No, You Shut Up

Artists are Americans, too, You Jackasses

Our acceptance of entertainers' opinions has fluctuated over time. In the late '60s and early '70s, anti-war songs were hits on Top 40 radio, and gadflies like Gore Vidal and Orson Welles were frequent guests on the Tonight Show.ABC's entertainment/variety Dick Cavett Show was a forum for serious dissent from both show folk and politicos. In 1971, it featured a Vietnam War debate between young John Kerry and his eternal swift-boat nemesis John O'Neill.

There were cries of "shut up!" then, as well. John Lennon's anti-war statements resulted in record burnings, Nixon rants and years of being spied on by the FBI. But at least he was heard. In contrast to those days, there were the blacklists of the McCarthy era, when voicing a contrary opinion got entertainers fired and shunned.

Things now have swung back toward the '50s. Witness the Dixie Chicks being banned from radio networks; Linda Ronstadt chucked out of a Vegas casino and banned for life for briefly expressing her admiration for an Academy Award-winning filmmaker; or the point Bill Maher has made: with all the poor preparation, intelligence failures and administration negligence surrounding Sept. 11, "how come the only person who lost his job over it was me?"

(After ABC axed him, Maher rebounded on cable, and it's a further defense of the merits of entertainers that, along with Jon Stewart's Daily Show, the two most cogent news analysts on TV are comedians.)

Conservatives claim artists are speaking out as an egotistical lark or a publicity move. Sure, some may be dilettantes pontificating from atop a pile of blow, but most are involved, informed citizens with long records of social action. Springsteen, for example, has shown decades of support for both big-issue causes like Amnesty International's opposition to torture and for little-known community food banks. Rather than "telling you how to vote," he's assiduously avoided partisan politics, only previously broaching that subject in the 1980s to set the record straight after George Will and Ronald Reagan erroneously tried to claim him as one of their own. It took George W. Bush's extremism to bring Springsteen to finally speak out this time. (Check out what he has to say at www.brucespringsteen.net/news/.)

He and his fellows aren't hatemongers, nor are they heroes. They're citizens, people who realize that America only works if you participate in it. When the divide between rich and poor spreads ever wider, when one American family gets a tax break while others get death notices, when torture is sanctioned, when those in power think a "preemptive war" waged without just cause isn't just plain murder—then "mainstream values" are indeed at stake.

We're talking about the soul of the nation. For artists to remain silent in such times—for any of us to shut our mouths—is nothing short of treason to the ideals upon which this nation was founded. We're a nation of individuals, and it's time to take your individual talents, whatever they are, and step up to the plate.

Earlier this year, Willie Nelson was asked if he was worried about a backlash against his anti-war song "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?"

He replied, "I don't care if people say, 'Who the hell does he think he is?' I know who I am."

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