In March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks prepared to take a stage in London, when lead singer Natalie Maines declared that she and her bandmates were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” She was referring to George W. Bush (who was actually born in Connecticut), and the U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq. In a sense, Maines was joking, but within hours, her comment thrust the group into the most unfavorable of positions. Country music fans across the U.S. demanded their local radio stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks music, and the group became the subject of hate mail and death threats. Shortly afterwards, ABC correspondent Diane Sawyer interviewed the group, during which she repeatedly asked Maines why said something so disparaging about the president of the United States. In all my years of watching politics and paying attention to how our elected officials interact with the news media, I’d never seen so much antagonism launched at one individual over a simple comment.
For one thing I am embarrassed that Bush claims he’s from Texas. I remain embarrassed that this state put him in the governor’s mansion twice and helped to place him in the White House twice. Bush is one of the worse presidents the U.S. has ever produced. I know plenty of people who would disagree with me, and we could argue about it for days. But one thing is certain: we all know we have the right to feel that way and we certainly hold the right to express our sentiments about the matter. After all, Maines didn’t curse; nor did she call Bush an idiot or a mass murderer. She didn’t threaten his life. She just opened her “big mouth again,” as she later stated, and said something. The trio eventually got their careers back on track, but I don’t think the band has fully recovered in terms of popularity.
I thought about the fiasco surrounding Maines’ comment, when the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo exploded the other day. Three Islamic fundamentalists, apparently angry that the long-running satirical French magazine had the audacity – yet again – to insult their religion and the prophet Mohammed, stormed into the building and gunned down 11 staff members. They’d also gunned a Parisian police officer – a Muslim – outside the building. One of the men turned himself into authorities immediate, while the other two fled and – as of this writing – have been killed. The tragedy reminded many of the 2005 publication of a cartoon of Mohammed in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and the vitriolic response from many in the Muslim world.
First of all, it is an offense to Islam to publicize any delineation of Mohammed; unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, which is virtually idolatrous with its many renditions of Jesus, Mary and their gallery of saints. Second of all, I don’t care. If anything, Muslims should be upset by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.; the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings; or the July 7, 2005 London train bombings. I imagine most were. I’m not one to be judgmental, but I am a strong supporter of free speech. So were the folks at Charlie Hebdo. And now, most of them are dead.
It’s a tricky thing – free speech. Just about everyone I know has expressed their strong support for it. It’s a critical element of any truly democratic and civilized society. But, as with all other freedoms, it’s cumbersome when you confront the words of those who are your ideological opposites; people who say things you find offensive, even vulgar. Free speech (and its ideological cousins, freedom of expression and freedom of religion) was at the center of the push to legalize pornography in the U.S. in the early 1970s. In the spring of 1977, it was a key component of the right a group of neo-Nazis proclaimed when they petitioned to march down the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a community with a large Jewish population. The Westboro Baptist Church relied solely on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protest at the funerals of deceased military personnel, claiming the latter died for a country that supports abortion, homosexuality and other perceived evils. Their case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where they won. It’s not okay to call someone a murderer, but it’s apparently okay – according to the decision – to shout, ‘Thank God for IEDs.’
Where should that line be drawn? Or should there even be a line?
In February of 2008, my then-ISP, AOL, published a story on how, in 1504, Christopher Columbus allegedly deceived Jamaica’s indigenous Taino Indians into believing the gods were unhappy with their treatment of him and his stranded crew and would cause the moon to turn blood red. Columbus apparently knew of an upcoming lunar eclipse on February 29 of that year. When it did occur, the Taino supposedly became terrified and were convinced Columbus was some kind of deity. There are countless stories like that about early interactions between Indigenous Americans and Europeans. I had never heard of that particular story until I saw it on AOL in 2008. Then I saw something else. Someone had commented that, despite everything “no one has suffered like the Jewish people.” What the hell?! I thought. Where did that shit come from?! It was like commenting how much you like glazed doughnuts in an article about refurbishing your dining room. I quickly responded with a profanity-laced diatribe, pointing out that Jews haven’t endured one fraction of the suffering in the Western Hemisphere that Indians and the African slaves brought over to replace them have. I was careful to mention ‘in the Western Hemisphere.’ Apparently either that original commenter or some other fool got their little feelings hurt and reported me to AOL. AOL then deleted the comment and put me on “probation,” which meant preventing me from commenting on anything on their site for a while. Gosh, can you imagine how mortified I was? When I called AOL tech support in India (the land where Columbus thought he’d landed), a representative couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me who had reported me. I noted that, here in the U.S., foul language fell under the regimen of free speech. After all, I didn’t make a bomb or death threat against anyone. I didn’t accuse anyone of being a pedophile or arsonist. I just called some Jewish guy a dumb fuck, which he was, because of what he said. The tech rep refuted my claim and said she could do nothing about it. Eventually they let me off probation. God, I was so relieved! I wouldn’t have been able to live otherwise.
The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo always pushed the boundaries of personal tastes. Their efforts seemed destined to offend anyone and everyone. It’s curious, though, that France finds itself in this situation over a cartoon. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2004 and 2011, French law enforcement fine 594 Muslim women for wearing the niqab. Yet, in 2008, legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot went on trial for the fifth time because she’d insulted Muslims. She had said that Muslims were “destroying our country.” A devout animal rights activist, Bardot had gotten into trouble previously for disparaging the Muslim custom of slaughtering goats during the Eid al-Adha festival. She was literally dragged into court over these matters. Seriously? In freedom-loving France, it seems political correctness is meted out with a vengeance.
Again, I ask where is that line between free speech and common decency supposed to fall? Whose free speech? And whose decency? It’s a never-ending debate.