Jon Sanders

"I think people are paranoid" was how former Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart's comments to Reuters began. Hart was speaking about this year's Grammy Awards and the Dixie Chicks. Then he provided a sterling example of that very paranoia.

"I think that if they speak out, they think they're gonna get whacked by the government. It's pretty oppressive now. Look at the Dixie Chicks. They got whacked."

What? The government did nothing concerning The Dixie Chicks after they "spoke out" against President Bush while they were in concert in London. The singers were free to say whatever they wanted, just as the buying public was free to say whatever they wanted with respect to what the Dixie Chicks said.

There was public outcry, and indeed the Dixie Chicks lost fans and concertgoers. But they also garnered new fans, including fawning press. Their "naked" cover on Rolling Stone seems to have started a new fad: the Multimillionaire Artist As Suffering Figure of Persecution.

They would be followed in magazine-cover martyrdom by Kanye West, who nearly ruined a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser with his off-the-cuff remarks about Bush hating black people. His cover shot on Rolling Stone showed him wearing a crown of thorns.

Madonna, as is her wont, took the fad to its logical extremes; comparing Bush to Hitler and Osama bin Laden and then hanging herself on a crucifix.

But it's all vanity. Hart's comments, the "musical martyrs," the paranoia — it's just self-congratulatory hooey. Musicians aren't getting "whacked" by the Bush administration for "speaking out." But it's fun to believe it, because only then could the very mundane act of speaking out in this, the Land of the First Amendment, appear dangerous and brave instead of merely mercenary.

Perspective is sorely lacking when fabulously wealthy, celebrated recording artists somehow believe that the fabric of free speech in a community is in danger because they said something political and a bunch of folks replied in no uncertain terms that they didn't like what they said. They're seeing free speech at its most vibrant and they think it's in peril.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago provides countless examples of a government "whacking" an artist for speaking out. Compare these few lines, for example, to the worst of Dixie Chicks "whacking" anecdotes:

Tanya Khodkevich wrote:

You can pray freely

But just so God alone can hear.

(She received a ten-year sentence for these verses.)

Jon Sanders

Jon Sanders is associate director of research at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C.