By Leonard Pitts Jr.
Let us spend a few moments contemplating naked chicks.
Naked Dixie Chicks, to be exact, meaning the country music trio from Texas whose Natalie Maines has become more famous for something she said than for anything she ever sang. If you’re not familiar with what she said, well … Welcome back. And how are things on Antarctica?
Not as cold, I would wager, as they have been for the Chicks since they came out against the war in Iraq in March. Specifically, Maines told a London audience, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Life has not been the same since. The Chicks have been called unpatriotic and a whole lot worse. Radio stations have banned their music and sponsored gatherings where people smash DC CDs. The group’s property has been vandalized. One Chick says her driver refused to drive her. The singers have been threatened. Their families have, too.
Last week, the Chicks fired back, appearing together in the altogether on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, their bodies emblazoned with a few choice epithets: “Dixie Sluts,” “Traitors,” “Proud Americans,” “Saddam’s Angels.” It’s what you call your basic “artistic statement.” In this case, a statement of how the Chicks have become a blank canvas upon which people project their own perceptions, biases and fears.
In the accompanying interview the group struck a note of defiance, though they mainly seemed bewildered that so many people could get exercised about something a mere singer said. Actually, it’s not that hard to understand. In fact, it’s as simple as one, two, three:
• One, the singer in question is a country music star.
• Two, country’s fan base is largely Southern conservative.
• And three, Southern conservatism is not exactly known for its tolerance of dissent.
Consider that many entertainers with more broad-based appeal — Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Eddie Vedder and others — were much more strident than the Chicks in their opposition to war. And yet, they’ve received only a fraction of the flack.
The irony is neon. Southern conservatism loves to wrap itself in the flag and proclaim its rock-ribbed patriotism, its unshakable fidelity to American ideals. Yet, arguably the most important of those ideals is that a person has the right to speak her mind.
It’s fine by me if someone wants to criticize Maines. Though the idea of gathering to destroy CDs rather smacks of Germany circa 1933, I also believe a consumer has a right to boycott what offends him.
But vandalism? Death threats? That is, to put it mildly, a different matter.
No one who has seen the foes of globalism throwing temper tantrums on the streets of major world cities can argue that conservative extremists have a monopoly on misbehavior. But this thing of shouting down dissent with threats and violence, this inability to acknowledge that other people have a right to other views, this tendency to punish those who stray from groupthink, does seem to have become their trademark. Think Jerry Falwell, condemned by some of his conservative brethren a few years ago because he met — MET! — with a group of gay people.
Such behavior suggests not strength of conviction, but fear of contradiction, terror of competing perspectives. The thing is, the marketplace of ideas thrives on competition. It is a bazaar of thinkers and stinkers, bomb-throwers and rabble-rousers, poets, preachers, punks and populists, all trading in that most precious of commodities: insight.
The right to barter freely in that space is one of the most precious gifts and greatest joys of American life. We should all be incensed when one of us seeks to deny that right to any other of us, whether from some half-baked idea of patriotism or any other nitwit excuse.
You and I can argue to our heart’s content about what Natalie Maines said. There should be no argument about her right to say it.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: