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A Mighty Wind

This hootenany is a hoot, even if you still like the New Christie Minstrels.

By 4.18.03

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This hootenany is a hoot, even if you still like the New Christie Minstrels.

One has to feel sorry for celebrities these days. They are discovering that there may be limits to their boorish behavior, insofar as what the American public is willing to tolerate. To judge by her interview with VH1, Madonna is the latest to learn this unbearably painful lesson.

The recent controversy surrounding Madonna stemmed from the video to her new song "American Life." Early clips showed her prancing around in thinly-disguised Nazi regalia in front of Old Glory. It ended with a President Bush look-alike lighting a cigar with a lighter in the shape a hand grenade.

In the interview, Madonna informs us that she made the video to wake America up, to let us know "that a real war is going on." (You mean those bombs exploding on TV are real? Well, I'll be!)

Apparently, though, the need to raise our collective consciousness really wasn't that important. In the revised version of the video that premiered after the interview, Madonna no longer prances in front of an American flag. She's still in the brown-shirt getup, but is now dancing in front of flags from all other nations. The American flag appears only briefly at the end. Gone too is the President Bush look-alike.

Why the change? Madonna claimed that she intended for the original video to be released before the war with Iraq. But the war began before the video was finished. Given the war, the timing of was wrong. Presumably, the video would have created too much controversy.

This is very odd coming from someone who has made her career courting controversy. Surely Madonna doesn't lack the intestinal fortitude to weather the media storm. The answer, it seems, is that she is afraid of being punished:

"... you know it's ironic we're fighting for democracy in Iraq because we ultimately aren't celebrating democracy here. Because anybody who has anything to say against the war or against the president or whatever -- is punished, and that's not democracy -- it's people being intolerant. And you know, everyone's entitled to their opinion, for or against and that's what our constitutional rights are supposed to be, that we all have the freedom to express ourselves and voice our dissent if we have that."

Here in a nutshell is the classic modern-day misunderstanding of freedom: freedom means not just the right to be free from government sanction, but also to be free from consequences. It is hard to blame Madonna for holding such a view, when you consider her two-decade music career. Aside from criticism from some sectors of the press and one instance of abandonment by Pepsico, her behavior has largely been consequence-free. Indeed, it has been rewarded with unparalleled celebrity and countless millions in compensation.

But after 9/11, the patience of the American public (or at least a large segment of it) has worn thin for celebrity antics that denigrate America. The entertainment industry is learning a long overdue lesson: freedom is a two-way street. If pop and movie stars are free to mouth off about America, the rest of America is free not to buy their records, not to attend their concerts, and not to see their movies. Because people are free to withhold their dollars, celebrities do not have the right to be free from consequences. Witness the recent bind that the Dixie Chicks have found themselves in.

Madonna couldn't have failed to notice. She had to sense that the original "American Life" video could result in a serious backlash. Faced with the unappealing prospect of pathetic record sales and perhaps long-term damage to her career, she pulled it.

A wit once observed that conscience is that little voice warning you that your funding may be jeopardized. It appears the little voice Madonna heard was in a full-throttled yell.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.