No, You Shut Up

Artists are Americans, too, You Jackasses

And furthermore, shut up, all of you who are telling musicians, actors, filmmakers, authors and such to shut up.

"I paid to hear Don Henley sing, not to listen to his political views," whines the ticket holder.

"Who the hell does Sean Penn think he is, going to Iraq?" fumes the talk-radio guy.

"Bruce Springsteen thinks making millions with a song-and-dance routine allows him to tell you how to vote," grouses conservative New York senate candidate Marilyn O'Grady, announcing her "Boycott the Boss" campaign.

Even quasi-liberal Irvine Mayor Larry Agran sympathized with the people who booed Henley at the Pacific Amphitheatre recently after the singer made a brief comment supporting Linda Ronstadt's brief comment supporting Michael Moore. Agran told The Orange County Register, "It's like, 'Why am I getting this? I didn't pay for the politics.' I can see how a lot of people would regard this as an intrusion."

When you've paid to see an outspoken person and he speaks out, it's an intrusion. When performers gather onstage at a New York political rally and talk politics, it turns into "a Hollywood hate fest," as Republicans labeled it. Is no place safe from these big-mouthed entertainers?

Well, I hear you, conservatives. I feel your pain. If only we would go back to the good old days when artists kept their big noses out of politics, back to when entertainers just entertained, like the ever-grinning Louis Armstrong.

But, oops, even Satchmo fired off a few. Along with writing letters to President Dwight D. Eisenhower extolling the virtues of weed, Armstrong abruptly canceled a 1957 State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, upset over attacks on black children in Little Rock, Arkansas. Armstrong told the press, "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. . . . It's getting so bad that a colored man hasn't got any country."

Okay, so we'll have to go back further than that, before Armstrong, before even Aristophanes, probably to before humans developed speech or learned to scratch images on cave walls.

For those of you not paying attention for the past two million years, let's bring you up to date: taking stands and speaking out is something artists do. That's one of the reasons we call what they do "art." Art tells us things we don't know about ourselves. It connects us. It speaks uneasy truths. It is a catalyst for change and always has been.

So it's a little late in the day to tell Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe to butt out of the abolition issue, or tell Picasso to take the rage out of Guernica, or to demand that Woody Guthrie stop standing up for the downtrodden, or ask Lenny Bruce to stop prodding American mores, or Curtis Mayfield to stop singing about civil rights, or Henry Rollins to stop being so pissed off at everything.

Speaking out is what artists do, and it's a damn good thing, since hardly any other dissenting voice is heard in the media anymore. Last year, millions of persons participated in the largest global demonstrations in history in opposition to the looming Iraq war, and the media spent far more time watching Scott Peterson's boat. In July of this year, more than 4,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel Prize winners, signed a document decrying the Bush administration's distortion and suppression of science in pursuing its dogmatic agenda, and that barely made the crawl on the news.

So, if the voices of millions go unheard; if the alarm raised by thousands of the world's brightest experts matters naught; if the generals, admirals, diplomats, former Bush administration members and other citizens who dare a discouraging word about the White House's giddyup-to-Armageddon aren't deemed worthy of news coverage, then who ya gonna call?

Pretty people. Celebrities. Actors. Singers. But when it turns out some of them also have opinions about the world they live in, conservatives cry foul. Why should these tarted-up show folk be granted access to vent their un-American, out-of-the-mainstream views?

Because they're citizens, Jack. The question shouldn't be "Why are they heard?" but "Why isn't everyone else?" When CNN's Leon Thomas asked anti-war cutie Janeane Garofalo last year why anyone should care what she has to say, her answer was basically, "Because you'll talk to me, and you won't talk to Noam Chomsky."

Unless you're on the elite team, unless you're rich, you're cut out. Conservatives have argued and conservative courts have affirmed that to limit the hundreds of millions of dollars the rich and incorporated pour into the electoral process would be abridging their freedom of speech. Now they're going to begrudge the few seconds of access that celebrity can buy?

Republicans didn't mind when Britney Spears opened her navel to say, "I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes," or when Arnold Schwarzenegger's fame gave him a leg up in the governor's race, or that he campaigned with a special-effects crew. Neither did they mind when actor Ronald Reagan became a paid political shill for GE (speaking out against "Marxist" programs such as Medicare and Social Security), or was groomed for public office in a campaign run by behavioral psychologists. When Schwarzenegger speaks at the Republican Convention, or when they do their teary tribute to the Gipper, will Republicans hoist a "Hollywood elite" disclaimer?

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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