On March 10th 2003, the Dixie Chicks, then enjoying meteoric success and being called the most successful female band of all time, played Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a small concert hall in London. At the time, the invasion of Iraq by the United States, accompanied by a small international coalition of troops, was imminent. News services were talking about the issue in terms of when, not if.
The Empire, which only holds 2,000 people, is a popular venue for artists to play because of the more intimate atmosphere and quality acoustics. The Dixie Chicks watched the news before going on stage, and were aware not only of the situation with respect to the war, but also of the intense and ongoing acts of civil disobedience being conducted throughout the British Isles in an attempt to stop the war or, at the very least, stop the involvement of the British people.
About six months prior to the gig, some 400,000 people had protested at a rally right there in the streets of London, and at Halloween 2002 the largest act of civil disobedience in British history had been conducted by a loose alliance of groups from different backgrounds, including Stop the War Coalition and a network known as Disobedients. The effect of the protest was marginal. Not everyone was certain what they thought about the situation with Iraq, as there were many unknowns, and the newspapers had mistakenly or deceitfully reported that British citizens were in the firing range of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was erroneously claimed to possess, further increasing the uncertainty. Furthermore, some of the groups protesting the war had other agendas, including anti-democratic messages, which weakened turn out.
During the gig, lead singer Natalie Maines took a moment to let the crowd know she sympathised with their position, saying:
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.
Gig reviewer, Betty Clarke, writing for the British newspaper The Guardian, could scarcely have anticipated the controversy that was about to be instigated by this idle comment. She noted in her review:
The Dixie Chicks are the good-time girls the country establishment loves to hate... And they don’t know when to stop. "Just so you know," says singer Natalie Maines, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." It gets the audience cheering – at a time when country stars are rushing to release pro-war anthems, this is practically punk rock.
The response to this in the United States was astonishing. People in the US rose up in a giant display of public protest – against the Dixie Chicks. The chief cause of offence seems to be the claim that it was inappropriate for a US citizen to criticise the President of their country while in a foreign country, although many people also expressed the view it was somehow disrespectful of the troops to make such a comment on the eve of war.
Four days later, Natalie issued an apology, saying:
As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.
Rather than settle the controversy, the apology caused even greater uproar. Protests against the Dixie Chicks were mounted, including a demonstration at which people were invited to bring Dixie Chick CDs so they could be crushed by a bulldozer, while radio stations were stopped from playing the Dixie Chicks – who only the previous year had been one of the hottest requests – either as a result of threats from listeners to boycott the station, or from pressure from higher up the radio chain-of-command. It seemed that the United States hadn’t forgotten how to protest, they had just forgotten why: while their government was allegedly spreading democratic values such as freedom of speech abroad, the people were busy denying it at home.
The country music community turned on the Dixie Chicks almost completely, despite the band having been the most loyal and honourable ambassadors for the music genre throughout the world at a time when many people considered country music to be execrable hokum. Alone among the country artists to achieve international success in the early 2000s, the Dixie Chicks had refused to alter their songs to remove overt country elements such as fiddles and steel guitars when requested to by VH1 and other media companies, while Shania Twain, Faith Hill and LeeAnn Rimes had gladly betrayed their country roots for the promise of more money.
One of the few voices from within country music to speak out in defence of the Dixie Chicks was Merle Haggard, who was reported in the Associated Press as saying:
I don't even know the Dixie chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.
To the chagrin of those who protested the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines has emerged as something of a non-violent protest hero, despite never once having engaging in an act of civil disobedience of any kind. She simply made a comment that expressed her opposition against the war, to an audience that shared her feelings. But by remaining defiant against a people so blind with rage they were unable to see the savage hypocrisy of their actions, she has come to represent the courage it takes to take that bold step towards dissent.
What would it take for you to defy your government and undertake a public act of civil disobedience, or even to just speak out against it as Natalie Maines did? If you cannot find any reason that would motivate you to do so, you are – in some intangible but important fashion – failing to live up to the ideals of free speech and democratic civil liberty. There must be some imaginable tipping point beyond which you would take action, or else you are admitting that you would support any leader, no matter how depraved the society that they were attempting to forge. Can you really claim to be upholding democracy if you would not stand up and be heard, even in the event of (to cite an extreme instance) state-sponsored genocide, as in Nazi Germany or modern day Sudan?
Dissent is essential to the notion of democracy – it is impossible to imagine a society in which the democratic ideal of government for the people could be achieved without the freedom to disagree with the ruling administration, and to suggest otherwise is absurd – and for citizens of the United States, unpatriotic. It is the duty of the people to demonstrate their dissent when their governments act in ways utterly incompatible with the will of the people.
Parents may baulk at this suggestion, since in many respects such people have to make decisions in the best interests of their children, and the risk of imprisonment (or even death) which accompanies civil disobedience may be a difficult risk to face if it means the loss of the economic means to support offspring. For this reason, it is perhaps for the best that the usual place where foment is instigated is the Universities, where students have the luxury of the unrestrained adventure of youth to invest gainfully in rebellion. Other individuals should always be ready to support a worthwhile cause, while parents can to some extent wait until the optimal moment – when the public tide is rising – before participating in a campaign of civil disobedience. It is all too easy to find excuses to avoid involvement, but any such excuse is tantamount to collusion with injustice.
There must be something – anything – about which you feel so strongly that you would simply have to protest and resist were your government to propose it. And if not, if every conceivable injustice is beyond your ability to care, then how can you know that you have not become the accomplice of evil implied by the Irish Statesman Edmund Burke when he famously declared : "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
What would it take for you?
A new serial begins next month.