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When Fans Become Constituents: The Injustice of Being a Non-Political Public Figure with Political Views

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A little over a decade ago, the Dixie Chicks were at the pinnacle of country music. Their latest two CDs sold over 10 million copies each and they were asked to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. Within two years, they won eight Academy of Country Music Awards and their music career was only just beginning. There are an array of articles on the group's "fall from grace" after their 2003 criticism of the Iraq War and President George W. Bush, who is from their home state of Texas. None of these articles, however, address whether it actually makes sense for people who are in the public eye in a non-political capacity to have their careers derailed because of their politics.

I'm not examining whether prominent individuals should lose respect from their public for abusing drugs and going off the deep end like Amy Winehouse or Lindsay Lohan. Those whose careers have faltered because they committed a crime as Phil Spector and O.J. Simpson did are in a different category. Politicians who have made grave policy errors, such as Ronald Reagan (Iran Contra) and George W. Bush (Iraq), or personal errors in a political setting, such as Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Anthony Weiner are not the groups I'm addressing. Musicians who caused rebellions in other countries, such as the Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe years ago or Pussy Riot in Russia today (although a jail sentence seems dramatic) bring up other issues entirely. And Mel Gibson, who has literally offended everyone, is certainly in a category of his own. I want to address people like the Dixie Chicks, who are public figures, although they don't work in politics; who have not committed a crime but were gravely punished for their political advocacy. As Americans, shouldn't the Dixie Chicks be able to have their own political opinions without being judged, because their career is in music, not politics? If you're well-known in any capacity, are you bound to your "constituents," as a politician is? Do you even have constituents?

Individuals who work in the public eye but are not politicians do not have constituents (someone who has the power to frame a constitution or elect one who can)--they have fans (devotees or enthusiasts). Their job is to please their fans musically or through other talents, not politically or morally. Even Jane Fonda, who offended many Americans during the Vietnam War, should be able to express political beliefs without her acting career being affected. The Dixie Chicks' music never ceased to be impressive or enjoyable to listen to; in fact, there are very few country music fans that would dispute the singularity of their musicianship. They made a beautiful comeback album in 2006, which the "conservative country music clan drove off the charts" and kept from airing on the radio. For ten years they've been ostracized, despite the fact that they were right--the evidence to invade Iraq was questionable, to put it nicely--despite their immense talent, and because of their politics.

What exactly did they say that ruined their career? At a concert in London, lead singer Natalie Maines remarked, "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Seriously... that's it?! She later apologized--no doubt to save her career--but the group was already paying a price:

"One of the most popular acts in the country became its most hated. Its music was banned from radio, CDs were trashed by bulldozers, and one band member's home was vandalized... It was a classic case of freedom of speech meeting the irrational repercussions of that speech."

None of their subsequent songs ranked well on the charts, but "Not Ready to Make Nice," which details all they've endured, is one of the most downloaded songs on the Internet. When asked why she would risk insulting the audience that gave her fame, Maines says,

"It just goes back to the answer that we don't make decisions based on that. We don't go, 'OK, our fans are in the red states.' So I'm gonna play a red, white and blue guitar and put on my I Love Bush T-shirt... we're not like that because we're not politicians. We're musicians."

The Dixie Chicks prize honesty above all else, both in their music and in their concert presentations of it. "That's what music is," Maines explains. "That's what the music I always admired and liked was. I saw no honesty in people being safe or opinionless. I always loved the music that was about something."As citizens of the United States of America, every one of us deserves to develop and voice our political beliefs. Only politicians should be bound to constituents. Only politicians should have to bear repercussions for their political statements. For the rest of us, our careers have nothing to do with our politics. Actress Kerry Washington has received blowback for her political involvement--including death threats--but she refuses to be deterred. Washington says,

"It's important for me to be clear that I don't engage politically because I'm in the public eye. I actually made a promise to myself early on that I would not stop because I was in the public eye, because I feel like it's my responsibility as an American to be engaged. If my participation encourages other people to participate, no matter what party, I'm glad, because that's democracy."

Let's return to the democratic values our country was founded on and stop penalizing the Dixie Chicks for preserving their belief, however unpopular at the time, that the Iraq War and the violence it caused was un-American. In 2008, 63 percent of the public agreed with Maines's views; today 53 percent see the Iraq War as a mistake. These statistics demonstrate the irrationality of the Dixie Chicks' case: the crime certainly did not fit the punishment. People in the entertainment industry are not politicians. They should not be chained to a constituency. They are, however, Americans and they should be able to engage in the democracy they are a part of without sacrificing their careers and depriving fans of their art.