Ten years ago this week the Dixie Chicks controversy erupted: I’m still not ready to back down

CATEGORY: FreeSpeech

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. ― Theodore Roosevelt

On March 10, 2003, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London, Natalie Maines stepped to the microphone and said this:

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.

As our old friend Greg Mitchell notes, “It was a little more than a week before their fellow Texan launched a war based on lies.”

When word of Maines’s comment made it back to the US, what ensued was…well, what ensued was an infuriating look at the festering soul of Bush-era America and an illustration of the good, bad and ugly of how free speech works. Predictably, the hillbilly right closed ranks around the president and his WMDs-are-real cronies. Country & Western stations purged their playlists of Dixie Chicks music, records were burned, fatwas were issued, and the Chicks’ career Mark 1 was effectively destroyed. The message – for the Dixie Chicks and anybody else out there with a brain and a conscience – was more than clear: if you value your career, shut up and sing.

In some respects, the controversy was really useful. For instance, the president responded by saying:

The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.… they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.… Freedom is a two-way street ….

The remarkable thing about this is that Bush, a man renowned for being wrong on just about everything, was actually right for once. Free speech does not imply a freedom from backlash, and if you’re an entertainer people who disagree with you are perfectly within their rights to boycott. What’s good for Hank Williams, Jr. and Mel Gibson is good for The Dixie Chicks.

Granted, you also have the right to be hateful and ignorant, and it’s certainly true that the Dixie Chicks backlash had more to do with the gleeful exercise of these rights than it did any informed understanding of how free speech was intended to work by the Framers. But that’s another argument for another day.

Now, how you feel about President Obama?

In April, 2009, S&R honored The Dixie Chicks as the 25th addition to our masthead hall of fame. I wrote, at the time (and while I was extremely angry):

History will validate, with a minimum of controversy, the sentiments Natalie Maines expressed at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre on March 10, 2003. Hopefully the record will point to our present moment and note that already the momentum had shifted and that within a generation people would have an impossible time imagining how such an affront to freedom was ever possible. Hopefully.

For the time being, “mad as hell” doesn’t begin to describe the indignation that those of us working to move this culture forward by promoting genuinely intelligent and pro-human values ought to feel, even now. I won’t tell you how to think and act, of course – you have a conscience and a brain, and you can be trusted to take in the information and perspectives around you and form an opinion that you can live by.

But for my part, I have a message for the “shut up and sing” crowd: I’m not ready to back down and I never will be. Your values are at odds with the principles upon which this nation was founded and true liberty cannot survive if your brand of flag-waving ignorance is allowed to thrive. You will not be allowed to use the freedoms that our founders fought for as weapons to stifle freedom for others.

You have declared a culture war, so here’s where the lines are drawn: I’m on the side of enlightenment, free and informed expression and the power of pro-humanist pursuits to produce a better society where we all enjoy the fruits of our shared accomplishments.

What side are you on?

Natalie and her bandmates lost tons of money over the past decade, but they’ll get by. In the end, it seems like they got a pretty good deal. In exchange for all those millions, they earned the right to a special place in the American soul. Justice matters. Facts matter. Humanity and compassion and freedom matter. Integrity matters more than money.

Looking back, I think the lesson to take away is a simple one. Our freedoms are important, but they’re empty and sterile and prone to corruption in the absence of an enlightened, intelligent embrace of the responsibilities that come with living in a democracy.

In the words of another of our musical heroes, George Clinton, “Think. It ain’t illegal yet.”


  • There’s a good case to be made for the fact that celebrities who speak against America’s actions in foreign matters such as wars are, in this media saturated age, lending material aid and comfort to America’s enemies. That being the case, there’s also a good case to be made that the American people, not ever the government, should have done far, far, far more and worse to punish these women than merely ending their careers.

    • No, there’s no argument for that at all. Not if you believe in the Constitution and the principles it was founded on. In this global, media-saturated world, as it were, there’s really no difference between criticizing our leaders from London or Peoria.

      So what you’re saying is that no one should ever criticize the government. Saying that the punishment should come from the people instead of the government is … well, that’s even scarier, frankly.

      • There’s been a strong argument for it since the NVA galvanized their troops by citing that the American anti-war movement – and Jane Fonda – would win the war for them if they just held on a while longer. They were right too.

        Criticism of American foreign policy involving military action is, since the 70s, something that can be actively used by our enemies against us and to bolster their troops morale. That amounts to lending aid and comfort to those enemies in every context except, possibly, legalistic ones.

        Punishment for such deeds, however, must come from the People, not the government because the government must never be allowed to make those decisions or the Constitution and freedom of speech would be ended right then and there. Additionally, for the sake of the rule of law – if at the expense of justice – those caught inflicting such reprisals and punishments as were called for should be prosecuted under the applicable laws.

        You might wish to note that my opinion is limited in context to the military actions we engage in and doesn’t include dissent in other arenas, especially domestic ones.

      • In other words, the government shouldn’t be fascist, the PEOPLE should.

        The whole “limiting it to military” thing is rhetorically pretty, but utterly meaningless in an age where we’re in permanent war, against enemies that are extranational, and Homeland Security has grown so huge that literally no one knows how big it is, and the government seems actively engaged in increasing the ability to deploy security measures (including drones) against US citizens on US soil.

      • Pretty statement, very evocative. One problem though, can you even provide a meaningful definition for fascism as a unique form of society or government?

        As for the rest – that’s the limits on my opinion on this matter. I only have a problem with dissent that is listened to when it involves military action against foreign enemies and believe that the remedy must come from the people, not the government – largely for the reasons behind the examples you cited.

        BTW – Why do you and so many others point out drones – armed RC vehicles – as specifically horrific? That’s a real question because I can’t see where it matters whether.

      • From Merriam-Webster online:

        often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition
        : a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control [early instances of army fascism and brutality — J. W. Aldridge] (emphasis original)

        That’s a pretty detailed, meaningful definition. Whether it’s what you were looking for or not I don’t know, but it’s always good to start from the dictionary definition when you can.

      • Brian, in all truth, that’s a meaningless definition of a word that has more emotive than denotive meaning. You could replace fascism with socialism, totalitarianism, or just about any other form of government – even a direct democracy – and use the same definition.

        We all love to hammer at each other with the word, but it’s it’s like pornography, meaning but we “know it” when we see it.

      • Jonolan, you’re tapdancing. And you simply don’t know what you’re talking about here. That definition has NOTHING in common with “just about any other form of government – even a direct democracy.”

        If you’d like to continue in this thread, you need to stop wasting people’s time.

      • Again, we should fall back on definitions where possible.
        Socialism (from Merriam-Webster again)

        : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
        a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
        b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
        : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

        From this definition, we see that socialism is not a political philosopy, but rather an economic philosophy like capitalism or communism. So you could hypothetically have a fascist government that runs a socialist economic system. But it’s incorrect to a political definition to an economic philosophy.

        Similarly, a fascist state will be necessarily totalitarian in nature, but not all totalitarian states are necessarily fascist. Claiming such is also incorrect. After all, an absolute monarchy is totalitarian in nature, but if it’s not nationalistic and/or racist in nature, then it wouldn’t meet the definition of a “fascist” state.

        And a direct, or pure, democracy is, by definition, not autocratic or dictatorial – it’s quite the opposite, in fact. Severe economic and social regimentation may be an outgrowth of direct democracy, but given the people directly vote on everything in a direct democracy, such regimentation is highly unlikely. Forcible suppression of opposition is also unlikely in a direct democracy, unless you define the possibility of 50% +1 person deciding for the rest of the 50% -1 person as “forcible suppression.” Most people would not.

        Given these facts, your point that the definition of “fascist” is meaningless and broadly applicable to any form of government is factually incorrect.

  • Jonolan

    You are wrong.

    1. Free speech is free speech and guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has decided what that means and doesn’t, and criticism of military isn’t on the list of what it’s not.

    2. Unworkable, as Sam points out. Were free speech to be limited to exclude criticism of the military, then any president with an IQ higher than 40 (and George W.) would immediately claim everything is military or military related. As is, the government has already gotten pretty good at silencing critics by hiding behind the flag, including Obama.

    Given how articulate your comment is and how illogical and ignorant your positions, I strongly suspect you are trolling.

    Assuming you are for real, though, let me say I feel little sympathy for the Dixie Chicks. They’re from Texas. They know the core market of country music is composed of rabid right-wing losers with few opinions of their own, desperate for the approval of those they see as their betters, and easily led by a collusive media. They made many millions selling records to those idiots. If they conciously chose intellectual integrity over additional record sales, good for them, and if they did it by accident, then they should have been more careful.

  • What’s impressive to me is that the Dixie Chicks had to know what the response would be but they still said what they wanted to say.

    • I don’t honestly believe that Natalie would have said what she did had she known what the fallout would be. And she’s a smart woman, so had she stopped to think about it, she’d have known what the fallout would be. Which leads us to the conclusion that she fired from the hip, without thinking it over. Even if she were willing to sacrifice her own career, she’d never in a million years have played fast and loose with the lives and fortunes of her bandmates.

      All that said, I don’t think she regrets it at this point, either. She’s a tough, principled person and I think she’s probably just fine being an icon of that anti-Bush, anti-war movement, such as it was, and the fact that history has vindicated her so thoroughly has to feel pretty good.

      • You’re probably right. She did say in London, as opposed to the Grand ‘Ol Opry, so maybe she thought it just wouldn’t get back here- bands could probably be forgiven back then for assuming their every performance wouldn’t be taped.

  • @ jonolan: So it’s OK if the people violate each other’s Constitutional rights, under the right circumstances, as long as the perpetrator’s are A) not part of the government and B) punished for their patriotic actions. So, would those “patriotic Americans” who felt called to do “far, far, far more” be heroes in your book? Or martyrs, perhaps, if they died in their efforts?

    So where would you draw the line against punishment of people for exercising their freedom of speech? Just curious.

  • Frank Balsinger

    Jonolan, I think I’m going to take a different tack on “lending material aid and comfort.” You are concerned with morale boosting. I’m concerned instead with injustice, with morale decimation. When a government fabricates grounds for war against another nation, that emboldens an enemy. When a government engages in atrocities and cover-ups, that emboldens an enemy. When a government installs and/or props up brutal regimes to rule over vanquished nations, that emboldens an enemy. When a government undermines another nation’s sovereignty, that emboldens an enemy. When a government tortures, that emboldens an enemy. When a government kills innocent women and children, to say nothing of “military aged men” non-combatants, that emboldens an enemy.

    Let your idea of “The People” do what they will. My idea of “The People” will continue to prevail so long as we maintain an iron grip on our right to free speech.

  • This isn’t China. We are free to criticize our government. Period. And absolutely should sometimes. “There comes a time when silence … is betrayal.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • btw, did you see natalie mains is going solo? announced today

    • The language Natalie uses in this interview is troubling. It makes me wonder if there is more lingering trouble with the others than we’ve known before.

  • From Theodore H. White, a Pulitzer Prize winner:

    “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.”

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