Artists, society and the duties of citizenshipA while ago, I watched bits and piece of a PBS documentary on Bob Dylan. And it got me to thinking what would happen if Dylan were in his prime today.
It's no secret that our current political atmosphere is very poisonous. If you criticize the president, you are called a traitor, a terrorist appeaser or America-hater. (The Bush=Hitler crowd isn't exactly calming things down either)
While anyone who criticizes the president or his policies is subject to scorn, famous people who do so are subject to particularly vicious vitriol. The Dixie Chicks are the most famous example; they've even received death threats (presumably by people who insist our boys are over in Iraq fighting for freedom). But so is Michael Moore. So is Eddie Vedder. So is Green Day. So are many Hollywood actors.
I have no problem with fair criticism of these people or their comments. After all, if you can criticize Bush's actions or words, then your comments should be off-limits to criticism either. You should expect it. And not all of the criticism of Bush is fair either. But fair criticism means, "Vedder's criticism of Bush is wrong because...." not "Vedder is an America-hating sleazebag."
But singers, writers and actors who criticize the president are subjected to a ridiculous double standard. It's not the mere substance of their criticism that's attacked, it's the fact that they spoke out at all. According some people, actors should only talk about film , writers about literature and singers about music. They are not permitted to be citizens supporting or opposing their government's policies (well, they can support it, just not oppose it; no one seemed to mind baseball player Curt Schilling stumping for Bush). And frankly, that's outrageous.
Eddie Vedder is a citizen of the United States. So is Michael Moore. So is Billy Joe Armstrong. So are the Dixie Chicks. As such, they have every right to criticize the president and what he's doing. Just as you have every right to ignore them. They do not have the right to be taken seriously, but they do have the right to speak.
The war in Iraq isn't immoral because Susan Sarandon says so. It's immoral because it's immoral. That said, I have no more problem with Sarandon saying it's wrong than I do with Joe Sixpack saying it's wrong.
Their words do not carry more weight because they are famous. But their words do not carry less weight either.
Dylan wrote some of the most influential music of his time. He wrote about how young people were starting to think for themselves. He wrote about the immorality of segregation and racism. He wrote about the insanity of war.
And he admitted that artists had a social responsiblity:
Come writers and critics
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
Will be later to win
There's a long history of artists being engaged in politics and social issues. Some of the most revered figures in American history are people involved in artistic endeavors who weren't afraid to stick their noses in on the pressing issues of their time. Henry David Thoreau. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mark Twain. Woody Guthrie. Pete Seeger. Harper Lee. Countless others.
And it's not just in American history. Writers played a very important role in supporting and advancing the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Fela Kuti sang about injustice in military-dominated Nigeria in the 70s. Writers have always been influential in Latin America.
The most prominent dissidents in Eastern Europe, those most revered by the west, weren't politicians. They were writers (Solzhenitsyn), playwrights (Havel) even scientists (Sakharov),
These people felt that limiting themselves ordinary stories about lost love was trite when the society around them was suffocated by such oppression. They felt a social responsibility to risk leaving their little artistic cocoon and speak out against injustice. They helped bring an end to the monstrosity that was the Soviet empire, all because these artists dared speak of politics. Then, the government treated them as traitors. History now considers them as heros and patriots. Not because they were artists. But because they were citizens.