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“Shut Up and Sing”: The Dixie Chicks and Freedom of Speech

March 15th, 2008 · 13 Comments · Arts & Entertainment, Peace and War, Uncategorized

By Shel Horowitz

I’ve been wanting to see the Dixie Chicks movie “Shut Up and Sing” since I saw a trailer for it about a year ago. Last night, we watched it on video.

It tells a gripping story about free speech and repression that started on the eve of U.S. invasion of Iraq. Lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” And all of a sudden, the biggest selling women’s band in the country couldn’t get radio airplay, was picketed, watched right-wingers engage in mass collection and destruction of their CDs, and lost a big chunk of their conservative country music audience.

Interestingly, their sold-out 2003 concert tour continued to draw wild throngs of enthusiastic fans–but their next tour didn’t do so well. And their next album–an album that contained sharp, penatring original songwriting about the whole experience, a first for this former cover band–was deliberately (and very succesfully) launched through other channels than country radio.

It is a sad, sad day when the U.S., the country that not only pioneered free speech but enshrined it as a founding principle, in the First Amendment to the Constitution, can be so vicious to its dissenters. These women received death threats for speaking out!

I want to know how is that when Bill O’Reilly said on national TV that they “deserve to be slapped around,” there was no boycott of his books, no mainstream call to get an advocate of violence against women thrown off the air. How come he wasn’t Imused while the Dixie Chicks got Dixie Chicked?

Let’s go back to the First Amendment for a moment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It seems to be that in the “with us or against us” years of the GWB administration, a lot of people seem all-too-willing to forget this powerful language that has kept us reasonably safe from internal tyranny for years. Yes, I know there are some very unpleasant exceptions, including not only the McCarthy era of the 40s and 50s but also the Palmer Raids following World War I. And Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, “forgot” to block discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity, which was a shame. It would have been helpful to have an early, consistent, and strong legal argument against slavery.

We got that protection decades later, in the Fourteenth Amendment–and even that wasn’t enough to stop the extreme segregation that followed for a hundred years after the Civil War…the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II–but not German- or Italian-Americans…and the roundups of Arabs and Muslims without due process that took place during the current administration.

Now, I happen to be a First Amendment absolutist. In fact, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson principal authors of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution) were absolutist as well–saying in the original draft and in later statements that the First Amendment means “there shall be no law abridging”…from Congress or anyone else (i.e., the states, the executive branch). I actually did some research on this back in 1972, for a high school paper, although I’m not turning up the citation in Google. But it has stuck with me all those years.

In other words, I think Bill O’Reilly and Don Imus have the right to spew their filth–and their employers have the right to terminate their employment. I think the pro-war faction has every right to stop patronizing the Dixie Chicks, and to picket, and to make noses impugning their patriotism, event hough I happen to think the DCs are the patriotic ones here. But I have issues when that broadens to actual suppression of dissent.

The DCs were suppressed. Word came from on high from the headquarters of at least two radio networks: Don’t play their music, or else. It was not left to the individual DJs, or even the individual stations. In the movie, we see Senators John McCain (in the days when he hadn’t yet thrown away his integrity) and Barbara Boxer skeptically quizzing record company executives about this. Not shown in the movie but also very much at issue was the “guideline” from Clear Channel to its 1170 stations: don’t play these hundreds of songs, including John Lennon’s Imagine! And the pressure on journalists to go along with the war and beat the drums–and to exclude opposing viewpoints from mainstream channels (casualties included Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue, among many others)…the attempt to suppress Michael Moore’s latest book at the time…and a gazillion other examples.

(My friends Charlie King and Karen Brandow sing a wonderful song by the Prince Myshkins about this: “Why Aren’t WE On the List?

Yes, we must be vigilant against attacks on our fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, press, and assembly. I think I just might go out this weekend and buy that Dixie Chicks album.


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