like a serious violation of the spirit of Not One Damn Dime Day -- what good is hoarding your dime on Thursday if you've got to spend an extra dime on Wednesday to do it? -- but Carmen assured us that she actually did consume fewer resources as part of her protest. She refrained from using the phone and from watching television, for instance, which she considered a triumph.

But is this really any way to protest a president you think has abdicated his "moral responsibility" to the nation? Carmen and others involved in the site insist that their message was meant to be "symbolic" rather than functional -- that they were trying to send a message to the nation that they're mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. How mad can you be, though, if all you're willing to do about it is watch less TV for a day? More than that, if it turns out that lots of people didn't watch TV on Thursday, would that actually mean anything? Would we say that those people didn't watch TV because they were protesting Bush -- or did they refrain from watching TV, or from riding the subway, or going to Wal-Mart, or whatever else because they'd never intended to do that thing in the first place?

As the invaluable urban-legend research site put it, "When you call upon people to do nothing, how is anyone supposed to gauge the success of your efforts? There's no way to distinguish those who are doing nothing out of principle from those who are simply doing nothing out of habit."

Snopes concluded its note on Not One Damn Dime Day with a bit of helpful advice for activists: "If the most effort one is willing to put into a cause is to do nothing, then one should expect to accomplish nothing in return."

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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