Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dear Willie Nelson: Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?

Lest I should be accused of hypocrisy, let me state for the record: As a general matter, I have no problem with artists, including pop musicians and Hollywood actors, spouting off on politics. In fact, it seems rather unsurprising that they would, given that it’s an artist’s job to observe the world and the experiences of the humans who occupy it, and to report back on his or her observations. That’s kind of what artists do. And since that’s what they do – observing and reporting on things that affect people – you’d expect they’d be fairly adept at it, observing and reporting, and that they would therefore be inclined to (a) have opinions and (b) express them.

So, why shouldn’t an artist apply those skills to politics? After all, politics affects the lives of humans almost as much, and sometimes more so, than other commonplace subjects of art – love, relationships, family – so it seems kind of artificial to say to any artist, even a musician or an actor, you can write or speak about every major force that affects people’s lives except politics.

And although we constantly hear media wonks (mostly conservatives media wonks) say that actors and musicians should stay out of politics, that’s really a modern conceit. In fact, throughout history artists routinely addressed the major political and social issues of their day; and not only was that not controversial, it was expected. No one ever told Pablo Picasso that he shouldn’t have painted Guernica; nobody ever told William Shakespeare that he shouldn’t have written those English History plays (the purpose of which was to explain the legitimacy of the Tudor monarchy after the Wars of the Roses); nobody ever told George Orwell not to write Animal Farm or 1984 (not to mention Homage to Catalonia); or told Ernest Hemingway not to write For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But if a pop musician or a film actor writes or speaks about politics, certain folks get their noses out of joint. That’s bizarre.

Okay, but here’s the thing. Not all artists – particularly, not all musicians – are, in fact, equally adept at analyzing complex political and social issues. So even though observation of and reporting on life in general is within the typical artist’s wheelhouse … individual results may vary.

Which brings me to this, from Talking Points Memo:

If you’re running for President on a legalization platform and can’t secure country singer and proud pothead Willie Nelson’s endorsement, you probably should just go home. Fortunately for Republican candidate Gary Johnson, Nelson announced his support on Tuesday.

Nelson met with Johnson after a performance in his native Texas before committing the Teapot Party, a group he founded to advocate for ending restrictions on marijuana, to backing the former New Mexico governor’s campaign.

“I am truly gratified to have the endorsement of such an iconic entertainer, philanthropist, innovator and champion for individual rights as Willie Nelson,” Johnson said in a press release by the group “Not only is he a superstar talent, he is a bold advocate for social change. Americans are demanding the freedom and opportunity to pursue their dreams without interference from a heavy-handed government, and Willie Nelson lends a tremendous voice to those demands.”

According to the release, Johnson is the first presidential candidate to ever receive the group’s backing. Nelson personally backed Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) in the 2004 and 2008 Democratic primaries.

(Hat tip to Alan Colmes’ Liberaland.)

As you may know, Gary Johnson is a favorite of Pres. Obama’s chief “liberal” critic Glenn Greenwald (who’s really more of a libertarian than a liberal, but whatev). Never mind that Johnson “once said he gave his girlfriend ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as a bottom line guide to understanding him[,] … opposes the minimum wage, and believes Roe v. Wade should be overturned”; he’s in favor of legalizing marijuana. So that’s good enough for Willie.

Really? We’ve got two wars going on (three if you count Libya); we’re battling the Tea Party over the Affordable Care Act, workers’ rights, the budget, the environment – not to mention nominations to the federal bench, including likely future Supreme Court nominations. And what you really care about is weed?


Well, that won’t stop me from loving Willie Nelson’s music; but when it comes to political advocacy, I’ll leave that to other, better voices. Like, say, the guy who wrote “Atlantic City,” or “American Skin (41 Shots),” or “Streets of Philadelphia” … There’s a little more to that guy than, you know, weed. He’s a little more adept and a little more nuanced when it comes to observing and commenting on our political environment; and he’s the guy who said this about then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008:

In my job, I travel the world, and occasionally play big stadiums, just like [Barack] Obama. I’ve continued to find [that], wherever I go, America remains a repository of people’s hopes, possibilities and desires, and that, despite the terrible erosion to our standing around the world, accomplished by our recent administration, we remain, for many, a house of dreams.

One thousand George Bush’s and one thousand Dick Cheney’s will never be able to tear that house down. Our sacred house of dreams has been abused, looted and left in a terrible state of disrepair. It needs care, it needs saving, it needs defending against those who would sell it down the river for power or a quick buck. It needs strong arms, hearts and minds.

It needs someone with [Barack] Obama’s understanding, temperateness, deliberativeness, maturity, compassion, toughness and faith to help us rebuild our house once again.

And you know what? Two and a half years later, I still think that’s the case. So I’ll go with that guy – with that musician and that presidential candidate.

Sorry, Willie.

[At the top of the post: the current incarnation of Little Feat doing “Willin’” and “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” originally from Waiting for Columbus (1978).]

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. I agree with you about celebrities and their roles in politics. But sometimes you just have to sigh, like with Willie here (Willie was a big supporter of Kucinich in '04 and '08), or with Arlo who endorsed Ron Paul in '08. I'm sure Arlo was impressed with Paul's anti-war stance, but still...geez.

  2. Hey Dave, here's an update for you:
    Willie Nelson Changes His Tune | Cannabis Culture Magazine