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‘Dixie Chicking’: Post-9/11 Blacklisting in the Entertainment Industry
Posted on Oct 25, 2007
The HUAC/McCarthy era and Hollywood blacklist may be over, but the not-so-grand inquisitors are still among us. On March 31, 2007, activist/actor Mike Farrell, who co-starred in TV’s “M*A*S*H” and co-founded Artists United to Win Without War, told Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting’s “CounterSpin” radio program, “There’s a price to be paid for speaking out, and some have paid a fairly serious price.” Around that same time, at a March 24, 2007, anti-war Oakland town meeting called by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, actor Sean Penn stated: “we are encouraged to self-censor any words that might be perceived as inflammatory—if our belief is that this war should stop today. We cower as you point fingers telling us to ‘support our troops.’ ”
There are other examples of creative people suffering the consequences of their outspokenness since 9/11, but none are as compelling as the saga of the Dixie Chicks, the top-selling “girl group” of all time. Indeed, the red, white and bluegrass band’s name became a verb meaning censoring and punishing dissenters: “Dixie Chicking.” The Chicks’ story was turned into a documentary by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (1976’s “Harlan County USA” and 1990’s “American Dream”) and Cecilia Peck. Cecilia’s father, Gregory Peck, won the Oscar for portraying the screen’s archetypal fighting liberal, Atticus Finch, in 1962’s anti-racist “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and produced the 1972 anti-Vietnam-War film “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” about the Berrigan brothers’ anti-draft activities. (In August 2007, Tim Robbins’ L.A.-based Actors Gang troupe presented a reading of the “Catonsville Nine” drama as a fundraiser.)
“Shut Up & Sing” was presented on March 23, 2007, at Los Angeles’ Pacific Design Center as part of the West Hollywood Women’s Leadership Conference, along with a post-screening panel discussion moderated by radio host Stephanie Miller that included Cecilia Peck and Chicks member Natalie Maines. During the Dixie Chicks’ 2003 “Top of the World” tour, it was Maines who set off the firestorm on the eve of “shock and awe” when she told British concertgoers: “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 “Shut Up and Sing” demonstrated, all hell broke loose after Maines’ on-stage comment made the media rounds. The Chicks lost most of their airtime on right-leaning country-western radio; CD and concert ticket sales plummeted. Encouraged by reactionary FreeRepublic.com bloggers and DJs, ex-fans destroyed Chicks CDs en masse during the ensuing “Dixie Chicks Destruction” campaign. Concerts were picketed by Red-baiters who called the Chicks “traitors” and “communists,” although the group’s fans were divided, with many remaining loyal. Worst of all, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors were deployed at Dixie Chicks concerts. Under heavy security, the Texas trio confronted a 2003 death threat at a Dallas performance, after a letter threatened to shoot Maines in the same city where John F. Kennedy had been gunned down 40 years earlier. For his part, President Bush appeared to egg on the Chicks’ persecutors, saying: “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records.”
Sixty years after the beginning of the Hollywood blacklist, “Shut Up & Sing” raises the issue of modern-day censorship. Onscreen, Maines reacts to the group’s loss of airtime, angrily demanding to know, “How is [this] not a boycott? They haven’t been playing our music for a few weeks.” Paul Beane, general manager of the Lubbock, Texas, radio station KRBL, declared: “We’re not going to play them anymore. It’d simply be financial suicide.” At a 2004 Senate hearing, in one of his finer moments, Sen. John McCain mocked Clear Channel’s denial that the media conglomerate was ordering its radio stations to ban the Chicks from its corporate airwaves.
(In 2004, CNN quoted Howard Stern as saying that the San Antonio-based Clear Channel is “very tied to the Bush administration.” In the CNN report, Stern says: “Clear Channel for years has been defending me. ... I criticize Bush and then I’m fired. ... They acted out of politics.”)
During the panel following the March 2007 “Shut Up and Sing” screening, Stephanie Miller, host of the nationally syndicated “Stephanie Miller Show,” noted that, ironically, Clear Channel was a co-sponsor of the screening. Despite Clear Channel’s apparent support of that event, Miller said, “There’s a concerted effort to shut down progressive talk. [Conservative] Christians are buying radio stations.” Miller, whose father was Barry Goldwater’s Republican running mate in 1964, claimed that progressive stations were even being taken off the air in markets where they were No. 1 in the ratings. Ed Schultz, whose nationally syndicated program is also heard on Air America, similarly complained of blacklisting in Ohio markets.
‘Freedom of Speech Is Not Free’
Onscreen, and in the “Shut Up and Sing” panel discussion, Maines displayed her defiant spirit, which was also evident on Dec. 15, 2003. On that date, at the height of the backlash against progressive artists, the Dixie Chicks attended the annual Bill of Rights Dinner presented by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Southern California chapter in Beverly Hills. The function celebrated the 212th anniversary of the first 10 amendments of the Constitution and honored Chicks manager Simon Renshaw (and that other “Dixie Chick,” fellow Texan Molly Ivins).
How is it that Americans pride themselves on living in a free country where people can speak their minds, but if they express dissent they’re often punished? “That’s the new system here,” Renshaw responded. “Certain people in the country have figured out that the best way of actually curtailing freedom of speech is to make sure people understand freedom of speech is no longer free, and there’s consequences to exercising free speech. What we saw in 2003, when people spoke out, there was a very well organized, vociferous group that immediately went after them and attempted to harm their well-being. Certainly, the Dixie Chicks saw death threats as a result of what they said,” Renshaw said.
Maines added: “After September 11th, we felt lots of vulnerability, and wanted somebody to lead and save us. The country’s been in a strange state ... so try not to get too discouraged about everything that occurred. Things like that should always be a reminder, that we haven’t necessarily come as far as we think we have, and we have to constantly be checking ourselves. A mother of a military guy wrote us saying, ‘Freedom’s not something you can write on a wall. It’s something you live.’ So I feel proud that I use my freedoms, and don’t just claim on a daily basis to have freedom.”
Expressing admiration for the ACLU, Maines noted, “Standing up for the underdog sometimes is not politically correct.” When the tongue-in-cheeky Maines presented the award to Renshaw, she poked fun at those questioning her patriotism: “Lots of people will be surprised to hear I was here tonight, because they were waiting for me to get out of that hole with Saddam.”
Maines added: “Another power the federal government refuses to limit [is] the power of the corporate media. Not the media’s right to speak, but the media’s obligation to let other people speak. I don’t want to mention any names, but freedom of speech requires a clear channel to communications. ... We have to all get active and challenge our government, or ... the Bill of Rights will just be something from history we learn about in school.”
During his acceptance speech, Renshaw mocked “George the Second,” contending: “Certainly, 2003 ... [was] the year America was deceived into a war, and part of that deception was putting on notice any dissenting voice to ensure they understood freedom of speech is not free. The concept of ‘shut up and sing’ was born. ... It’s now possible to be ‘Dixie Chicked.’ ... There are many well-organized groups of right-thinking citizens who will work selflessly to make sure that those who dare to speak up and dissent are suitably ‘Dixie Chicked.’ They make their views known from the safety and anonymity of the Internet and radio talk shows. ... They’re determined to ensure that we understand freedom of speech is not free.”
Renshaw continued: “Especially you—Hollywood. You music and movie celebrities ... are all on notice: Shut up and sing—or act or whatever. But shut up! I also learned we can count on America’s liberal media—yeah, right! Instead of asking the questions and encouraging debate, our new media conglomerates issue corporate ‘fatwas’ on those to be ‘Dixie Chicked.’ Music networks can ban your music, talk shows can vilify your personality, what remains of this country’s so-called news media trivializes it all into neat 30-second sound bites. ... You may have freedom of speech, but our media now seems to be designed [so] we’ll never be heard. ... A well-known German TV personality ... told us: ‘In my country, our media would never allow this to happen again.’ ”
Finally, Renshaw concluded: “I’d like to thank the Dixie Chicks [for] the way they handled themselves through a lousy time ... and for having the strength to say ‘no,’ and for their insistence on always doing the right thing. ... Freedom of speech is only important if it’s exercised. Celebrities should not shut up and sing: They should stand up and shout, and we must support them.”
‘Stand Up and Shout’
In a similar spirit, during his March 24, 2007, speech, Sean Penn declared: “Well, you and the smarmy pundits in your pocket, those who bathe in the moisture of your soiled and bloodstained underwear, can take that noise and shove it. We will be snowed no more. Let’s make this crystal-clear. We do support our troops in our stand, while you exploit them and their families. The verdict is in. You lied, connived, and exploited your own countrymen and, most of all, our troops ... you Misters Bush and Cheney; you, Ms. Rice, are villainously and criminally obscene people. ...”
Their courage and creativity sustained dissident artists, as the tide of public opinion eventually began to turn. In 2004, Penn and co-star Tim Robbins won Oscars for “Mystic River,” a film about child-killing and abuse, directed by Clint Eastwood, who went on to helm the anti-war-themed 2007 best-picture nominee “Letters From Iwo Jima.” And the Dixie Chicks swept 2007’s Grammys, as their single “Not Ready to Make Nice” expressed the band’s fighting spirit. These awards are affirmations for contrarian performers in industries subject to popular and commercial whims.
Likewise, in the decades following their censure, some blacklist-era artists also made comebacks. Dalton Trumbo wrote numerous movies, including “Spartacus,” and directed and wrote the 1971 pacifist picture “Johnny Got His Gun,” which won the Jury Grand Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Ring Lardner won a screenwriting Oscar for 1970’s anti-war comedy “M*A*S*H,” and screenwriter Waldo Salt won for 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which also took the best-director and best-picture Academy Awards. Salt was also co-nominated for 1974’s “Serpico” and co-won another Oscar for 1978’s anti-Vietnam-War drama. “Coming Home,” starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Abraham Polonsky’s “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969) was a gritty look at indigenous Americans’ plight.
The Committee for the First Amendment ‘47/‘07 was formed this year, not just to commemorate the Hollywood 10 and the blacklist or to seek redress for past grievances. Rather, the main reason for its creation was to remind people about a previous era of repression in order to shine a light on contemporary censorship against dissenting artists so that another blacklist—and a new brand of McCarthyism—never comes to pass. The following is a list of several artists and media figures who have paid the price for dissenting since Sept. 11, 2001.
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