Sunday, February 11, 2007

SHUT UP AND SING: What the Dixie Chicks Have Taught Me About Free Speech

Two nights ago, I watched an advance copy of Shut Up And Sing, an excellent new documentary about the Dixie Chicks and the huge controversy that erupted when lead singer Natalie Maines said something critical of President Bush from stage in the run-up to the Iraq War (the film is released on DVD this week).

Then last night, the Dixie Chicks won an unexpected five Grammies for Taking the Long Way Home, their pointed, unapologetic, and musically stunning CD response to their many right-wing critics.

It's all gotten me thinking a lot about the initial incident, its aftermath, and what it says to me about freedom of speech.

Frankly, the movie reminded me just how mild Natalie Maine's original criticism was ("Some of us are ashamed that President Bush is from Texas"), and how furious, overblown, and carefully orchestrated the response to the Chicks was: the band was subject to boycotts, death threats, endless jeremiads on talk radio and cable television, and was literally banned from the country's network of radio stations, despite the fact that the Chicks had a number one single at the time, and were the bestselling female country band of all time.

People who defended and still defend the bannings and boycotts of the Dixie Chicks argue that those actions were simply the consequence of the Dixie Chicks' expressing of their opinions: that those individuals who opposed them were freely expressing their own opinions in response. It was, the argument goes, a case of free speech being met with more free speech.

But was it? Did the folks who opposed the Dixie Chicks have the right to do the things they did? Well, at least in the case of the radio stations, it's possible that they didn't--that the decision by 200 country radio stations to "independently" and simultanously to ban the Chicks' music wasn't independent at all, but was, instead, a corporate decision made to curry favor with the Bush administration and bolster their right-wing corporate agenda.

But even if it was legal, was it right? What this whole brouhaha really just a case of two opposing cases of free expression?

Again, I don't think so. The response to the Dixie Chicks wasn't organic, but was instead just one small part of a sophisticated and carefully orchestrated campaign by the Bush White House and a conservative media network to specifically silence dissent. They wanted to stop the debate over the Iraq War, to stop questions from being asked, and they succeeded. The Dixie Chicks were the sacrificial lambs offered up as an example to other would-be critics.

How do I know? Well, it's partly how ridiculously overblown the response was to the Dixie Chicks' comments. But it's also that we've since learned that this is how the Bush White House deals with all critics and all manner of dissent: inflame and polarize both sides so no one listens to anyone else, then brand opponents as traitors, terrorist or terrorist sympathizers, and people who hate both "the troops" and America.

It is, in a word, shameless. And honestly, is that really what free speech and freedom of expression is all about?

Sure, these are all "opinions," but these opinions were designed to intimidate and to shut down debate. They're stinkbombs in the marketplace of ideas and, like all stinkbombs, the point is to clear as large an area as possible for as long as possible. The point is definitely not to illuminate.

This is, of course, the price and the risk of free speech. But was the country served by this silencing of the Dixie Chicks, and by all dissent during the run-up to the Iraq War? Were the voices of dissent who have turned out to be so eerily prescient given due consideration in the media and in the halls of Congress? I can't imagine any intellectually honest person saying that they were. But imagine the resources, and more importantly the lives, that might have been saved if they had been.

In any event, the Dixie Chicks have finally been completely vindicated; despite all that was thrown at them, all that they endured, they're back on top of the world, more successful than ever. Meanwhile, the architects of the Iraq War are disgraced and discredited. I can't think of a better case of karma in action.

In other words, the truth won out. It took a while, but free speech worked. The debate could not be silenced forever. I find this incredibly inspiring. And now I find myself examining my own life, looking for ways that I haven't lived up to my own ideals, that I've stayed silent or compromised out of some fear or cowardice.

It's an examination worth having, just like Shut Up and Sing is a movie very much worth watching.

(Again, it's worth emphasizing that these are entirely my own opinions and do not represent the views of the AS IF! membership.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here Hear. This is dead on.


5:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We were thrilled by their performance and their wins last night. This morning, my daughter was reading online comments about the Dixie Chicks having won so many awards, and was appalled at some of them, that are now threatening to boycott advertisers who ran commercials during the Grammys, among other things. She was understandably upset that people were so nasty.

Most of the folks squawking seem to believe that they are being patriots, but their clear refusal to acknowledge the basic principles of the Constitution say otherwise, I believe.

6:07 AM  
Blogger archer said...

I can't stand Bush or his vile murderous imbecilic war, but unfortunately the Freedom of Speech clause of the Constitution guarantees freedom only from Government interference with speech. If the rest of America doesn't like what you say you'll have to take the heat for it, from boycotts to talk-radio imbecile rants.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Archer, I don't know why you think I'm advocate censorship of the Dixie Chicks' critics. I'm definitely not.

But I do think the consequences of the shouting down of dissent before the war should make us all consider the credibility, integrity, and track record of all the pundits and "news" outlets that did the shouting down.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m interested to see what this adds to the dialog. Curious stuff in this independent film! :

8:45 PM  
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8:38 PM  

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