Cincinnati & national politics -- movies -- music -- law

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

I've recently become fascinated by the coverage and debate surrounding the Dixie Chicks, et al. criticizing the president. The chronology is well known: about ten days before the U.S. invades Iraq, Natalie Maines says during a London concert that she is "ashamed" that, like the Dixie Chicks, President Bush is from Texas, she half-heartedly apologizes, sales of the Dixie Chicks' latest album decline somewhat, radio stations refuse to play their songs, crowds coming together and burn and crush Dixie Chicks CDs with tractors, Travis Tritt calls the Dixie Chicks "cowards," Bruce Springsteen leaps to the Dixie Chicks' defense, and throughout opinion-peddlers almost beyond number add their own take on the whole deal. The issues, as I see them and stated in over-simplified dichotomies, are these: are the Dixie Chicks traitors or First Amendment crusadors? Are the people burning their CDs patriots or censors straight out of Fahrenheit 451? Are radio stations that refuse to play Dixie Chicks music kowtowing to the powers-that-be or responding to legitimate economic pressures?

Like I said, manifold are the opinions expressed in the media, from this opinion piece in the "American Daily" (whatever the hell that is, though I'm proud to say it comes from Ohio--woo-hoo!) that speaks of the "noble spirit" with which the public burned Dixie Chicks CDs to this in Salon that heralds the Dixie Chicks as patriots fighting against the conformist pressures of country music and the media. (Also, an interesting take is found here, where the columnist boldly declares "It's not a free-speech issue!" and contends that the Dixie Chicks are merely the victims of market pressures and their failure to cater to their customers will be reflected in a hit in the pocketbook.) But, I'm nothing if not a lemming, so I thought I'd throw in my own two cents.

First off, Natalie Maines's statement at a London concert that she is ashamed to share a home-state with Bush, while certainly not sophisticated commentary, would not on its surface appear to be treason. As defined at m-w.com, treason is: "1 : the betrayal of a trust; 2 : the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign's family." Clearly, the second definition does not apply--though the force of Maines's shame may be great, it certainly is not deadly to either the United States government or Bush himself. Likewise, the first defintion seems inapplicable in that the United States government does not put its trust in its citizens to speak out only in support. That would be antithetical to the First Amendment.

However, probing a little deeper, we see that the word "treason" does illuminate the underpinning of some of the obviously strong feelings people have about Maines's comments. Maybe it is less that Maines committed treason against her government, but rather that she betrayed the trust of her fans, who apparently expect her, to the extent that she even speaks out politically, to puppet their (apparently pro-war) views. For that reason, Travis Tritt, who calls the Dixie Chicks "cowards," is not ostracized, but the Dixie Chicks, who express an apparently unpopular view, are.

Let's look even further at the word "treason," which Webster's Third New International Dictionary Unabridged defines also to mean "the betrayal in early English law of a lord by his vassal" and "the violation in early feudal law by a vassal of his allegiance to his superior by one or more undefined acts of a serious nature." Not to beat this line of reasoning too much further into the ground, but it seems to me that much of the criticism against the Dixie Chicks (and any that speak out against Bush's foreign policy) is based more on this archaic notion of feudal loyalty than any more modern (or post-16th century) view on the subject. Troubling.

So, the Dixie Chicks may have betrayed their fans, if not the government. My next question--are the people who burn, trample, and otherwise mangle Dixie Chicks CDs censors? Not in any formal sense. Looking again at Webster's Third New International Dictionary Unabridged, the word "censor" connotes not just your average joe citizen who dislikes something and speaks out about it (that would be a critic), but someone in a position of power who can act as a gatekeeper to prevent unpopular speech from reaching the "marketplace of ideas." If they are not censors, are these folks patriots? Also, no. They certainly are not patriots in the sense that soldiers who fight for their country are patriots, and I would even contend that while they are exercising their First Amendment rights (in the same way that one who burns the American flag does), they are doing so in a way that is even more "anti-American" than than same flag burner. Egad. Why? Because the First Amendment, by necessity, exists to protect the right of the minority to speak out against the majority. Without that right embodied in the Constitution, the majority generally can silence the minority. Thus, when a protester burns a flag during an anti-war rally--an unpopular act, to be sure--she challenges the majority view and exercises the freedom of speech embodied in the First Amendment to its fullest. But when a group comes together to smash Dixie Chicks CDs, they do so to fulfill the will of the majority, an act of speech that the First Amendment protects, but which does not require the First Amendment's protection -- even without the First Amendment, preaching to the choir could continue unabated. But when, as in this case, majority speech works to silence the minority, that speech offends the spirit of the First Amendment at the same time that it does not violate its letter.

Finally, what about the radio stations that refuse to play Dixie Chicks songs? I'm sure to some extent they are responding to market forces, i.e. they don't want to play music that their listeners don't want to hear. But, in this world of radio conglomerates (particularly, the behemoth of Clear Channel, which, according to a quick search on its website, owns 194 country music stations), one has to ask whether listeners really have power to influence the market. If the radio listener and country music fan can no longer choose a radio station owned by another company, can that listener influence the music that she hears? Certainly, the choice always exists to turn off the radio, but for many listeners that option is no option at all--they want to listen to country music. And, how are they to know what music they're missing if they never hear it? Thus, the radio station feels less pressure to cater to the wants of its audience and more pressure to ensure that their monopoly on access to the listening public continues. And who controls whether that monopoly continues? The government. And so one must ask whether the decision to remove music by certain entertainers who criticize the government is unaffected by the radio stations' desire to please the government itself. We can only speculate, because Clear Channel and its brethren are not about to admit that they are bowing to government pressure, be it explicit or implicit. But if the government exercises influence to exclude artists from a certain forum based on the content of their speech, then doesn't that violate the First Amendment? Yes, it does.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

A quick review of the Cincinnati Enquirer:

Anecdotal support for the proposition that older folks should be subject to testing at a certain age to ensure that they are still competent to drive?

Further proof that no one, least of all the parties that signed it and the press that covers it, understands what has been going on with the "Collaborative" in Cincinnati? Come on, Kevin Aldridge, repeat after me, "The Black United Front did not pull out of the Collaborative. They withdrew as class representatives." And while I tend to agree with Ken Lawson and his hunches about what motivates the parties to the Collaborative to do those nasty things they do, I think he's stretching a bit here if he believes that City Council is behind any attempted "pull-out" by the FOP. After all, the FOP and the Plaintiffs have been on the same side on a number of issues under the theory that "an enemy of my enemy (i.e., the City) is my friend." In short, the FOP and City Council are in no rush to get into bed together.

Monday, April 28, 2003

And don't let me forget. Thank god for George Voinovich. And on that note, little made me vomit more than Voinovich's report that when our President came to my fair state in an attempt to strong-arm the Senator into folding on Bush's ridiculous tax-cut proposal, he greeted the Senator, "How are you doing, Jorge?" Because I always wanted someone like that dick from my freshman dorm, who ended up as the president of the panhellenic conference in college, to be my President. We're one big fraternity now, I guess. Upsilon Sigma Alpha.
The Streets - "Original Pirate Material" -- You slide this disc in and the first thing you think, inevitably, is, "Shit. Not another white rapper. And an English guy to boot." Then you realize that unlike Eminem or hell, even Vanilla Ice, the guy has nothing that even lives in the same neighborhood as a flow. And the beats are sparse, so unless you're familiar with two-step (some sort of English dance craze), you can't even dance to it. But suddenly a lyric will catch your ear, or one of the insistent melody will lodge itself in your brain, and you'll realize that this isn't "rap music" or "hip-hop" or whatever pigeonhole you'd like to cram it into at first blush. This bloke Mike Skinner wears his Englishness on his sleeve, talking about geezers, birds, the dole and whatever, but the songs have wit and connect. It's universal. It's funny. And it won't be leaving my stereo for a while.
Donnie Darko -- Brilliant. Pathos, wonder, and a dash of messy filmmaking. Novice director shows off his talent with actors. Jake Gyllenhall is soulful, and the film (mainly) shies away from the easy shots and silly parody that could make the film seem too much like a run-of-the-mill indictment of suburban life (see, e.g., Happiness).