Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Dumbos Have Watches, But We Have Time....

By 1993, Texas flipped. From a one-party state of Democrats, Texas became a one-party state of Dumbos. Paul Burka reviews the political calculus and describes the D-comeback as a Long March. Governor Goodhair — the longest-serving Texas gov — flipped from D to R in the great reversal of the 1990s. Now, Governor Goodhair considers himself a pillar of Dumboism. IF this is (fair & balanced) hubris, so be it.

[x TM]
Am I Blue?
By Paul Burka

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In the video, a handsome if slightly geeky-looking young man stands in front of an olive-green curtain. He is wearing a suit jacket and a dress shirt with an open collar. “Hey, everybody,” he begins. “My name is Jeremy Bird. Many of you might remember me as the national field director for Obama’s reelection campaign. I wanted to speak to you quickly about an exciting new movement that launched this week. It’s called Battleground Texas.” The objective, Bird goes on to say in the four-and-a-half minute YouTube clip, posted in late February, is to turn Texas into a competitive state—that is, one in which Democrats can hold their own with Republicans, something that hasn’t happened since Ann Richards defeated Clayton Williams to become governor, in 1990.

It’s a daunting task, but Bird certainly has credentials. He is a veteran grassroots organizer, and he led one of the most brilliant get-out-the-vote campaigns in the history of presidential politics in 2012, heading up the outreach to minority groups, unmarried women, and millennials. President Obama himself has attended several private events in Texas, where, according to state representative Garnet Coleman, he has talked about how important Texas is to the future of the Democratic party.

You might think that weary state Democrats would welcome Battleground Texas with open arms. In fact, they have little love for their Washington brethren, including the president, who (as they see it) parachute into the state, attend lavish fundraisers, and stuff their pockets with cash destined to be poured into congressional races in other states. Glenn Smith, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on Richards’s 1990 campaign, told me he feared that Republicans would say, “Obama’s carpetbaggers are here.” That’s to be expected, and indeed, Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who worked for Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign, remarked to Politico that the plan amounts to little more than “consultants coming up with a project to get paid.” But what should be more troubling for Bird is that several prominent Democrats have told me essentially the same thing: they worry that his efforts are little more than an attempt to raise his own profile—and a lot of cash.

It’s obvious why Democratic strategists like Bird view Texas as the last great prize to be won in the eternal quest for partisan advantage: the state’s 38 electoral votes are second only to California’s 55, which reliably go to the Democrats. The White House knows that if it can turn Texas blue, Republicans will be boxed out of the presidency. So how does Battleground Texas do that? Bird intends to raise millions of dollars over the next four years, while at the same time expand the voter base for Democrats and get people to the polls. It goes without saying, given the recent performance of Democratic tickets in Texas, that this is easier said than done.

To be fair, there is a lot of Democratic money in Texas, but there is also a lot of competition for that money. An ongoing debate among Democrats is whether it is better to try to win a statewide race or to pick up more seats in the Legislature. Smith is optimistic about Battleground Texas’s chances, but he is skeptical that a comeback can be based on success in legislative races. “It’s very difficult to get everybody rowing to the same beat,” he said. Now Bird and other operatives who will soon be descending on Texas must somehow persuade donors to fund organizing efforts when the state’s Democratic candidates are in desperate need of campaign contributions themselves. If the Battleground Texas leaders are smart, their first goal will be to flip Harris County: turn Harris blue, with its huge and diverse minority population, and the rest of the state could follow. Dallas County is already Democratic, and, aside from Tarrant County, so is the rest of urban Texas.

If there is some good news for the Democrats, it’s that a pair of Public Policy Polling surveys showed that Hillary Clinton is currently running even with or ahead of likely Republican opponents in Texas for 2016, and Bill White, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Perry, has a slight edge over him today. Notwithstanding these glimmers of hope, the truth is that the Texas Democratic party barely exists. In the 2010 midterm elections Republicans decimated Democrats in the state House, winning a supermajority. The party lacks the infrastructure to run major campaigns—operatives, consultants, fund-raisers, and county and precinct chairs, not to mention credible candidates. Thirteen counties in Texas no longer hold Democratic primaries. Democrats haven’t had a successful statewide election since 1994, when Bob Bullock, Dan Morales, Garry Mauro, and John Sharp were on the ticket (but Richards lost the governorship to a Republican by the name of George W. Bush).

The last serious effort Democrats made to win a statewide race was in 2002, when they ran the so-called dream-team ticket of Tony Sanchez Jr. for governor, Ron Kirk for U.S. senator, Sharp for lieutenant governor, and Kirk Watson for attorney general. This was a formidable lineup backed by real money; Sanchez alone spent more than $60 million. All the Democrats lost, and the party has not fielded a competitive statewide slate of candidates since.

Of course, the party is not without rising stars. The best-known Democrats in the state are the Castro twins, Joaquín, a freshman congressman, and Julián, the mayor of San Antonio and the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention last summer. But neither of the Castros is as recognizable statewide, much less nationally, as was another San Antonio politician, Henry Cisneros, at the height of his popularity, in the eighties.

How can the Democrats win? For many years, their strategy has been to wait for the maturation of the Latino vote. They are still waiting. As the Battleground Texas folks will find out soon enough, Texas is not a high-performing Latino-voting state, and an analysis of Latino voting patterns reveals profound structural weaknesses. The Latino population is around 9.5 million, but only 43.8 percent are eligible to vote. Of those who are eligible, 32.3 percent are young (18 to 29), 27.1 percent lack a high school diploma, and 27.9 percent have a household income under $30,000. Latino registration actually declined from 2008 to 2010. Energizing that voting group will be one of Battleground Texas’s biggest challenges, because it is something no one else has been able to do.

The Castro brothers are among the optimists. Appearing recently on CBS’s "Face the Nation," Julián told Bob Schieffer that Texas is “going to become a purple state, then a blue state, because of the demographics, because of population growth of folks from outside Texas.” But as Wayne Thorburn writes in The Transformation of Texas Politics, a forthcoming book by UT Press, Nina Perales, the vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, offered a more sober view. Shortly after the 2012 election, Perales appeared at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in San Antonio. Joaquín had just predicted that Texas would see a Democratic voting majority in eight to twelve years, and Perales responded, “I just wanted to throw cold water on everything you have all said. We’re losing ground. We have more U.S. citizen Latinos turning eighteen every day than are getting registered. The gap between eligible and registered in the Latino community is widening, not narrowing.”

As most consultants will tell you, election cycles come and election cycles go, and very little changes in the electorate. Bird and Battleground Texas have brought some talented operatives to the state—Jenn Brown, who served as Obama’s field director in Ohio, and Christina Gomez, a former digital strategist for the Democratic National Committee—but demographics can cut in both directions. As a group, Latinos tend to be business-oriented, so when they eventually move into the middle class, the likelihood increases that they will leave their political roots behind and vote Republican. The biggest threat to Democrats right now is whether Republicans will be able to mount an effective Latino outreach drive. If they can pull it off, particularly with a Hispanic candidate like George P. Bush, the Republicans will have checkmate.

Not surprisingly, Governor Perry scoffs at the idea that Battleground Texas can be successful. “The University of Texas will change its colors to maroon and white before Texas goes purple, much less blue,” he recently remarked. For the moment, Perry is right, but that doesn’t mean Democrats in Texas won’t have their day. The national party has assembled a formidable coalition that has won two presidential elections and could well win a third. The coalition includes multiple groups: blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, secularists, college-educated women, and young people generally. This coalition reflects what America looks like in 2013, and the state’s Republican leaders don’t have a clue about that change. If Republicans don’t alter course, Texas politics will gradually reverse itself.

It’s important for Battleground Texas to remember that Texas did not become Republican overnight. The state was solidly Democratic for a century before John Tower won a U.S. Senate seat, in 1961—the one that had been held by Lyndon B. Johnson before he had to give it up to become vice president. Over a long period of time, the Texas Democratic party lost control of the state due to a demographic change: an influx of affluent families moved to Texas from the north, who brought with them a tradition of voting Republican that did not previously exist here. Texas ultimately became a Republican state because Democrats switched parties.

Today the Texas Republican party is so far out of touch with the values of the ascendant culture that mainstream Republicans who loathe the extremism of their party will become Democrats. Again, it will take time; when the Republican party was evolving into the dominant political force in the state, Karl Rove would preach patience. “It’s not an event,” he would say of the growing strength of the Texas GOP. “It’s a process.” Battleground Texas should take note, that’s a valuable piece of advice. Ω

[Paul Burka joined the staff of Texas Monthly in 1974, one year after the magazine's founding. He was born in Galveston, graduated from Rice University with a B.A. in history, and received a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law.  Burka is a senior executive editor and a political columnist at TM.]

Copyright © 2013 Emmis Publishing /dba/ Texas Monthly

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Roll Over TR & Rough Rider Wannabes: The New Dumbo Mantra Is "Speak Softly But Carry A Big Stigma"

Just when this blogger thought that the dumbest of the Dumbos in the Great White North was the half-term governor of Alaska (Hint: her surname rhymes with Failin'), along comes the sole U.S. Representative from Alaska, transplanted Californian Don Young (R-AK). At a time when the Dumbo leadership is making noise about reaching out to potential Latino voters, this cabrón appeared on a radio talk show in Alaska and made reference to the mojados who picked tomatoes on the Young family farm in central California. Young claimed that he meant no disrespect in his "wetbacks" reference. Sorry, pendejo, but that dog won't hunt (ese perro no irá a la caza). The NY Fishwrap's Blowhard ends his Op-Ed piece perfectly: "No disrespect." Or, as the saying goes in Texas: "No offense, but..." (an offensive comment follows). If this is (fair & balanced) exposure of bigotry, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The G.O.P.’s Diversity Deserts
By Charles M. Blow

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Well, that didn’t take long.

Just a week ago, the Republicans issued their much-ballyhooed “autopsy” on why they lost the presidential election last year and how they might remedy their problems.

They concluded that their principles were fine; the problem was how they presented those principles. Their witless wisdom is simply to tone down their rhetoric. They want to turn Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying on its side: Talk softly but carry a big stigma.

The establishment Republicans’ push for a softer tone, however, is pure political scheming and has nothing to do with what most Republicans seem to fundamentally believe.

And many rank-and-file Republicans are adopting this two-faced tactic. A Pew Research Center report issued Thursday found that although most Republicans say that “illegal immigrants” should be allowed to stay in this country legally, most also believe that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs and health care, and they threaten American values.

Try as you may, you can’t build a philosophical facade like a movie set — convincing in appearance, but having no real structure behind it — and expect it to forever fool and never fall.

The true convictions of your heart will, eventually, be betrayed by the disobedience of your tongue.

Enter Don Young of Alaska, a Republican congressman for the past 40 years who this week used a racial slur so vile and insensitive that it was hard to remember what decade we were in.

In an interview Thursday with an Alaska radio station, Young reminisced about his family’s employment of Mexican farm workers:

“My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

The casual reference dripped with an inculcated insensitivity.

The same day, Young’s office issued a statement, which should in no way be misconstrued as an apology.

“During a sit-down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California,” Young said in the statement. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”

No disrespect? Only a man drained of empathy could even make such a claim.

It wasn’t until Friday, after demands from Republican leaders like John Boehner and John McCain, that Young issued a real apology. But the damage may have already been done. These kinds of statements cement an image of a callous party moving contrary to public consciousness.

The question must be asked: Why do so many insensitive comments come from these Republicans?

One reason may well be their proximity problem.

Too many House Republican districts are isolated in naturally homogeneous areas or gerrymandered ghettos, so elected officials there rarely hear — or see — the great and growing diversity of this country and the infusion of energy and ideas and art with which it enriches us. These districts produce representatives unaccountable to the confluence. And this will likely be the case for the next decade.

For instance, according to the Census Bureau, about 6 percent of Alaska’s population is Hispanic and just 3 percent is black. And Alaska is among the most Republican states in the union, according to a Gallup report issued last year.

Too many House Republicans have districts dominated by narrow, single-note, ideology-driven constituencies that see an ever expanding “them” threatening the heritage of a slowly shrinking “us.”

This defensive posture is what so poisons the Republicans’ presidential ambitions. Instead of embracing change, Republicans want to suspend or in some cases reverse it. But the principle articulated by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus rings true: the only thing constant is change.

With the exception of a few districts, a map of the areas in this country with the fewest minorities looks strikingly similar to a map of the areas from which Congressional Republicans hail.

In fact, although this is the most diverse Congress in history, not one of the blacks or Asians in the House is a Republican. Only about a sixth of the Hispanics are Republicans, and fewer than a third of the women are.

The Republican Party has a severe minority problem. People like Don Young only serve to illustrate and amplify it. Young is another unfortunate poster child for a party fighting an image of being chronically hostile to “otherness.” No disrespect. Ω

[Charles M. Blow is The New York Times's visual Op-Ed columnist. His column appears every other Saturday. Blow joined The New York Times in 1994 as a graphics editor and quickly became the paper's graphics director, a position he held for nine years. In that role, he led The Times to a best of show award from the Society of News Design for the Times's information graphics coverage of 9/11, the first time the award had been given for graphics coverage. He also led the paper to its first two best in show awards from the Malofiej International Infographics Summit for work that included coverage of the Iraq war. Charles Blow went on to become the paper's Design Director for News before leaving in 2006 to become the Art Director of National Geographic Magazine. Before coming to The Times, Blow had been a graphic artist at The Detroit News. Blow graduated magna cum laude from Grambling State University in Louisiana, where he received a B.A. in mass communication.]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Today's Blue-Plate Special: La Vengeance Est Un Plat Qui Se Mange Froid (Translation — Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold)

Here in the Weirdness Capital of the universe ("Keep Austin Weird"), a recent trial brought cries of "There's an empty tree over there. Get the rope!" A hit-and-run incident that resulted in the death of female pedestrian in a poorly-lit street ultimately found the driver (also female) on trial for criminally negligent homicide. The jury recommended a 10-year suspended sentence, or probation, for the convicted driver after she was found guilty of the charges. The jury also imposed a $10,000 fine and the judge added a 60-day jail sentence to the probation. Both the victim and the driver were in their early thirties and the outcry here was significant. Was justice done? The victim's family wanted vengeance and the driver's family wanted closure. If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of crime & punishment, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Eye For An Eye: The Case For Revenge
By Thane Rosenbaum

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A surefire way to establish one's moral superiority—certainly in our society and in most Western nations—is to renounce any interest in revenge. No matter the damage done, the outrageousness of the conduct, or the magnitude of loss, most people will reflexively wave off any suggestion that vengeance is what they desire. Indeed, they will indignantly deny having a vengeful streak, as if nothing could be so shameful as the simple wish to settle a score. Take your pick of maxims: "Vengeance is beneath me"; "I'm not out for revenge, I just want to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else"; "All I care about is justice, not revenge."

That's what President George W. Bush told the nation shortly after 9/11. "Ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice."

The president knew that line would draw applause, and it did. Why? Because we've been trained to believe that justice is a sign of refinement, while vengeance is a barbaric holdover from a primitive past. So we couch our vengefulness in the language of the law, and cast our lot with the rule of law, with all its emotional detachment and cool dispassion. Leave revenge to the louts and the hotheads; civilized people suppress their instincts and moral outrage, and recite the script that justice is the enlightened man's revenge.

But the distinction between justice and vengeance is false. A call for justice is always a cry for revenge. By placing their faith in the law, those who justifiably wish to see wrongdoers punished are not disavowing vengeance. If anything, they are seeking to be avenged by the law. No matter what they say, victims aren't choosing justice over vengeance; they are merely capitulating to a cultural taboo, knowing that the protocol in polite society is to repudiate revenge. But make no mistake: When it comes to the visceral experience of being a victim, revenge and justice are one and the same.

And everyone should feel similarly. After all, there is no justice unless victims feel avenged, when they believe that a wrong has been righted and honor restored. And revenge is never just if it is disproportionately delivered—if the retaliation exceeds what is justly deserved, measure for measure. Indeed, vengeance is not irrational (the common knock on revenge)—it's healthy and entirely human. Insisting that justice will suffice when revenge is what victims really want is both intellectually dishonest and factually untrue. Besides, in modern societies where vigilantism is disallowed, we all on some level reasonably believe that it is only by leveraging the law—and having the legal system serve as our proxy—that vengeance can be actually achieved.

Everyone applauded President Bush, but did anyone actually believe that the relentless bombing of Afghanistan was without a vengeful component, that it was free from the emotion and, yes, rage that often accompany revenge? It's not like America convened a courtroom in Kabul and confronted the Taliban—lawyer to lawyer. Wouldn't that have been the "justice" to which the president referred? The due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution, however, didn't apply to bombs and drones. Reprisals on such a lethal scale seem more like a nation taking justice into its own hands. And yet these acts are framed as legal undertakings rather than vengeful ones.

Nearly a decade later, when President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been assassinated by Navy Seals, Americans celebrated in the streets. Was all the joy the fulfillment of justice finally achieved—bin Laden receiving the punishment that, legally, fit the crime—or was the outpouring of emotion more akin to revenge? After all, given the relatively unguarded compound that the Navy Seals had discovered, they could have kidnapped bin Laden and returned him to the United States to stand trial. His son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was just recently arraigned in Manhattan federal court for a civilian trial. The justice about to be meted out to Abu Ghaith is of an entirely different character than the summary execution received by his father-in-law.

Drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen elicit a similar confusion: Are they just deserts, unlawful targeted assassinations, or the highly nuanced ground rules of a just war?

It can all make your head spin. But it shouldn't have to.

Clearly, Osama bin Laden's death was a victory for both justice and revenge. The actions of the Navy Seals, and the reactions of the American public, illustrate just how meaningless the distinction is between justice and vengeance. America is no less civilized or law-abiding because bin Laden was assassinated. The absence of a court proceeding did not lesson the justness of his final exit, nor did it convert the mission of the Navy Seals into an act of barbarism. And the cheering throng was right not to withhold their applause until a judge had spoken. America didn't need a courtroom with a robed jurist, preening lawyers, and a key-tapping stenographer to feel morally and legally justified. And there was nothing wrong with the sight of Americans experiencing the closure that comes from feeling avenged.

What's so shameful about the emotional clarity and moral imperative of getting even? Why all the hypocrisy surrounding revenge?

Before the Internet, those with a fondness for porn were left with little choice but to sneak into adult theaters in the seedy section of town wearing oversized raincoats and wide-brimmed hats. To be caught in the compromised position of standing in the ticket line while another PTA parent just happened to drive by was difficult to explain away. Society has long banished the perverted from the ranks of respectable company.

Revenge shares a similar public shame (though it is probably more acceptable to confess to having a kinky taste for porn than to acknowledge harboring feelings of revenge). The vengeful are deemed out of control, emotionally unhinged, perpetually angry, and unable to turn the cheek and move on with their lives. Yet the revenge film—think "Gladiator," "Braveheart," "True Grit," "Death Wish"—remains immensely popular, with decades of box-office appeal. If revenge is so shameful, then why don't audiences charge out of theaters in protest? Why, instead, do they settle into their seats with their blood rushing and their minds driven mad by the possibility that a fictional wrongdoer will escape punishment before the closing credits?

We watch revenge films without embarrassment because on some primal level we know that just deserts are required in the moral universe, that those who commit crimes must be punished according to their blameworthiness, and that wrongs must ultimately be righted. It's not our lust for violence that explains why we applaud payback, but our absolute need to live in a world that promotes fairness, law and order, and social peace. We're all better off when wrongdoers are punished.

Without the debt canceling, equalizing, restorative dimensions of revenge, faith in humankind is lost and the world makes less sense. That's precisely what people mean when they lament that there is "no justice in the world"—a wrongdoer has gotten away with murder, and all who depend, morally and emotionally, on the sum-certainty of vengeance are left helpless, dumbfounded, and enraged. The revenge we are so often denied in our private lives is experienced vicariously—courtesy of the movies.

So if justice and revenge are fundamentally the same, why can't we be more honest about the role that revenge plays in our lives?

It's finally time to humanize justice by restoring the face of vengeance. Doing so is not an invitation to lawlessness but a mandate that the law must act with the same moral entitlement, and the same spirit of human fulfillment, as the righteous avenger.

Vengeance is as old as man himself. It is an instinct at the very core of our emotions; indeed, it's a byproduct of our evolutionary history. Human survival depended greatly on convincing neighboring clans, tribes, and states that no attack or moral injury would go unanswered. Payback was nonnegotiable and self-regulating. Reclaiming one's honor was not undertaken out of haphazard rage. To avenge was to achieve justice, and to do what was just necessitated the taking of revenge.

The philosopher Robert C. Solomon has pointed out that "vengeance is the original meaning of justice. The word 'justice' in the Old Testament and in Homer virtually always refers to revenge.... Not that the law and the respect for the law are unimportant, of course, but one should not glibly identify these with justice and dismiss the passion for vengeance as something quite different and wholly illegitimate."

For much of human history, the resolution of disputes was a private matter. States were not yet in the business of maintaining legal systems or, for that matter, punishing wrongdoers for crimes committed against another. Law and order was enforced at the most local of levels. Governments became involved—essentially taking a monopoly on vengeance—only during the Enlightenment, when the social contract obligated citizens to surrender to, and faithfully accept, the rule of law.

To hold up their end of the bargain, states collected taxes to erect courthouses and police stations, and filled them with personnel responsible for keeping the peace. Governments assumed the role of surrogate avenger, minus the emotional involvement that a true avenger would naturally possess.

But regardless of who becomes the designated revenge-taker—either the state, with its impersonal security apparatus, or the avenger, who is discharging his personal duty—human beings can no more suppress their revenge impulse than can they curb their instincts for sex and hunger for food. Getting even is a biological necessity. We need our revenge, notwithstanding how feverishly religions and governments have worked to eradicate it from the human experience. Vengeance can be curtailed, but it can never be truly undone, nor should it. Vengeance keeps returning... well... with a vengeance.

The lex talionis, the law of the talion, which provides for the right of retaliation, has its origins in the Old Testament and in Hammurabi's Code, and sets forth the basic formulation of reciprocity in response to moral injury—measure for measure. "An eye for an eye," misunderstood as a mantra for the bloodthirsty, has attained a thuggish reputation. But it has an altogether different meaning. If anything, "an eye for an eye" is a check on excess. It demands exactness and has no tolerance for recklessness. The wrongdoer who causes someone to lose an eye will have to forfeit one of his own—no more, no less. And not out of pure hate, but in accordance with what is due.

The talion establishes a boundary for human loss. A debt is created, and the avenger is entitled to take the measure of his or her loss as payback. The wrongdoer is entitled to no discount, and the avenger is held to a standard that allows for no excess.

Society should always reject the wrongdoer who takes an eye and not the avenger who is duty-bound to even the score. Those who, like Gandhi, say "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" ignore their own moral blindness. Telling victims to accept their loss without recourse is not a sign of virtue—it's proof of cowardice. Turning the cheek may have religious significance to practicing Christians, but it is an awkward facial maneuver not readily practiced in the moral universe where the repayment of all debts is mandated.

There is a paradox in our distaste for "an eye for an eye." Most people abhor having to accept discounts in their professional or private lives. Businesses insist that invoices be paid in full; landlords evict tenants who are delinquent in paying rent; retailers gnash their teeth at having to mark down an item that should have sold at full price; those who emerge from bankruptcy are often socially exiled for paying pennies on the dollar to satisfy their debts; marriages fall apart when one spouse simply won't carry an equal load. The Beatles seemed to understand the principle when they wrote "the love you take is equal to the love you make."

We all want reciprocity, and we want the ledgers we keep with business associates and intimate partners to be balanced. Indeed, we expect it. Those who stand on principle and demand fair payment—insisting on precision and always inflexible about price—are thought to be righteous. And yet, when it comes to the most crushing of debts, the losses that are simply too much to bear, the injuries that are truly a matter of life and death—the murder or rape of a loved one, large-scale human suffering, an assault on dignity so great that honor is not easily recaptured—our math skills suddenly fail us, and we become reluctant to support equivalent punishments. A new calculus is created, one that doesn't add up.

So we tolerate a legal system where over 95 percent of all cases are resolved with a negotiated plea—bargained down from what the wrongdoer rightfully deserved. That means that convicted criminals are rarely asked to truly repay their debt to society. Even worse, this math-phobic system tragically discounts the debt owed to the victim, who is grossly shortchanged.

In Rhode Island, in 1983, Michael Woodmansee was sentenced to 40 years in prison for gruesomely murdering a 5-year-old boy, Jason Foreman. (Woodmansee allegedly ate the boy's flesh and shellacked his bones.) Rhode Island permits the early release of prison inmates for good behavior and for working prison jobs during their incarceration. In 2011, Woodmansee was scheduled to be released, having served only 28 years of his negotiated plea. From the moment of sentencing, with the trial aborted for a plea bargain, Woodmansee had already shortchanged the state of Rhode Island and the boy's father, John Foreman, of what was owed. Now it was measurably worse. On hearing that his son's murderer was soon to be a free man, Foreman said, "If this man is released anywhere in my vicinity, or if I can find him after the fact, I do intend to kill this man."

Many criticized Foreman: How could he so openly and unapologetically admit that he was planning to take justice into his own hands? (Woodmansee was voluntarily committed to a mental institution, and so his life was spared.) But who could blame Foreman for feeling that traditional justice had failed him, and that personal vengeance was now absolutely necessary?

Plea bargains, with their bargain-basement rationales, epitomize the degree to which our legal system has too little respect for victims and even less regard for the moral imperative that justice must be done. What is paramount under the talionic principle seems to be optional under our laws. A justice system that recognized the duty it owed to victims would not rely so heavily on this method of resolution, which casually distorts the truth and trivializes the remedy.

By definition, plea bargains are breaches of the social contract, because they enable states to leave unfulfilled their obligation to punish on behalf of their citizens. These are the very same citizens who, through the force of law, have been deprived of their ancient right to personally enact revenge. The justice system can't have it both ways: outlawing personal vengeance while at the same time devaluing legal punishment. The public places its faith in the state, but it is unworthy of that faith unless it can fully accept its role as proxy—the revenge denied to victims must be undertaken by the government, because states have assumed the task of punishment to be theirs alone. And yes, in cases of premeditated murder deemed "the worst of the worst," a penalty of death is what the wrongdoer deserves, what the victim is owed, and what the state should not hesitate in carrying out.

Other nations around the world allow for revenge—whether in the form of individual relief or under color of law. Of course, what many of these nations have in common is that they are located in regions of the world where law enforcement is otherwise weak, so the state deputizes its citizens to settle their own scores. And it works. Everyone is on notice that avengers will pursue wrongdoers based on the law of the talion, and all revenge-takers are aware that if their vengeance is disproportionate, they will have violated the boundaries of revenge, with the consequence of possibly igniting a blood feud—the recycling of vengeance that knows no end. Disproportionate revenge—the taking of more than an eye—loses the moral authority of revenge because the strict and established rules of vengeance are exceeded.

And other nations, including Cambodia and Iran, better incorporate vengeance within their legal systems. (Iran's and Cambodia's human-rights records are a different matter entirely.) There is a more honest and humane recognition of the personal investment that victims have in seeing justice done. Indeed, in some cases they become full participants. Instead of being shunted aside and marginalized, their need for vengeance is seen as natural and healthy rather than pathological and sickening.

What works best is when the legal system can serve as a safe environment in which victims can experience revenge vicariously, all in the context of justice being done on their behalf. What we have now in the United States achieves the very opposite: Victims have no role in trials until sentencing, if at all, and they largely serve the symbolic purpose of being witnesses to the crime rather than parties to the underlying action. Prosecutors are not their attorneys; they work for the state. Victims are the only interested parties without counsel. Prosecutors have little obligation to consult with them regarding plea bargains and trial strategies. And even when victims are heard, through "victim impact statements," there are often limits on how many can speak and how long they can speak. It is a patronizing, highly marginalized experience. And it comes too late in the process, only after the determination of guilt, and ultimately can have little bearing on the punishment the wrongdoer receives.

And in cases where the legal system fails to properly punish the wrongdoer, victims who choose to become avengers are treated as common criminals. They are punished with little appreciation for why they broke the law. It should never be forgotten, however, that avengers are not deliberate murderers. They are otherwise law-abiding citizens who came before the law in good faith expecting justice to be done. Instead they found themselves with no choice other than to eventually take justice into their own hands.

At the very least, the law has to truly acknowledge the experiences of victims and how they came to be victims. And the best way to accomplish that is to provide an opportunity to memorialize their loss by giving them a meaningful day in court.

In August 2012, Norway placed on trial Anders Behring Breivik. A year earlier, Breivik had detonated a bomb in Oslo, killing eight people and wounding many more. He then went to Utoya Island, where he machine-gunned and murdered 69 people, mostly teenagers who were participating in a youth camp.

Before the trial started, the court appointed 174 lawyers, paid for by the state, to represent the interests of each victim during both the investigation of the crime and the trial. The court heard 77 autopsy reports, for each of the dead, including technical details about how each of them died. After each report, a photo of the victim was projected onto a screen and the audience listened to a short description of who the victim was, and the promising lives extinguished. The survivors of the crime were also permitted to speak in open court—at an early stage of the trial, long before final sentencing. And even before final sentencing, representatives of the victims' families were given an opportunity to speak to the incalculable horror and magnitude of their loss. So, morally, Norway gets it right because they permit victims a form of vicarious revenge. On the other hand, the trial had an arguably immoral and unjust outcome when Breivik was sentenced to a scant 21 years in prison, the maximum under Norwegian law. Thus it's not clear whether these victims, despite the meaningful and respectful role they played at trial, ended up feeling avenged.

Justice is satisfied only when wrongdoers are properly punished and victims have their voices heard and losses avenged. The emotional component of vengeance matters greatly. Courtrooms sanitized of these feelings offer no moral closure. And the public loses faith in the law—with all its false outcomes and broken promises. The face of vengeance and the face of justice are ultimately mirror images, staring back at each other, occupying the same scale, measure for measure. Ω

[Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, and law professor; the author of the widely praised stories and novels, Elijah Visible: Stories (1996), Second Hand Smoke (1999), The Golems of Gotham (2002), and Payback: The Case for Revenge (2013). His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Huffington Post, among other national publications. Rosenbaum received a B.A. (summa cum laude) from the University of Florida, an M.P.A. from Columbia University, and a J.D. (cum laude) from the University of Miami. He is the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law and Director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at the Fordham University School of Law.]

Copyright © 2013 The Chronice of Higher Education

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Dixie Chicks Were Ashamed Of The Dubster In 2003 & This Blogger Is STILL ASHAMED That The War Criminal (aka The Dubster) Still Brings Disgrace To The Lone Star State

While Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, and Emily Robison didn't serve in the military in Iraq, they still count as Unknown Casualties of that Great Mistake. In 2003, before massed NATO troops (mainly U.S. forces) prepared to invade Iraq because of the lies about nuclear weapons and Iraqi participation in the 9/11 plot, the Dixie Chicks were on tour in England. During a March 14, 2003 appearance, Natalie Maines commented that the Dixie Chicks were "... ashamed the President of the United States [was] from Texas. Truer words about The Dubster have never been spoken. However, the Chicks were victimized by a Dumbo/pre-Teabagger lynch mob and the three performers were driven from the music business, never to return as The Dixie Chicks. It this is a (fair & balanced) description of a national disgrace, so be it.

[x TM]
Chicks In The Wilderness
By John Spong

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The thing nobody ever remembers about the Dixie Chicks is how much fun they were. But back when the nineties were winding down, when the Chicks were making the leap from hot-selling country act to objects of a national crush, the only thing they appeared to take seriously was their music. They were ubiquitous then, a brassy girl group that could outplay and outsing any band in Nashville, with runway-model looks and a refreshingly genuine manner. Their image was equal parts strong-willed big sister, freewheeling college dorm mate, and potty-mouthed flirty girl at the end of the bar, a combination that drew country fans of both sexes and all ages and then soaked up more listeners from outside the genre. Their appeal was infectious. They were clearly enjoying every minute of their ride to the top.

Jog your memory for specific examples. Picture their old magazine ads for Candie’s shoes. One showed them packed into a bathtub with giggling faces and goofy sneakers sticking out of the bubbles, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison clutching their fiddle and banjo while singer Natalie Maines belted a song into a scrub brush. Another had them stuffed in the back of a limo, all glammed-up and chowing down on fast food. Or watch their videos on YouTube. For their first single, 1997’s “I Can Love You Better,” they introduced themselves to the world with lilting three-part harmonies while riding into the frame seated on an airport baggage carousel. In 1999’s ridiculously catchy “Ready to Run,” they did street stunts on BMX bikes and started a food fight, all while wearing wedding dresses and running shoes. And in 2000’s “Goodbye Earl,” with its “nah-na-na-na-nah” chorus and “Thriller”-style choreography, they turned a song about killing an abusive husband into a delirious girl-power dance party.

But the joy of the Chicks came through best when they performed live, so stick with YouTube to find clips from their 2000 NBC concert special, "Dixie Chicks: On the Fly." It’s just network television, which means you can expect a little cheese, like the show’s running gag that the girls, as everyone in Nashville referred to them back then, are new to the high life. In one prerecorded vignette, Natalie mistakes the bidet in their fancy hotel bathroom for a water fountain. In another Emily fails miserably in a tutorial on smashing her banjo on stage, à la Pete Townshend. But that’s all filler. The point of the program was to capture the Chicks on their first headlining tour, an 88-date monster that sold $47.3 million in tickets. When the curtain comes up, or rather when the zipper falls—the curtain was designed to look like the front of a giant pair of jeans—the band bounces into the Celtic-tinged intro to “Ready to Run.”

Martie is the only Chick visible, standing on a riser and sawing on her fiddle in unison with a pennywhistle player hidden in the shadows. When the body of the song hits, the lights come on and the three Chicks march down stairs to the front of the stage. Their look is all sass and sparkle, with Martie in a sequined tube top and jeans, Emily in a sleek green skirt and halter top, and Natalie in a royal-blue minidress with black boots and wristbands. Martie looks the most like a country performer, always smiling and keeping eye contact with fans. Emily is more reserved, concentrating on her banjo and closing her eyes when she harmonizes. Natalie, however, is the show-stealer. With no instrument to play, she squares up to the mike like it’s a speed bag in a boxing gym. Her voice is strong and sharp, the kind you feel in your chest when you hear it. She punctuates the lyrics by cocking her head and throwing up her hands. During instrumental breaks she stomps to the back of the stage, waving her arms and spinning around. Most people would feel self-conscious dancing like that alone in their bedroom. Natalie acts as if the spotlight is the most natural place in the world for her.

The audience, to put it mildly, gets it. And they’re hardly all female. The crowd shots show plenty of guys singing and dancing in the aisles. But it’s the girls and women you notice. They stare at the Chicks and sing along with every verse and then, on the choruses, turn and sing to one another. There’s a sisterhood thing happening, a collective sense of ecstasy and ownership and pride. You get the feeling watching the younger faces that every time the Dixie Chicks took the stage, an arena full of girls decided to start a band, just as boys once did watching the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The show closes the only way it could, with “Wide Open Spaces,” the Chicks’ song about dawning womanhood that somehow became an anthem for young girls and their moms and dads. Martie’s fiddle soars over Emily’s chiming banjo, while the fans—who know well that Emily had to fight just to get her banjo on the record—sing along with Natalie: “She needs wide open spaces / Room to make her big mistakes.” Natalie turns the mike around and holds it out to the audience as the fans carry the song home. As concert tropes go, it’s pretty well-worn, but it doesn’t seem contrived here. These fans feel like that song is theirs.

Then the clip ends. And it’s hard not to wonder what happened to that band. Because nobody pictures giant zippers and family sing-alongs when they think of the Chicks anymore. Mention of the group now conjures images of an embattled protest band, free-speech crusaders who took the stage looking more like the Clash than any musicians Nashville ever produced. But even that idea of the Chicks is dated. These days Martie and Emily are waiting to release their second CD as the Court Yard Hounds, and Natalie has her first solo CD due out in May. And neither album will sound or sell like the Dixie Chicks.

The short answer to what happened is known in band lore as the Incident. In March 2003, on the brink of the Iraq war, Natalie told a London audience that the Chicks were ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas. Prior to that moment, they looked like surefire enshrinees to the Country Music Hall of Fame, poised, perhaps, to become the biggest act in the genre’s history. In barely five years, their first three records had sold 28 million copies. Their then-current album, Home, had sold 6 million in six months. But in the ten years since Natalie spoke those words, none of those records has sold even one million more copies, and the Dixie Chicks as an entity scarcely exists. How could an impromptu bit of between-song banter cause so much damage? And why did millions of fans never forgive them?

The fact is, none of it was nearly that simple.

About a half hour into "Shut Up & Sing," the 2006 documentary about the Chicks, the band’s longtime manager, Simon Renshaw, gives this nutshell history of their early career. “I met the Chicks in 1994,” he says in a gruff voice laced with an English accent. “There they were, and they had their hair really big, and they had the hoop dresses on, and the spangles, and the cowboy hats. And they went onstage and they performed these songs, which were pretty bad. Basically western swing, very old-fashioned, very not-contemporary. But the one thing that was very, very clear was that they were three beautiful girls, and incredibly talented, and they could really play. And if they had a willingness to kind of, like, change direction, moving more into a contemporary country music space, there actually could be a really interesting slot for them.” The description omits a lot of details, as a nutshell must, the main one being that when Renshaw first started steering those “three beautiful girls,” Natalie Maines was not one of them.

The Dixie Chicks began as buskers on Dallas’s McKinney Avenue in 1989. There were four of them then, all seasoned bluegrass players, even though Martie was a freshman at SMU and Emily just a high school sophomore at Greenhill. The sisters’ parents were schoolteachers who introduced them to music early, then drove them to stops on the Texas bluegrass circuit as they grew up. Along the way they met guitarist Robin Macy and bassist Laura Lynch, women in their early thirties who would round out the group, splitting vocals and bringing a smart business sense. They settled on a sound—equal parts bluegrass and B-movie singing cowboy—and a look. Dressed in fringed skirts, Western shirts, and cowgirl boots, the Chicks moved quickly from street corners to coffeehouses, then to clubs, and finally to the studio. Their first record, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, came out on Dallas’s Crystal Clear label in late 1990.

By the time they released their next record, Little Ol’ Cowgirl, in 1992, they were one of the biggest bands in Dallas and building a following with alternative-country fans around the state. But as the sisters matured, their ambition grew too. They wanted to be country stars. Macy bristled at their desire for an updated sound—Little Ol’ Cowgirl featured drums and steel guitar—and subsequently left the band. What remained was the trio that Renshaw discovered.

They were already remarkably successful for a regional act, big enough to have an office, an administrative assistant, and their own bus. “That was the Tuna Shoe,” remembers their original drummer, Tom Van Schaik. “It was a beige RV, but the inside walls, couches, and chairs were all pink. We had to take the fixtures out of the bathroom to use it for storage, but still, having a bus meant you’d made it. I got a paycheck every two weeks. We didn’t meet at the back of the van each night to divvy up tips.” Other acts blanched at the intensity of the Chicks’ workload. They took every gig offered, from Sea World and Six Flags shows to wedding receptions, birthday parties, and Ross Perot’s employee picnics. They did well enough singing the National Anthem at Texas Rangers games that George W. Bush, then the team’s managing partner, hired them to perform at his inaugural ball after he was elected governor. “Here’s how hard they were working,” says longtime Austin DJ Bob Cole, now at KOKE-FM. “I met them at the old KVET building when they were taking a record around, trying to get it played. And I don’t mean to sound disparaging, but it was hot out, and when I walked into the lobby, I could smell them.”

In 1994 they hooked up with Renshaw, who had worked with Nashville acts Clint Black and Doug Supernaw. Music Row was already aware of the Chicks and impressed by their organization; they sold more merchandise—T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coloring books—than most national country acts. But their image and sound were too gimmicky, and every major label had passed on them at least once. Renshaw persuaded Blake Chancey, an A&R rep at Sony Nashville, to see the band live, after which Chancey took a calculated risk. He gave them a developmental deal, which came with no guarantees. The Chicks would record demos, and if Sony liked them, a record would get cut.

Their first attempts were good but not great. Some in the studio concluded that Lynch’s voice wasn’t radio-ready, an opinion that had been whispered to the sisters before. “Simon came and met with me after three months and said Martie and Emily wanted to change lead singers,” recalls Chancey. “He said they had two candidates to replace her.” One was Natalie, a descendant of Lubbock music royalty. Her great-uncle had taught Buddy Holly some of his first guitar chords, and her father, Lloyd Maines, was a sought-after steel guitarist and producer in Texas. He’d worked with the Chicks and given them a CD of Natalie singing. They were impressed enough to book a gig with her in Austin and invite Chancey, who in turn was blown away. This was a lineup that would sell.

Natalie’s impact was immediate. Just 21 years old, she was a funny, brash force of nature, wholly uninterested in the cowgirl shtick that preceded her. The Western costumes were shelved and the yodeling numbers dropped from the set lists. The Alison Krauss CDs played on the tour bus now split time with the sound track to Grease. In the studio Chancey enlisted producer Paul Worley, the Sony Nashville executive vice president in charge of A&R, to help refine the Chicks’ sound. Negotiating a new direction was tense at times. “We were five people trying to make a record,” says Chancey, “and all five never agreed on anything. It wasn’t ever even the same three against two. We were all moving around like a chess set.” The producers brought in a song by Nashville songwriters, “There’s Your Trouble,” and Natalie hated it. She introduced “Wide Open Spaces,” a song by the Groobees, an Amarillo act her dad had produced, and Chancey balked at it. But the creative tension was working; both songs made the cut. Most days ended with a beer run, followed on at least one occasion by a recorded burping contest.

The finished album, Wide Open Spaces, started a buzz at Sony Nashville. The sound was unmistakably country, but it had an edge. The girls had lobbied to include songs from poppier, non-Nashville songwriters like Maria McKee and Bonnie Raitt. That, combined with a new, more casual look, gave label execs a sense that the Chicks could attract the best kind of following—not only country fans but listeners who thought they didn’t like country music. Sony needed that to happen. At that point, every other Nashville label had at least one huge act carrying the rest of the roster, like Garth Brooks at Capitol and Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn at Arista. Sony Nashville had been limping along with Patty Loveless, Collin Raye, and Joe Diffie, none of whom had ever had multiplatinum records. The Chicks had the potential to change all that.

But they also showed the potential to cause a unique kind of headache. In August 1997 they were introduced to the rest of the Sony family at a company-wide conference. Every Sony division was represented, from rap to rock. Craig Campbell, the Sony Nashville publicist assigned to the Chicks, was there with the girls. “Each label group had thirty minutes to talk about new artists and have one of them play. We brought the Chicks, and I remember Natalie onstage saying, ‘We get confused a lot with the Spice Girls, so we’ve come up with some names for each other.’ I can’t remember all three, but one of them was Slutty Spice. Then she said, ‘People get our band name mixed up, calling us Dixie this or Dixie that. We’ve even heard the Dixie Cunts.’ The whole room was like, ‘Can she say that?’ They weren’t used to hearing that from country artists.”

A lot of gears go into motion when a Nashville label decides to give an act the big push. A team is created from the label’s various departments: the artist development people who will settle on an image, marketers who will translate that to styling and packaging, publicists who will handle press coverage, and promoters who will lobby to get the songs on the radio. It’s a huge collaborative effort with a lot of together time. Staff accompany the artists to every concert, interview, and photo and video shoot. They become like family. The stars go to the staff’s weddings, and the staff to the stars’. And if the biggest dreams are realized, they’ll all celebrate together at platinum-record parties and awards shows for years to come.

The Chicks made much of the team’s job easy. “One of the main concepts was to project an attitude of freedom and fun,” says Allen Butler, the president of Sony Nashville from 1993 until 2003. “These girls and their music are fun. Wouldn’t it be fun to go see them? Wouldn’t it be fun to buy their records?” Margie Hunt, then a senior director of marketing at Sony, says the label essentially let the Chicks style themselves. “Once an artist was signed, I’d put up eight-by-ten headshots of the ten top stars on a wall and take a step back to see what differentiates them visually—and the females were interchangeable,” she says. “You didn’t get that feeling with these girls. So many artists respond to trends, try to anticipate what’s going to be cool. These girls knew who they were.”

The harder part was getting the Chicks on country radio, which has more power in the industry than even the labels. Unlike other genres, country music has no path to commercial success other than through radio play. Performers have to master the art of the schmooze, to become adept at charming programming directors. Even after Congress deregulated radio, in 1996, allowing companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus to buy up hundreds of stations, artists still had to make those rounds. When the Chicks released their first single, “I Can Love You Better,” in October 1997, they visited 120-some-odd country stations, yucking it up with DJs. “One of the first things we ever discussed,” says Chancey, “was ‘Don’t turn your back on country radio, and they will never turn their back on you.’ ”

“I Can Love You Better” moved up the charts in fits and starts, but even though it stalled, it never fell off. The long climb gave Campbell, the publicist, time to get the Chicks attention on nontraditional outlets. He booked them on daytime talk shows like RuPaul’s and Sally Jessy Raphael’s, expanding their exposure beyond typical country fans. The song peaked at number seven in the spring of 1998, and the budding Chicks army was eager for a second single. “There’s Your Trouble,” the song Natalie hated, was released in April and, with the full support of country radio, quickly went to number one.

About that time, Chancey figured out that something special was happening. “I went with my sister to pick up her daughter from elementary school. There were all these little girls in the minivan, and one of them said, ‘Can you put the CD on song number four?’ My sister hit it, and it’s ‘There’s Your Trouble.’ Thirty seconds later they’re all singing at the top of their lungs. I went, ‘Wow.’ When you get mothers and daughters singing together, that’s winning the lottery.”

Chancey had no idea. In June Wide Open Spaces, which had been released at the end of January, was certified gold, for 500,000 copies sold. While the label was planning a gold-record party for the end of summer, the album was certified platinum, and the trajectory never leveled off. The third and fourth singles, one of which was “Wide Open Spaces,” the song Chancey dismissed, went to number one as well. The Chicks collected two Country Music Association Awards that September, and the following February they received two Grammys, drawing huge attention just for their clothes, black outfits festooned with safety pins designed by MTV’s "House of Style" regular Todd Oldham. Backstage that night, the reality of their new lives started to sink in. “Elton John came up to us and said, ‘Man, I love your record!’ ” says Chancey. “Then he started naming all the songs on Wide Open Spaces and singing them. Our mouths were open and flies were coming out.”

The team worked hard to manage the momentum. “We had to get across that the girls had real talent and were not just pretty faces,” says Margie Hunt. “People had to see them perform. Because the minute they saw Emily rip on the banjo or Martie on the fiddle, that would just lay them out.” But though the Chicks were now popular enough to headline shows, they’d draw only eight thousand people at best. Plotting with Renshaw and the band’s booking agency, Buddy Lee Attractions, the team planned to maximize the Chicks’ reach. “There was one country star playing stadiums at that point: George Strait,” says Tony Conway, who ran Buddy Lee. “Strait’s traveling Country Music Festival started at noon and went all day. That had people like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney—and the Dixie Chicks. That put them in front of thirty thousand to forty thousand people a night.” In a shrewd move, Renshaw also booked the Chicks on Lilith Fair, the all-female touring festival that featured rock acts like Sheryl Crow and the Pretenders. Their fan base continued to grow and diversify.

But before the year ended, the band needed to produce a second album. This would be a different experience from the first one. For Wide Open Spaces, most of Sony Nashville didn’t even know the Chicks were in the studio, and they proceeded at a leisurely pace. This time they had to hustle and meet high expectations. But with the first record they’d also needed to scrounge for songs. Now they were inundated with pitches by Nashville songwriters wanting a Chicks cut. One A&R rep who worked on the record estimated that he listened to more than a thousand songs. The Chicks were also writing their own material, including “Cowboy Take Me Away,” a song Martie had co-written as a wedding present to Emily and her new husband, country singer Charlie Robison. Natalie brought in a song she’d co-written, “Sin Wagon,” which provided another opportunity to butt heads with producers. The song featured a sexual reference that concerned label execs, and Worley, who was co-producing again, brought it up with her. “I asked if she really wanted to hear young fans saying, ‘Mommy, what’s mattress dancing?’ She said, ‘I grew up singing “Like a Virgin.” Do you think I knew what a virgin was?’ ” Natalie agreed to a slight rewrite, but instead of deleting anything, she added a punch line: “That’s right, I said ‘mattress dancin’.’ ”

The second album, Fly, debuted at number one on both the country and pop album charts in September 1999. That meant yet another party, capped off by what had become a Chicks ritual. Early on, the girls had decided that certain career milestones—number one singles, number one albums, gold and platinum certifications—would be commemorated by the inking of a chicken-foot tattoo on top of their feet. Team members weren’t required to participate, but the invitation was extended. “I’d never had a tattoo in my life,” says Mike Kraski, who was a sales and marketing vice president at the time. “I had told them I would get one if they ever got to four million units, but I didn’t stick with the program. So one night after a bowling alley party, I was staggering around in one of the Chicks’ feather boas when they reminded me of my promise. Somewhere I’ve got a picture of Natalie drawing chicks’ feet on me in a tattoo parlor.”

The Chicks were now country music’s hottest act, but the distinction carried as many limitations as possibilities. Country is something of a ghetto. It’s always been an underdog genre, its fans subject to enough hick-and-rube jokes for a bunker mentality to have taken root. Listeners turn on their radios expecting to hear lyrics about lives that resemble their own, sung by artists they can relate to. So the male legends of country music have maintained humble, everyman personas, and the females have been polite girls next door. And none of them have ever gotten too big to maintain a personal tie with their audience. That’s why even though Jay-Z might not conduct thirty-minute meet-and-greets with radio-contest winners before every show, George Strait still does.

But fans don’t expect artists to be loyal just to them; they must remain loyal to the art form itself. They’re expected to sound like country acts and to be content to remain in the genre. Artists who polish their sound to chase pop success have always faced a backlash, as Faith Hill learned in the nineties and Taylor Swift is learning now. The critique such acts hear—“That ain’t country”—isn’t a suggestion about where to stock their CDs in the record store. It is an accusation of betrayal.

The arbiter of all this is country radio, which defines what real country is. The determination can seem random. Some acts aren’t country enough; others are too country. But the definition does evolve, and the innovative acts are the ones who play the rest of the game well enough to get away with bending the rules. Ernest Tubb could launch the honky-tonk era, complete with forbidden instruments like drums and steel guitar, partly because he was the kind of guy who would turn his guitar over at the end of every show to reveal the word “Thanks” written on its back. When Emily insisted her banjo be kept high in the mix during the recording of Wide Open Spaces, Sony fought back because country radio wouldn’t play songs with banjo. The Chicks held their ground and then sweet-talked their way onto the air. And when they received the CMA for Vocal Group of the Year, in 1998, Martie was careful to sound a gracious note. “Thanks for letting us color outside the lines,” she said.

But as their popularity grew, they started to feel hemmed in by Nashville’s confines. Initially Sony Nashville managed to keep pace. After Wide Open Spaces sold better than all other country groups’ records combined in 1998, the label renegotiated the Chicks’ contract. Typically this happens after a second or third album, an acknowledgment of the basic unfairness of record deals. But the Chicks were on a faster track. In February 1999 the label quietly bumped their royalty rate from 13 percent, the industry standard, to 16 percent.

And then came Fly. For the first seven months after its late-August release, it sold roughly half a million copies a month. “Once it hit about five million,” says Worley, “you could see there was something bigger going on than any of us ever dreamed. But because of accounting cycles, the Chicks hadn’t gotten paid. So I called New York [Sony’s parent office] and said, ‘You guys need to write them a check. They’re fixing to tour and need money to do it.’ But New York wouldn’t hear it, and that put the Chicks in a position of having to go to war with the label.”

The Chicks took the dispute public, a move not without precedent. Garth Brooks had used a similar strategy in 1992, repeatedly telling interviewers that he was considering early retirement, until eventually Capitol Nashville rubber-stamped a deal reading like Garth’s letter to Santa. The Chicks were less subtle. In October 2000, while out on the Fly tour, they groused about Sony’s accounting practices in an interview with Dan Rather. “I don’t even have a million dollars in the bank,” said Natalie. “Tell me where this money goes. I have no idea.”

The spat turned into the biggest public pissing match Nashville had ever seen. After nine months with no headway, the band had a lawyer send Sony a letter declaring the Chicks free agents. Sony quickly filed suit to enforce the contract or collect $100 million in damages. The Chicks sued back, accusing Sony of “systematic thievery” and seeking $4.1 million in unpaid royalties. Then they joined rock artists like Courtney Love and Don Henley in a campaign protesting the unfairness of the record industry. But those steps paled next to the hardball that followed.

In October 2001 the Chicks booked time in an Austin studio and started recording on their own. They spread word that they were creating a bluegrass album and shopping it to other labels. Because of the surprise multiplatinum success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound track, bluegrass was in vogue, and Chicks fans started clamoring to hear the new music. Sony, which needed a big record by year’s end to make its bottom line, blinked. In June the Chicks signed a new deal giving them a 20 percent royalty rate, a $20 million signing advance, and their own imprint, Open Wide Records. But even more significantly, Sony agreed to let them be handled by New York instead of Nashville. With their loyal country fans firmly in hand, the Chicks wanted Sony New York to make them pop stars.

The news hit Music Row hard, and a joke around town went “Open Wide Records—as in, take your medicine.” At Sony Nashville, the team that had worked with the band for five years broke up and moved on to other acts, except for the promoters, who would still be needed to get the Chicks on country radio. “We are a family business,” says Worley. “People put their hearts and integrity and relationships on the line for the artists. So for that to be yanked away and given to New York was a slap in the face.” But the hurt feelings ran more to disappointment than resentment, especially when Nashville got to hear the new record. It was brilliant and, ironically enough, far more country than anything else on the radio.

Home was released in August 2002. It was the girls’ first mature record, deeper and smarter than Spaces or Fly, an all-acoustic collection of rave-ups, love songs, and lullabies. Unchaperoned by label grown-ups, the Chicks had written or selected every song. The first single was “Long Time Gone,” a rousing stomper that featured a swipe at country radio. “They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard,” sang Natalie. “They got money, but they don’t have Cash.” Home debuted at number one on both the country and pop album charts, just as Fly had done.

At that point, none of the Nashville rules seemed to pertain to the Chicks. Natalie violated the country music equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow country artist”—when she said Toby Keith’s post-9/11 hit, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” sounded ignorant. Then the Chicks stepped on even more toes, scheduling a national on-sale date for tickets to the 52 shows on their upcoming tour. In the past, country booking agents had always coordinated with one another to stagger acts’ show dates and ticket sales so they didn’t overlap. But the Chicks’ new booking agent hadn’t bothered with that. “Should we route [our tour] around other acts, or should they route around us?” Renshaw asked Billboard.

Still, every move seemed to work to perfection. The Chicks’ new brain trust arranged for them to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in January 2003, followed by a People magazine cover and an appearance on Saturday Night Live. The band won three more Grammys in late February, and when tour tickets went on sale on March 1, they sold 867,000 in just the first weekend, a $49 million haul. When the tour kicked off in London one week later, the Chicks’ version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was the number seven pop single in the U.S. and another song, “Travelin’ Soldier,” about the sacrifices of war, was the number one country song. Everything they’d been working for, the crossover sales and stardom, was squarely in their grasp.

The Chicks took the stage in London on Monday, March 10, during a singular period in American history. One hundred thousand U.S. troops were amassed in Kuwait, waiting for the green light to invade Iraq. In the States, where the country was still reeling from 9/11, opposition to the invasion had been drowned out by vocal supporters or rendered irrelevant by the war’s sheer inevitability. The press had yet to seriously question the Bush administration’s rationale for going in, and Congress had decisively authorized the move. The biggest fight brewing on Capitol Hill was the great “freedom fries” debate, a knock against the French for refusing to go in with us.

But the response to the war that the Chicks encountered in England was nothing like that. Just three weeks before, one million protesters had marched on London’s Hyde Park as part of a global protest that drew an estimated 30 million people. Natalie counted herself among the opposition, and those were the people she thought she was speaking to that night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a hundred-year-old, two-thousand-seat hall stacked with elegant balconies like a four-layer wedding cake. “Just so you know,” she said, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The Chicks then played a ballad, “More Love,” with an optimistic chorus, “If there’s ever an answer, it’s more love,” to the thunderous approval of the London crowd.

Nobody in the Chicks’ camp thought much of the comment after the show. But two days later, Renshaw had to shut down the forums on the band’s two websites. Country music news sites had posted reports of the quote from London newspapers, prompting angry fans to swamp the Chicks’ chat rooms. Renshaw met with the band to formulate a response. The scene is captured in "Shut Up & Sing"—the four of them sitting in a hotel room, where he mans a laptop while Natalie thinks aloud about ideas for a statement. Then Renshaw turns and faces the girls. “I don’t think we should shy away from controversy,” he says before adding, almost gleefully, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get them, like, burning CDs and banning you from the radio?”

It was an incredible misread of country music fans. Country’s response to 9/11 and the war on terror had been to send songs like Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” and Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to number one. Anger at the Chicks now became part of that reaction. Within days, country stations around the U.S. placed trash bins in their parking lots where listeners could discard their Chicks CDs. A Louisiana station hosted a “Chicks Bash,” where CDs and memorabilia were crushed by a 33,000-pound tractor. Though the Chicks released statements voicing support for the troops and apologizing for being disrespectful to the president, none of it stemmed the tide.

Back in Nashville, members of the old Sony team instinctively went into protect-the-franchise mode. But they were no longer involved in calling shots for the Chicks. “I was sitting at my desk when the news came across the wire,” says Sony Nashville’s Allen Butler, “and I knew, however innocently Natalie might have said it, that was the wrong place and time. New York noticed it immediately too, but they didn’t think it would be that serious. They had Springsteen and a lot of other outspoken artists.” Mike Kraski, by then executive vice president and general manager at Sony Nashville, went so far as to formulate a response. “I didn’t think Martie and Emily shared Natalie’s politics,” he says. “If they’d have backed up a step and had Natalie say her mistake was saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I,’ they could have made it a conversation about where America was at that time. I shared that with New York, and they thanked me for my opinion.”

The blowback proceeded at a breakneck pace, driven at least partly by conservative Internet forums where phone numbers to country radio stations were posted. Thousands of protest calls were made. “You had death threats on all of us DJs,” says Bubba, one half of "Big D and Bubba," a syndicated morning show then based out of Baton Rouge. “But on top of that, people were calling our advertisers, businesses like furniture stores, and saying, ‘We’re going to boycott you because you advertise on the station that plays the Dixie Chicks.’ ” Bob Cole got similar calls on the Chicks’ home turf in Austin. “We tried to keep playing it,” he says, “but we got bomb threats and death threats.” The following week Cumulus Media issued a company-wide edict forbidding its 42 country stations from playing Chicks records, but that was almost unnecessary. Stations across the U.S. had already reached that decision. The Chicks’ number one country single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” fell off the charts in just two weeks.

But angry fans didn’t restrict their fury to radio. Smashed CDs were mailed to Sony Nashville, at least one of which was smeared with feces. Another was mailed to the home of a Sony A&R rep, presumably because he’d been thanked in the disc’s liner notes. Other country stars largely stayed silent, unwilling to risk getting tarred by association. Toby Keith, on the other hand, started flashing a Photoshopped image of Natalie hugging Saddam Hussein on a screen above the stage when he played “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” in concert.

The Chicks returned from overseas in early April, taking some comfort in the knowledge that tickets to the North American leg of the tour had already been sold. But that also worked against them. When other celebrities have faced such a crisis—Tiger Woods comes to mind—they’ve been able to drop from the public eye and let the controversy die down. The Chicks didn’t have that option. So they settled on a strategy that struck many, at least in Nashville, as tone-deaf. They would maintain a united front, and they’d stand their ground. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, an ever-defiant Natalie couldn’t put her heart into the obligatory fallen-celebrity apology. When Sawyer pushed, the best Natalie could muster was, “No, I’m not truly embarrassed that, you know, President Bush is from my state,” she said. “That’s not really what I care about.” The following week they appeared nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, their bodies painted with the hateful slurs they’d been hearing, names like “Dixie Sluts” and “Saddam’s Angels.” Three weeks after that, with their tour in full swing, they performed on the Academy of Country Music awards show in a live remote from Austin. Knowing the country world would be watching, Natalie wore a T-shirt with “F.U.T.K.” written on the front, another clear knock at Keith.

As the tour went on, protests were surprisingly few, but the radio boycott continued, as did the hate mail. Before a show in Dallas, Natalie received a death threat that authorities took seriously enough to provide a police security detail. But even then the Nashville establishment stayed out of the fight. Eventually the Chicks hit a breaking point. When the tour returned to Europe in September, Martie indicated to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that the band was through with country music. “We don’t feel a part of the country scene anymore,” she said. “It can’t be our home anymore.” Then she added, “No, we see ourselves now as a part of the large rock-and-roll family.”

The post-Incident Dixie Chicks bore no more resemblance to the America’s sweethearts in the Candie’s ads than that iteration did to the Dallas street-corner cowgirls. Onstage their look was almost militant, their clothes often black and Army green, the sleeves ripped from their shirts, and Natalie’s hair piled up like a mohawk. They had become darlings of the antiwar left, a crowd that saw Natalie as one of the few public figures who’d had the courage to speak out from the start. Their brutal treatment by right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News bunch had earned them the mantle of free-speech martyrs. The band embraced every bit of it. In the summer of 2004, as Bush geared up for reelection, Renshaw helped organize a series of fall concerts in swing states under the banner “Vote for Change.” The Chicks played eight dates with the liberal likes of James Taylor, REM, and Bruce Springsteen.

They were also putting together a new album. Recorded throughout much of 2005, Taking the Long Way was their means of working out all they’d been through. The feeling of the album was aggrieved defiance. Both the breakup songs and the new-love songs tore into old lovers who sounded like stand-ins for Nashville.“Lubbock or Leave It” railed against judgmental hypocrites in Natalie’s hometown, but all of country music was in the crosshairs. And the songs that addressed the turmoil directly, like the first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” were explicitly not conciliatory. The music was a pretty, pop-country hybrid, but that got lost under the weight of their statement. The Chicks were pissed off.

“I remember telling Natalie that if she let this turn her bitter, then the bad guys have won,” says Worley. “And she said, ‘Paul, if you had seven hundred credible death threats against you and your family, you would feel differently about that.’ Her point was well-taken. I don’t know how that must feel.”

The hard feelings persisted after the record’s release in May 2006. In a Time cover story headlined “Radical Chicks,” Natalie continued to poke the old wound. “I apologized for disrespecting the office of the president,” she said. “But I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.” It was Martie, though, who landed the final blow. “I’d rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it,” she said, “who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith.” Not surprisingly, when “Not Ready to Make Nice” was released the following month, country radio scarcely touched it. “They came out and said they didn’t want to be part of country radio,” says DJ Big D. His partner Bubba adds, “That took the monkey off radio’s back.”

Taking the Long Way quickly went to number one on both the country and pop album charts, but the reality of their new, post-Incident career set in soon after. Sales didn’t come close to matching those of the three previous albums. When tickets went on sale in June for their 43-date Accidents & Accusations Tour, not only was country radio refusing to play their music, it wouldn’t accept paid ads for their concerts. Except for a few shows in the Northeast and Canada, sales were abysmal. Though the Chicks scrambled to add 10 Canadian dates, they had to reschedule 12 in America and cancel 14 altogether.

In February 2007 the Chicks dominated the Grammys, winning a total of five awards, including the top three—for album, record, and song of the year. The New York Times called their wins vindication, pointing out that the band had not been nominated for anything at the recent CMA Awards. The transformation was complete. The Chicks were the toast of the pop music world. And country music itself had moved on.

Last November I traveled to Nashville to visit with former members of the Dixie Chicks’ Sony team. Based on an email exchange I’d had with Emily, I went with the understanding that the Chicks would cooperate on this story. But after arriving I had trouble confirming an appointment with Larry Pareigis, who used to be the head of radio promotion at Sony Nashville. He had helped keep “I Can Love You Better” from falling off the charts in late 1997 and dispatched his promotion reps to calm country radio in the spring of 2003. Finally he sent me an email saying he’d heard from Renshaw, who had informed him that the Chicks were not participating. As such, Pareigis wasn’t willing to be interviewed either. He was extremely polite about it. But as he’d explained earlier, even though he hadn’t worked with the Chicks in years, he still felt protective of them.

Everyone I talked to on Music Row expressed some measure of that loyalty, though it ran to the girls individually, as old friends, rather than to the band. And that makes sense, because despite a few Canadian dates set for this summer, the Dixie Chicks show few signs of life—no plans to record and precious little airplay. Emily and Charlie Robison divorced in 2008 and she now lives in San Antonio with their three kids as well as her boyfriend and their six-month-old daughter. The band she and Martie formed, Court Yard Hounds, released a self-titled CD in 2010 that sold about 200,000 copies, according to SoundScan—a respectable figure, though a far cry from the numbers the Chicks racked up in their glory days. Last summer they recorded a follow-up in Austin, where Martie, now also divorced, lives with her three daughters. But so far there’s no release date nor plans for a tour. Martie is occasionally spotted around town, and gossip in the music scene suggests that the sisters—along with Chicks management and Sony—are ready to revive the band, if only Natalie would get on board.

Publicly, Natalie shows no interest in doing so. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, and their two boys, but her distance from Nashville is more than geographic. She’s a fixture on Twitter, characteristically nervy and often political, but country music seldom comes up. When it does, like last year when she started a tweet-fight with a joke about singer Jason Aldean’s inability to stay on pitch, the scars are still visible. In the ensuing back and forth with irate country fans she wrote, “I haven’t been aware of country music in at least 6 years. It’s not my thing.” She added, “I used to follow it because I felt it was my job to know what was going on. I don’t think that anymore.” Her upcoming solo album was produced by light-soul folk rocker Ben Harper. Judging from its title cut, a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” it won’t be remotely country, and she promised as much in a January interview with Howard Stern. Tellingly, when Stern suggested that Martie and Emily were like Garfunkels to her Simon, the Chick who always spoke her mind offered only a slight correction, pointing out that the sisters already had a career when they invited her to join them. And later she said this: “I just don’t feel like it’s the Dixie Chicks’ time.”

She may well be right. But is that because country music abandoned the Dixie Chicks, or was it the other way around? And why did the whole situation get so out of hand? Everyone I spoke with in Nashville had an opinion. A lot of them alleged a conspiracy on the part of corporate radio, a theory once pushed by Renshaw and the Chicks, pointing to Cumulus’s official boycott and the well-known Republican ties of Clear Channel executives. But airplay statistics show that independent stations dropped the Chicks faster than the corporate chains. And even within the chains, airplay dropped faster in red states than blue, and at country stations as opposed to pop. And it fell fastest at stations near military bases. So the idea of a national, web-rousing boycott doesn’t pan out. The groundswell wasn’t organized, it was organic.

Noted country historian Robert K. Oermann believes Nashville abandoned the Chicks and attributes it to gender. “This would never have happened if they were men instead of women,” he says. “I think they were perceived as uppity before the Incident took place.” It’s hard to know how much weight to give that argument, because no artist, male or female, ever bucked Nashville convention to the extent the Chicks did. And even after they sued their label, stepped on other acts’ touring schedules, and picked a fight with Toby Keith, radio kept playing them and their records kept selling.

But there’s something to Oermann’s reasoning. The Chicks were uppity, but the problem wasn’t that they didn’t behave like proper ladies. The problem was that they didn’t behave like proper country stars. When Garth Brooks got crosswise with Capitol Nashville, he didn’t sue anyone or flirt with a new label, and he certainly didn’t start consorting with Courtney Love. He continued to play the Nashville game.

The Chicks quit doing that, and ultimately it hurt them more than gender or even politics. Tim McGraw later criticized Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and Carrie Underwood came out in support of marriage equality, but they kept playing the game and they’re still on country radio. The Chicks went to war against country music, and it’s unclear why they chose that route. Maybe they fought in defense of sincerely held beliefs. Maybe they felt betrayed by an industry that turned its back on them after they’d made it a lot of money. They may have been convinced country radio would never give them another chance, and they may have gambled that, refashioned as activists, they could join the ranks of the Springsteens and U2s.

In any event, ten years on, when most Americans view the Iraq war much the same way Natalie Maines did, there are still country stations that won’t play the Dixie Chicks. The shame is that country music is not better off without them. Forget all the new fans they brought to the genre and the new directions they were pushing the music; they made great country records. And but for the Incident, there would be two or three more Dixie Chicks albums in existence. They’d have written and recorded songs about their changing lives—about marriage and motherhood and divorce—that could have become anthems for fans growing up with them, just like “Wide Open Spaces” once was. But for whatever reason, and whomever one wants to blame, those records never got made.

I spent my last afternoon in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a remarkable facility, a multimillion-dollar downtown complex that serves as a testament not just to the stars who created the music but to the massive wealth the industry generates. Throughout two floors of state-of-the-art, multimedia exhibit space, the story of country music unfolds in its apparent entirety, from Jimmie Rodgers’s train conductor’s cap to Loretta Lynn’s coal-miner’s-daughter dress to Taylor Swift’s rhinestone-studded flapper dress.

The largest displays are devoted to the biggest stars, but, knowing a little of the history already, I was struck by how many of them had contentious relationships with Nashville. One of Hank Williams’ suits was exhibited, even though habitual drunkenness got him fired from the Grand Ole Opry, in 1952. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were well represented, even though they established the Bakersfield scene that competed with Nashville in the sixties, as was Willie Nelson, who ditched Music Row to start the outlaw movement in Austin in the seventies. There’s even a display case for Gram Parsons’s famous marijuana-leaf Nudie suit, although he was never associated with mainstream country music and was generally reviled in Nashville when he died of an overdose, in 1973.

But nowhere in the museum was there any mention of the Dixie Chicks. This, even though the Chicks are the best-selling female group in American history and even though the Incident represents one of country music’s greatest intrusions into the American consciousness. The hall of fame gave them nothing. It was as if they never happened.

In February that changed, when the hall put on display the Todd Oldham–designed safety-pin dresses that caused such a stir at the 1999 Grammys. These are the first Dixie Chicks artifacts to be exhibited at the museum since the Incident. Whether country fans let them stay up remains to be seen. Ω

[Senior Editor John Spong holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 1997, after a brief yet dramatically unfulfilling stint as a civil litigator in Austin, he joined Texas Monthly as a fact-checker. He became a staff writer in 2002.]

Copyright © 2013 Emmis Publishing dba Texas Monthly

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