By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist
They could have just shut up.
That’s what’s interesting. The thing had been said, the controversy had flared and faded, bygones were becoming bygones. They could have moved on, left well enough alone. Instead, they declare themselves, “not ready to make nice … not ready to back down … still mad as hell.”
That’s the refrain of “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the first single from the newly released first album by the Dixie Chicks in four years. More to the point, the first since that fateful night in March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience the Chicks were “ashamed” the president of the United States hailed from Maines’ native Texas.
Things for the Chicks went very swiftly bad after that. They had been one of the most popular acts in country music. Now there were death threats, vandalism, a radio station boycott of their music and, like something out of Germany circa 1933, mass gatherings where whooping crowds destroyed Dixie Chick CDs.
Now it all seems quaint, so three years ago. As in, before the WMDs turned up MIA, before the bungling of Hurricane Katrina, before the scandal of Abu Ghraib, before illegal spying on U.S. citizens, before 20,646 U.S. casualties in Iraq, 2,462 of them fatalities. These days, between 65 percent and 70 percent of us — the polls vary — have reservations about the leadership of George W. Bush. And Natalie Maines’ assessment of this profoundly mediocre man seems almost … charitable. Indeed, in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz declares Bush a contender for the uncoveted title of worst president, ever.
So yes, the Chicks could have accepted vindication gracefully, taken a demure victory lap and gone quietly back to country. Instead, they release a song full of fighting words and, in interviews, declare their lack of regret and disinterest in rapprochement with the red state musical establishment that made them stars.
What a bracing display of guts. Watching, you wonder when is the last time you saw anyone in the pop culture arena put their careers on the line for matters of principle. Surely, you don’t have to go all the way back to Ali in ’66 saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Surely it only feels that way. Surely some singer, actor, athlete, has taken a risk for right since then.
But no names come immediately to mind.
Yes, others in the pop culture pantheon have spoken against the current state of affairs — Martin Sheen, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Neil Young — but there was little risk in it. Their liberal fan bases would expect and second their opinions. With all due respect to those individuals, these are not exactly profiles in courage. The pop culture Zeitgeist seems more accurately reflected in what Michael Jordan — equally beloved in red states and blue ones — reportedly said when asked why he would not endorse a Democratic gubernatorial candidate: “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
You hear that and you realize that it’s a long time, in ways not measured by calendars, since John Carlos and Tommie Smith accepted Olympic medals with black power salutes, since Marlon Brando marched for civil rights, since thousands of young people put their lives and livelihoods on the line for peace and justice, since any of us, celebrity or unknown, seemed willing to take a risk to say what we felt was right.
These are, should it need to be said, fearful times. Soldiers in harm’s way, terrorism threats looming, government surveiling citizens. There is much cause for trepidation. But courage is only courage when fear is present. It only matters when something is at stake.
For what it’s worth, the Chicks’ new single bombed on country radio, putting their careers further in question. It’s a problem they wouldn’t have had if they’d kept silent.
Thankfully, they didn’t. There’s already too much of that going around.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: