The Dixie Chicks episode has indeed been shameful ... for America.
The Republican Party and its handmaidens in the press is enforcing a McCarthyist, enforced groupthink that would put the old Soviet Union (or the old Iraq,) to shame. No one -- no elected official, no private citizen and certainly no member of the entertainment industry -- is permitted to say an unkind word about George W. Bush. To do so is to be labeled a treasonous parasite living off the freedoms purchased for this country in blood. But don't those freedoms guarantee us the right to criticize all we want? If not, what exactly has the blood of our fallen soldiers bought?
Perhaps the case was best made by a Republican president -- Theodore Roosevelt -- who said, "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official."
Roosevelt expanded on that theme when he wrote in an editorial for the "Kansas City Star" newspaper on May 7, 1918 -- while World War I raged -- that:
"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."
That quote was used by a member of the Dixie Chicks -- the girl group that sparked a country music revolution when lead singer Natalie Maines declared onstage before a UK concert audience that the groups was "ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."
That comments ripped through the country music world, prompting outraged fans to hold CD burnings, some even taking their kids out to the parking lot to publicly stomp on the group's product and likeness -- creating eerie images of exuberant violence-as-family-outing, that should be a shameful reminiscence for the South. Led by right wing press and political figures, otherwise peaceable Americans heaped scorn, verbal abuse and, ultimately, vandalism and even death threats on the three young women, who have topped the charts as the top selling girl group in music history. Country radio stations and even whole networks -- including, not surprisingly, the rabidly right wing Clear Channel conglomerate -- yanked the group's songs from playlists. Backlash songs promoting the war in the most muscular terms hit the airwaves, and the man who originally recorded the group's hit "traveling soldier" re-released the song to capitalize on the Dixie Chicks ban-wagon.
And if the images of people burning and breaking perfectly good CDs that they already paid for (thus -- and work with me here, country fans -- the Chicks already profited from,) wasn't bizarre enough, the world was treated to a bile-spitting display of American intolerance unlike anything those of us who didn't live through the McCarthy era have ever seen. The Chicks joined Hollywood celebrities like Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon as objects of hatred and ridicule by Americans who accused them of selling out the troops -- willfully ignoring the ad nauseum statements of support for the fighting men and women of the U.S. armed forces that were issued by the antiwar celebrities. But the snide ridicule directed at the Hollywood set (who had the odd event canceled or who became the butt of endless late-night TV jokes,) was nothing compared to bitter, violent reaction to the Chicks.
And then there was the hour-long, televised rebuke of the women Thursday night, in which ABC News correspondent Diane Sawyer repeatedly pressed, in tisking, school-marm fashion, for just one more apology to Bush. Maines heroically resisted the attempts to reduce her to a wicked child, who surely must realize that it isn't nice to criticize her betters, but the interview ought to go down in history with the House Committee on Un-American Affairs hearings for its daring presumption of guilt. What many of the rest of us still don't get, is just what Maines is guilty of: Feeling ashamed? Being from Texas? Or speaking her mind?
Add the whole, sorry mess together and the world is left with an image of America at its ugliest -- a nation so intolerant of dissent that those who engage in it are literally said, by a shrill few, to be sure, but loudly and without repercussion, to be deserving of death. What? Are we living in the United States or Communist Cuba?
Have we as a nation become so sensitive, and our democracy so brittle, that we cannot countenance any aspersion on the president, any questioning of his policies, or any doubts about his judgment? Recall that fewer than half of those who voted -- and fewer then one quarter of those who were eligible to vote -- chose George W. Bush as president, and prior to 9/11 there were sufficient doubts about his leadership to cause his own party's leadership to carp about the "smallness" of the Bush presidency.
Of course, all that changed after Sept. 11. Now there is nothing bigger than the presidency of George W. Bush, and like the reign of Fidel, it has been placed beyond reproach by the Right, even when the issues on the table (as was the case with Iraq), have nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Republicans defend their ideological lynching of the opposition by saying that the Chicks and others erred by airing their grievances against Bush during wartime -- and overseas, at that. But since when is it unpatriotic to criticize the Commander in Chief -- where ever you happen to be standing -- while the nation is at war? Republicans certainly didn't hold back on Franklin Delano Roosevelt while he prosecuted what is still the conflict of the 20th century, and haters of John F. Kennedy kept right on sneering at him even as the Cuban missile crisis loomed. It certainly wasn't considered unpatriotic for the likes of Tom Delay and other Republicans (who excused themselves from military service during the Vietnam conflict) to fulminate against President Bill Clinton while our fighter pilots were in the air over Kosovo, or on the ground in Mogadishu. Perhaps it's only unpatriotic to criticize the president when he is a Republican.
Meanwhile, in Britain (the constitutional monarchy from whom we liberated ourselves in 1776), members of the press heaped scorn on Prime Minister Tony Blair in the runnup to the Iraq war. The criticism leveled at Blair -- who enjoyed less than 50 percent support for the invasion before it began -- would have been unthinkable in the United States, where a docile press corps coos at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and can barely conjure a tough question for Bush during his rare live press conferences ("Mr. President, how does your faith get you through the rough times...?") The press finds its mettle against White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, but the free thought rarely finds its way into the columns or on-air reports that follow. Blair, on the other hand, was lampooned before the war by the UK Mirror and other tabloids as George W. Bush's poodle; and depicted on Mirror covers smooching George W. Bush on the lips or dripping blood from vampire fangs.
During the fighting in Iraq, Americans interesting in hearing the plain facts about the conflict -- including both the victories and the difficulties, casualties and destruction that are the natural outgrowth of war -- were forced to turn to such outlets as the Guardian of London newspaper, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation or the BBC. ABC News and CNN provided rare bastions of credible journalism late at night (as did several newspapers), but for much of the time, U.S. coverage of the war often disintegrated into the same chest-thumping, jingoistic drivel that litters the Fox network, whose reports often look like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of state television in Egypt or Ba'athist Iraq.
The cheerleading on the American cable and television networks led BBC chief Greg Dyke to deride the bulk of U.S. war coverage as "shocking" and "gung ho." This, as Dyke and others are fighting to keep right-wing media conglomerates like Clear Channel from spreading like a virus across the UK.
With that as a backdrop, it is of little wonder the American public came to expect absolute conformity of thought from everyone in public life. And I suppose the American press -- of which I am a member -- deserves some of the blame for the Dixie Chicks hysteria.
But just because it isn't surprising doesn't mean it isn't shameful. Grow up, country music fans. Grow up, America. George W. Bush is not Fidel, and this ain't Cuba.
Joy-Ann L. Reid is a writer and online news editor living in Florida. firstname.lastname@example.org.