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Rebuilding Iraq

Even big-mouth celebrities have right to speak out

By Renee Graham, Globe Staff, 4/15/03

    Rebuilding Iraq


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Speeches, reports, documents

It's been a good long while since I've had a sit-down with the US Constitution, but if my junior high school memories serve me correctly, I don't recall the Bill of Rights guaranteeing free speech only to those who espouse one particular opinion. Yet that seems to be the disturbing interpretation preferred by those encouraging a backlash against some celebrities who have been outspoken opponents of the US-led war against Iraq.

The Dixie Chicks saw their album sales drop and radio stations refuse to play their Grammy-winning CD, "Home," after member Natalie Maines told a London audience last month that she was "ashamed" that President George W. Bush hailed from her home state of Texas. Though Maines apologized, some have promised boycotts when the Dixie Chicks' concert tour kicks off in Greenville, S.C., next month.

A conservative website has published a list of more than 100 actors, musicians, and filmmakers who, it claims, "use their celebrity status to push their anti- Bush/anti-American beliefs on the rest of the world." According to the site, these celebrities are named "so our readers can boycott them if they wish." One of those singled out is Janeane Garofalo. The passionately antiwar actress and comedian has become the target of a campaign to convince ABC to drop plans for a proposed series starring her.

Then last week, the National Baseball Hall of Fame canceled a 15th anniversary tribute to the much-loved film "Bull Durham" because two of its stars, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, have been openly candid in their opposition to the war.

"Given the track record of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and the timing -- with our troops committed in Iraq -- a strong possibility existed that they could have used The Hall of Fame as a backdrop for their views," Dale Petroskey, the Cooperstown shrine's president, said in a statement. While acknowledging the actors' right to "express their opinions," Petroskey said the hall "is not the proper venue for highly charged expressions, whatever they may be."

In a letter to Robbins, Petroskey said, "We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important -- and sensitive -- time in our nation's history helps undermine the U.S.

position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger. As an institution, we stand behind our President and our troops in this conflict."

What Petroskey, a former assistant press secretary in the Reagan administration, clearly does not stand behind is free speech for those who dare fall on the other side of his ideological fence.

He chided Robbins and Sarandon (who was also recently booted as keynote speaker at a United Way event in Florida because of her political views), urging them to "speak and act responsibly," given the public platform they enjoy due to their celebrity. But what exactly does Petroskey mean, and who is he to decide what constitutes acting and speaking responsibly? It is doubtful that if Robbins and Sarandon had been pro-war, their invitation to Cooperstown would have been rescinded.

If the official rhetoric is to be believed, America went to Iraq, in part, to upend a brutal regime notoriously intolerant of dissenting views. In the midst of this, we have these self-appointed arbiters of Americanism who wrap themselves in the flag and wield their version of patriotism like a club against those who hold views at odds with their own.

This has gone beyond whether big-mouth, know-nothing celebrities should be hogging precious airtime that could otherwise be filled with yet another pontificating retired general. This is about the strange turn in the post-Sept. 11 national psyche that equates opposing war with opposing US troops and that brands healthy dissent as tantamount to treason. And it's about punishing those deemed to be traitors, whether it's steamrolling Dixie Chicks CDs, campaigning to keep Garofalo off a TV show, or, as some have done, e-mailing death threats to longtime political activist Martin Sheen, star of NBC's "The West Wing."

As the United States prepares to guide Iraq toward democracy and a new political future, it must not slip back into its own dark past of McCarthyism, which ruined dozens of lives and careers in the 1950s. The Bill of Rights guarantees free speech to everyone, including celebrities who flash peace signs at awards shows or release music denouncing war. And to believe otherwise, or contend that their dissent is dangerous, may be the most treasonous, anti-American act of all.

Renee Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays.

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