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Dixie Chicks movie: great . . . and instructive

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I finally went to see the Dixie Chicks movie "Shut Up and Sing." I was planning to see it for a while, and I'm very glad I did. I should admit up front that I'm an unironic, unapologetic fan of their music, and have been since long before 2003, so I'm not exactly an unbiased observer. I'm sure it's uncool for someone my age to be listening to music of the kids these days, but what can I say, I'm a sucker for the harmonies.

The movie, which was in production before lead singer Natalie Maines infamously blurted, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas," ends up following the aftermath of that comment, toggling between 2003 and 2006. Crucially, however, the movie is NOT a polemic, nor is it even directly about politics. Like all good documentaries, it paints with a brush rather than a cudgel, and "Shut Up and Sing" is really a story about people who get mixed up in politics rather than the reverse. The movie is that much more powerful for being relatively understated, and for giving the sense of revealing the women rather than portraying them.

Natalie, as well as Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, who are sisters, are shown in various states of preparation and performance, demonstrating an admirably willingness to shed vanity in favor of honesty. In moving sequences, the audience sees how these women, who are turned into caricature as they're villified and pilloried, handle everyday life along with the crushing pressure that falls upon them. Of course they're rich, so the kids issues are assuaged by nannies, more options in the face of fertility problems, and the families they miss can be shuttled back and forth, but these are clearly not the evil figures they were made to seem.

What the movie demonstrates most clearly, though, and why I think it's actually an important cultural marker, is how toxic, how unbelievably poisonous, the American political atmosphere was. For a long time, perhaps roughly 2003 to 2005, there was a disturbing edge to discourse in this country, and I think our society will eventually look back upon this time not unlike we now do the McCarthyist years: as a shameful period in our nation's history, one in which the prevailing powers made the inappropriate common and the opposition was eventually proven both right and righteous.

It made me cringe to watch scene after scene of "man on the street" clips where people claimed patriotism by viciously criticizing free speech and its practitioners. There is really quite a disconnect who claim to love America but can't stand what it actually stands for. Now, I criticize people for what they say all the time -- for a decent analogy, I don't like Toby Keith, and I think his brand of "patriotism" is repellent. But I would never question his right to personal idiocy, nor would I burn his albums, picket his concerts, or, as happened to the Dixie Chicks, threaten his life.

Democracy is largely founded upon the ideal of a marketplace of ideas. The conception that all ideas should be considered, and some combination of best and most popular should win out, is actually quite radical, historically, and American has long led the way in supporting a free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of those that seem best. Why is it, then, that conservatives, the ones who unfailingly claim the shield (and sometimes sword) of patriotism, are so often the ones who believe that freedom of ideas is anathema? In 2003, Bill O'Reilly said, with no apparent trace of humor or irony, that the Dixie Chicks needed to be "slapped around," and that was one of the nicer things said about them on the right. Because there were apparently no substantive issues to address in 2003, the Free Republic website made the Dixie Chicks a crusade.

Three years later, every single person who engaged in this kind of action and rhetoric should be doubly embarrassed: first because they intimidated people, responding grossly out of proportion, simply for speaking honestly; second, in the harsh light of perspective and history, because the Dixie Chicks . . . were right! They were right to be ashamed of the President, who now, I imagine, counts far more Americans who are ashamed of him than those who are proud, and they were doubly right to oppose the war in Iraq.

And again, the movie reveals these points without being over the top and without hammering the points home. I highly recommend the movie -- for those who were with the Chicks from the beginning, it's cathartic to see bravery in the face of insanity and encouraging to see how well the band is doing today; for those who criticized the band, to see how stupid you were then how really, really stupid you look in retrospect.

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