There’s a refrain that’s been circulating for the past week. The tune sounds about 50 years old, and it goes like this:
I hear people talkin’ bad,
About the way they have to live here in this country
Harpin’ on the wars we fight
And gripin’ ‘bout the way things oughta be
And I don’t mind ‘em switchin’ sides
And standin’ up for things they believe in
But when they’re runnin’ down our country, man
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me
That’s Merle Haggard with his 1970 hit, “Fightin’ Side of Me.” It’s a catchy tune, a song that’s easy to like. And I see the logic behind the lyrics he sings later: “If you don’t love it, leave it.”
Sure. If you think it’s better elsewhere, go there.
But something about the sentiment has always given me pause. Does offering a critique of a state of affairs, specific policies or even an elected leader mean you’re not devoted to America?
Or is the right to offer such critique elemental to the founding principles of the nation itself?
Is it, conceivably, one’s patriotic duty to do speak up?
It’s interesting, if you fast-forward to 2003, Haggard himself defended the Dixie Chicks when they voiced criticism of then-president George Bush during an international concert tour.
“They’ve cut such an honest groove with their career,” he wrote in an essay on his website, quoted by Rolling Stone. “Because they don’t like George Bush, should we take their records off? I really found that sort of scary. Are we afraid of criticism? And if so, why? It seems to me, we’re guilty in this country of doing everything we’ve always opposed all my life. I’m almost afraid to say something. It got to the point where my wife said, ‘Be careful what you say.’ Well, that’s really not the America I’m used to.”
We’ve entered a politically polarized era. But it turns out we’ve been here before.
So I’ll ask the same thing Haggard did. Are we afraid of criticism? And if so, why?
I don’t wish to offer pat answers or make this issue simpler than it is. But I do believe if we want to create an atmosphere where people can speak, we must respect differences of opinion and stop ourselves from responding to criticism as a threat.
Anything else, to invoke Haggard once more, is “really not the America I’m used to.”
I welcome your response to this editorial column: firstname.lastname@example.org.