Late last night I watched "Shut Up and Sing," the 2006 documentary about the Dixie Chicks' dust-up over a comment Natalie Maines made about George Bush. It was a very well made film that not only reinforced my concern about their plight but also made me interested in them as musicians and as people -- something I never imagined would happen.
Maines comes across as just incorrigibly outspoken on nearly every topic, sometimes laughing at her own absurdities even as they are escaping her lips. Her fellow chicks come across as nearly saintly: committed artists devoted to family, music and each other.
Not everybody in the film comes off so well. Radio executives act like scared clowns; anti-Chicks protesters as dumb hayseeds. It's particularly dispiriting to see so many country fans behave so badly. After all, country music was built on the work of people who didn't fit in. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones and Merle Haggard are hardly models of clean living and moral solemnity.
Coming off worst was a Republican congressman who said the Chicks were merely experiencing the business consequences of expressing their opinions in public. If there is any bedrock principle of democracy, it is that political opinions ought to be kept separate from business consequences. Democracy works only if you and I agree that we can fight bitterly over who should be elected president of the country or the school board, then cast our votes and go back to living and working together, you getting your hair cut in my shop and me getting my car repaired in your garage.
Break that principle, and the entire democratic contract is in peril.