- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

My teenage son came home from school recently and was upset that in one of his classes the teacher invited the students to solicit from their classmates opinions on “what they didn’t like about the president of the United States.”

Aside from the lese majeste inherent in this assignment, the response of his classmates was revealing. One student said there should be a law to prevent the government from “making war on other countries.” Another flatly claimed George W. Bush was “trying to take over the world.” A third said the war in Iraq was “pointless,” with the observation “Uncle Sam is frowning.” A skateboarder with spiked hair would not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, announcing he “hated all countries.”

As disconcerting as these responses are — made by ill-informed and rebellious teenagers — they are cut from the same cloth as the infamous remark of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines during a 2003 concert tour in England, when she announced “we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

On the eve of the war in Iraq, this gratuitous insult, of course, did not play well in Texas or pretty much anywhere else. In scores of cities across the country, irate country music fans destroyed Dixie Chicks albums, country radio stations refused to play their music, and concert attendance in major Southern venues dropped sharply.

Miss Maines has since offered a half-hearted apology, then reversed course and reaffirmed her, and I presume the group’s, dislike of Mr. Bush, despite claiming to have received death threats. On their most recent album, they include a song called “Not Ready to Make Nice,” yet another defiant poke in the eye.

In TV interviews, the Chicks next tried to make the point they have “outgrown their country audience” and have moved into mainstream pop-rock — a dubious, divisive and needless posture, since it jeopardized important tour bookings this summer. A significant number of U.S. venues already have been canceled, and they had to fill in with concerts abroad, where their anti-Bush nose-thumbing seems to play well.

Why these fine and talented musicians should feel compelled to antagonize their audience, incur lost earning potential and tarnish their public image just to vent their dopey political opinions is beyond reason.

Like my son’s peers in high school, the impetus seems to be merely a desire to attitudinize, to epater le bourgeois, rather than advance a serious discussion of issues. In fact, when the Dixie Chicks venture into such discussions during interviews, they reveal their overall political ignorance to the point of looking foolish.

But artists and performers have long experience preening themselves and their attitudes to their fans and the general public. Armed with little understanding, or subtlety of perception, they blurt out their latest crazy or outrageous thoughts to the world, in the vainglorious delusion people might take them seriously. In fact, the only ones impressed are other members of the choir of the converted.

It is an unfortunate sign of our cultural decadence that media celebrities are paid any attention at all, apart from their individual performing talents. An entire cottage industry has emerged just to track their daily lives and public utterances. Tabloid TV shows and newspaper writers follow them, seeking any kind of story, while paparazzi lurk in the weeds to take unauthorized photos.

In a new low, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the reigning king and queen of lowbrow entertainment, were purportedly paid $4 million by People magazine for exclusive photos of their new love child to feed the bottomless maw for celebrity gossip.

More pathological are celebrities who take political postures, and are used by clever politicians who bask in the reflected glow of sympathetic ideologies. Barbra Streisand, Adam Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, George Clooney and Jane Fonda need only let thoughtless inanities drip from their lips, whereupon bottom-feeding reporters lap it up and broadcast them to the world. Politicos needing public attention and cash have found a truly nourishing mother within the media celebrity complex.

They might as well troll the nation’s high schools for ideas, because like my son’s classmates, the level of critical thought is about the same.

BARRETT KALELLIS

A Michigan-based columnist and writer whose articles appear regularly in various local and national print publications.

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