It’s been real nice watching the saturation media coverage in the U.S. of the Dixie Chicks this past week, and seeing them continue to be willingly held up as noble champions of free speech. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I’ve heard that old John Ford movie line a lot lately for some reason. I don’t want to devote too much more space and spleen to a tired subject — although I don’t think I’ve written about the Chicks before — but just for the sake of it, it’s worth clarifying a few things.
It is nothing new for artists and entertainers to hate Republican presidents. It’s been that way for a long time — certainly since Nixon’s time it’s been de rigeur, as John Kerry would say. People in the arts who are — or who admit to being — political conservatives are conspicuous in their rarity, and are truly the ones who display courage in not following the pack (witness Robert Downey Jr.’s somewhat hesitant admission today that he has a picture of himself and the Bushes on his refrigerator. Downey isn’t claiming to be conservative, but rather that he is apolitical, and he seems leery enough about even doing that).
When, on March 10th, 2003, one of the Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines) said* that they were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,” the outcry that followed had little if anything to do with the mere fact that the Chicks didn’t like President Bush. It’s necessary to recall the actual context in which the fateful remark was made. This is a tall order for most of those multi-millionaire brainiacs who work in the media and do the kinds of powder-puff interviews that the Chicks have been treated to recently.
Number one: Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were massed on the Kuwaiti border with Iraq, and in neighboring territories, awaiting what seemed a very likely order to heft their rifles, start the engines of their humvees and tanks, and go forward into life or death battle with an enemy of ultimately unknown capability. That’s right, kids: Contrary to the legends that are being printed with regularity these days, the truth is that no one knew what Saddam Hussein had waiting, and, back then, we knew that we didn’t know. So, aside from the inherent massive risk of any military action, we also believed that it was possible that chemical or biological weapons could be used. The possibility of massive American casualties was real in most people’s minds. Grown-ups, at least, know that war is always uncertain. Americans who had loved ones in the military, who had friends in the military, or who just plain cared were hoping and praying that any military action would succeed quickly and with minimal loss of life.
Number two: The Dixie Chicks made their statement of contempt for the sitting U.S. president at a time of imminent war from a stage in a foreign country. It was in London, in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theater. Yes, it’s true that Britain was and remains our ally in the war in Iraq, but, when it comes to something like this, all that matters, viscerally speaking, is whether the statement was made inside America or not. Let’s not fool ourselves: Natalie Maines made her statement (“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”) to a foreign audience that she knew would heartily approve of it. If the Chicks had been playing a gig in, say, Houston that day, it seems rather less than likely that the same comment would have been made from the stage.
So, here you had American performers, conscious of the imminent likelihood of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers going into battle, deliberately denigrating the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, while in a foreign country, in full knowledge that it would gain applause and approval.
These are the facts and this is the context that burned so many people up so much. These are also the facts and the context that the Dixie Chicks have continued to brush aside — to this day — in all of their self-serving and self-aggrandizing media appearances.
That was true even back in March of 2003, when, chastened by the reaction, Natalie Maines issued this quasi-apology:
“As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.”
The point, however, was not that she was “disrespecting” President Bush. The point was the when and where of how she did it, and this is exactly what she refused to acknowledge.
Of-course, as we speak, Natalie Maines has retracted even that disingenuous and muddy apology from 2003. With President Bush’s poll approval numbers in the 30s, and after two years of being lionized as the greatest free speech heroes since Copernicus, obviously the Chicks feel safe to spread their wings.
What all this says about their character is another question.
More light was shed on the issue of character when another Chick said this in a recent interview in TIME magazine (which had splashed them on the cover, of-course):
“I’d rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.”
Of-course, there’s one more point that should not escape clarification, and that is that this never had anything to do with “free speech.” No one in the U.S. government tried to silence the Dixie Chicks. Congress passed no law with respect to their right to make inane statements from here to eternity. Neither did any violent thugs try to chase them off of any stage. Instead, private citizens, who found their statements and attitudes to be immature, obnoxious and repulsive, chose not to spend their money on them anymore. This included private owners of country radio stations who decided that their business was altogether better off not purveying Dixie Chick product.
Yes, America is a free country. Natalie Maines can say whatever she wants, and buy whatever CDs she wants to buy. And so can everyone else.
As for those morons who sent death-threats and otherwise disgusting messages to the Chicks, they displayed plenty regarding their own lack of character by doing so, but they are not representative of the greater mass of ordinary people whose chief reaction to the whole controversy was to raise their eyebrows and hold their noses.
Clearly, it’s still not safe to let go of those nostrils. Too bad.
*Note: all Chick related quotes are from the incontrovertible — or at least highly convenient — Wikipedia.