As George W. Bush leaves office, it is fitting that the mood of the country has softened toward him, at least in some quarters. After all, it is customary to treat outgoing presidents as if they are the guest of honor at a wake. In such circumstances, it is rude to point out how the deceased had squandered his or her life, or made life miserable for others.
Not that this is universal, of course. Some people are openly throwing shoes at him. World leaders actively snub his handshake. He's been beaten up so thoroughly over the last few years that it now seems incredible anyone could have gotten into trouble for publicly calling the man an embarrassment.
And yet, from the safe distance of a discredited war and a now bankrupt economic policy, I think back to Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, who, just 10 days before the invasion of Iraq, got into major trouble for doing just that.
"Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."
This spontaneous, off-hand remark during a concert in London set off a firestorm of vitriol toward the Dixie Chicks. Judging by the reaction to the remarks, one would have thought that she had called for the assassination of George W. Bush, as well as the abolition of apple pie and the immediate internment of all mothers. Children wept, women stamped their feet and men grabbed their guns in their rush out the door to restore the country's honor.
Later, Maines clarified, by saying:
"I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world. ... My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view. ... While we support our troops, there is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost."
This was, predictably, met with more howling and rage. Songs were banned from the radio. CDs were collected and burned. Death threats were issued. Dogs bit children. Jesus wept.
Maines' naiveté led her to a classic mistake. She assumed that because Americans like to brag about their freedom, and invade other countries to bring about such freedom, that this translates into some kind of actual support for freedom. As one protestor said in the 2006 Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing: "Free speech is fine as long as it isn't public." Unasked for, the Dixie Chicks suddenly became the public face of the anti-war movement.
At the time, there were plenty of others with their hair on fire, running around saying the war was immoral and that this was going to be a disaster. There were peace marches around the globe with tens of millions of people trying to get the attention of someone — anyone — who would listen. There were scores of public watchdogs (dismissed as unserious) begging the media to wake up and do its job of questioning the official line.
But something about the Dixie Chicks entry into the fray seemed to finally get people's blood up. Maybe it was because they are a country group, and their fan base is so naturally conservative. Maybe it was because they are women and therefore deemed easier targets. Maybe it was because they didn't back down or make nice.
While other pop artists cowered behind their PR managers, hoping they wouldn't have to take a stand, or worse, sang enthusiastically ugly songs about putting our boots up foreigner's asses, the Dixie Chicks bravely shouted: THIS IS WRONG.
On principle, I immediately went out and bought one of their CDs. And I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself enjoying their music. Not a fan of modern country, my only prior exposure to them was once catching their video about some guy named Earl at a BBQ place. I remember being impressed that they could make the murder of a wife-abusing husband so funny and cheerful. There was something to these chicks.
The new album had "Travelin' Soldier" on it, a song about a soldier who headed off to Vietnam and did not make it back. I remember thinking at the time that it was a nice little nostalgic song, and how insulated this generation has been from that kind of thing. And yet, it became a prophetic piece, as this generation has since gotten to experience all that and more, thanks in large part to all the people screaming themselves purple for the Dixie Chicks to just shut up.
One thing that I did not fully appreciate before Iraq War II was the extent to which war makes people scary. It is at least understandable for soldiers, who are put in positions of immediate and deathly danger, and are also heavily armed. But what I had not encountered before then was how insane an entire population can become once a war has started.
Free speech becomes treason. Principled pacifism becomes cowardice. Patriotism is twisted around, sometimes determined by one's willingness to ignore or subvert the very principles we claim we are fighting for. I remember how scary and depressing it was to see people I had admired succumb to mob fever in the run up to the war, throwing reason and decency out the window and blindly following our president into the abyss.
But the Dixie Chicks stood up when others sat down. They didn't slink away from their duty, like Colin Powell did at the time. They did what was right when it cost them the most.
So, as W exits office and leaves behind him a wake of Biblically-sized problems, let us appreciate the Dixie Chicks as the icons of the age. They remained faithful to their country and reminded us that love of country demands that we uphold our own values, even while other people are yelling at us for it. They paid a price for keeping the faith, having faced death threats and continued bile, along with losing huge chunks of their fan base.
They've been out of the spotlight for a few years now, but I hope they find their musical voice again. It would be a shame for them to be yet another casualty of the Bush II Era.