Page Two: The Time of the Toad
The New McCarthyism, or why the way the Dixie Chicks incident passes into history matters
"Some time before he became involved in the Dreyfus Affair, Emile Zola wrote an article called 'The Toad.' It purported to be his advice to a young writer who could not stomach the aggressive mendacity of a press which in 1890 was determined to plunge the citizens of the French Republic into disaster.
"Zola explained to the young man his own method of inuring himself against newspaper columns. Each morning, over a period of time, he bought a toad in the market place, and devoured it alive and whole. The toads cost only three sous each, and after such a steady matutinal diet one could face almost any newspaper with a tranquil stomach, recognize and swallow the toad contained therein, and actually relish that which to healthy men not similarly immunized would be a lethal poison.
"All nations in the course of their histories have passed through the periods which, to extend Zola's figure of speech, might be called the Time of the Toad: an epoch long or short as the temper of the people may permit, fatal or merely debilitating as the vitality of the people may determine, in which the nation turns upon itself in a kind of compulsive madness to deny all in its tradition that is clean, to exalt all that is vile, and to destroy any heretical minority which asserts toad-meat not to be the delicacy which governmental edict declares it. ... [H]eralds of the Time of the Toad are the loyalty oath [and] the compulsory revelation of faith."
"They wait, all of them from high to low, and they prophesy crisis, which is to say they pray for it. They know the power of their weapon, and our fear of it, and even a small crisis is better than none. But what they especially dream of is a profound crisis, that anguished crisis of the spirit which tears us to pieces every thirty or forty years, one that will soften our hearts to the tall fierce strangers who stand outside the door and cry salvation. They are certain the door will open; they have no doubts at all that a time will come when the prevalence of devils will persuade us that freedom is best defended by surrendering it altogether.
"And perhaps they are right. Perhaps we don't like freedom any more. Perhaps we have listened so long to the concatenation from the swamp that all unknowingly we have passed the point of no return, and now drift closer and closer to the heart of that thick, nadiral stupor in which men no longer want to be free. The cats have killed all the birds, the swimming pools everywhere overflow, and across the street at the old Bella Union che bella that union was in her time, che bellissima! the bar is closing down. The midnight air stutters with the magic word, and men with pinched white faces steal through the street. They have long memories and the shortest tempers you ever saw, and they fondle guns instead of girls. Yet I do not dread them as much as I fear the others the silent ones, the contented, the alienated, the frightened, the acquiescent."
The first quote is from a pamphlet published in 1949; the second was from an essay in the 100th issue of The Nation, published in 1965. Both are by Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten: creative studio talents who were blacklisted from work in their profession for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee's 1947 red-baiting, witch-hunt fishing expedition. In 1950, after the group's appeals were rejected, they were also all imprisoned.
Before being blacklisted, Trumbo had worked on the screenplays for such movies as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Tender Comrade, A Guy Named Joe, Kitty Foyle, and A Bill of Divorcement. During the blacklist, either remaining uncredited or using "fronts" others who were willing for him to use their names Trumbo wrote on Terror in a Texas Town, Cowboy, The Brothers Rico, The Brave One, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Carnival Story, Roman Holiday, and Rocketship X-M. In 1957, under the name of a front, Trumbo's story for The Brave One won an Academy Award. He did not officially receive it until 1975. Trumbo did not receive an official onscreen credit again until 1960, when he wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus.
Trumbo's credits went on to include Exodus, Lonely Are the Brave, Hawaii, Papillon, The Fixer, and The Sandpiper. He also wrote the classic anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, as well as writing and directing the film version.
If I did not completely lack the patience, inclination, perverse sense of humor, and talent to execute practical jokes, perpetuate hoaxes, and/or create conceptual works of culture, now would be the time.
On some carefully re-created official stationary, I would send out a press release that announced a variety bill of popular Venezuela musicians including Desorden Público, Caramelos de Cianuro, Los Amigos Invisibles, and Ricardo Montaner would be playing the U.S. It would note that this was an unprecedented and official tour, representing Venezuela. This release would go out to radio, music, and news publications, as well as to talk-show hosts, columnists, and political pundits.
This tour would be attacked and denounced a week or so later in another press release, this time sent out by a credible-sounding anti-Chavez, pro-USA group, also under a carefully conceived and authentic-looking letterhead. It would denounce the tour and, at the same time, attack the Chavez administration itself. One of the charges would be that, although Chavez pretended to freedom and to being a truly popular democratic leader, the artists had all been warned not to speak out on any political issues. They had been especially cautioned only to praise President Chavez and had been warned that if they uttered a critical comment, no matter how mundane, they would be severely punished, their careers destroyed, and their work banned. Not only would this release be sent out to the same, if not an even more expanded, list, but follow-up phone calls to right-wing television and newspaper pundits and talk-radio hosts would call attention to the issue as well.
If properly executed, it seems very likely that at least some of these fans of the sterilized, simplified, and putrefied ideological message would seize on this topic: It would be such a clear attack on freedom of speech by an enemy of this country a clearly hypocritical ploy of seeking sympathy for the culture while brutally suppressing unpopular ideas.
These days, pundits privilege situations that lend themselves to hysterical, high-pitched, argumentative rants over topics they find too complicated by substance and nuance. The most endlessly discussed issues are any that are easily reduced into "good guy" and "bad guy" terms (with the latter including American liberals, leftists, progressives, radicals, communists, and anarchists i.e., Democrats). The less substantial the topic really is, coupled with how much it allows for self-righteously satisfying, polarizing, and demonizing arguments, the more likely it is to have legs as a topic of discussion.
The Time of the Toad depends on the mass of citizens losing all sense of perspective, retreating into only the most hardened, nonnegotiable philosophical opinions. It is a time of black and white, with no grays. Reasoning and compromise are tools of the devil; there are correct opinions (one's own) and terribly corrupt and prejudiced opinions (the ones of those with whom you disagree). There is only the rock-solid truth pitted against consciously heinous lies, with no room for shading or variation. Principled disagreement, educated opinion, heartfelt beliefs, morally considered views, and one's personal opinion are concepts dashed on the unequivocal rocks of certainty, even more profoundly prohibited by the faithful themselves than in consideration of or negotiation with others. The standards that determine what is truth and what are lies are dictated and determined by a greater power (government, religion). Only this authority can shift and/or change meanings, and it can do so capriciously and without explanation.
But the existence of such a solid truth means there is no truth; neither are there lies or opinions; all are without meaning. They are just labels used as tools for marginalizing fellow citizens, demonizing other peoples, and disenfranchising all but fellow believers. Crucial to this is the two-dimensional, unquestioning acceptance of these official opinions great and small, to the point that they pass into history, and thus socially shared truth.
Small lies that have wormed into the accepted historical take are often the most cancerous and deadly, allowing for the greatest outrages.
Part III, above, is obviously based on the Dixie Chicks and what happened to them. Shut Up & Sing, Barbara Kopple's documentary on the Chicks, just finished playing the festival circuit (including the Austin Film Festival) and has gone into limited release. I haven't seen the film, but the trailer captures the Chicks quite explicitly cursing Bush, juxtaposed with the president saying something along the lines of, "Of course I support free speech, but I can't help it if people decide to stop buying their records." Given the need for critics to be concise, which leads to a kind of factual shorthand, this juxtaposition is more accepted than challenged, reaffirming this version of the event into historical accuracy.
The reality is very different. Yes, Natalie Maines commented that they were embarrassed that the president of the United States was from Texas. The sustained, vitriolic, widespread, and inherently anti-American public response was not to Maines' comment. Instead, it was to a still ongoing, calculated response by hate-talk-radio hosts and their political fellow travelers, intent on fanning the flames of polarization and vilifying the Chicks beyond all comprehension. This type of controversy is perfect fodder for hate radio, and its hosts and callers obsessed on the topic for months. As is so rarely the case, this time out they could actually impact the Chicks' audience, and with a passion they attempted to do so.
If there is a more prototypical American-values band than the Chicks, I can't think of it. Unlike some of their critics, the Chicks are country-music-loving traditionalists for whom family is of paramount importance. They are all married with children. Two are sisters; the other, Maines, comes from a large family deep into intergenerational musical collaboration. Maines was not a longtime politico but made one, fairly basic, statement. If any of those who attacked her really believed in the values they claim we are fighting for in Iraq, they would have spoken just as vehemently, tirelessly, and obsessively in defending the band.
Being genuinely indignant enough over this statement to focus on it for weeks would require the brains and passions of a squirrel. This was something so much uglier. Instead, this was a concerted, broad-based effort to get the Chicks, with the sole intention of punishing and suppressing free speech verbal and career crucifixion presented as a form of mass entertainment, even more chillingly executed as a warning to others to shut up and not express their real opinions.
I've long championed the idea that the Bill of Rights does not simply allow its prescribed freedoms but rather acknowledges them as indispensable to the health of a democratic, constitutional republic. Free speech should not be swallowed as some vile-tasting but necessary medicine, but should be championed as good for the freedoms and rights of us all. Certainly I don't think Bush orchestrated the campaign against the Chicks, and, quite sadly, I'm more than willing to believe he wasn't even really aware of it. But that speaks to his incompetence as president rather than affirming critical judgments that picture him as being moderate or reasonable.
The response to the Chicks was outrageous and unacceptable. It was not intuitive or natural but consciously and ideologically manufactured. If the enormity of this anti-free-speech travesty is ignored, especially in the most mundane and offhand of ways, history is distorted, and our freedoms assaulted. When these purposeful violations are presented or passed over as being in any way natural or organic, the assault is not on the Dixie Chicks. It is on the truth, the U.S. Constitution, and the very principles upon which this country was founded. Unfortunately, it happened, and it is now being preserved as reasonable and acceptable. It is the Time of the Toad, and it is terrifying as to who is cooperating.