In Defense of Michelle Shocked

By Ross Altman

[Ed. The opinions are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of FolkWorks]

michelle_shockedI am shocked, shocked that there is gambling in Casablanca. And I am shocked, shocked that Michelle Shocked actually said something shocking. Apparently others were too, since she has suddenly found herself the target of cancelled bookings in the wake of her shocking comments on the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Newsflash: Michelle Shocked has been trading on the shock value of her opinions, persona and once in a while her music ever since she brought out her first album with a photo of herself being arrested at an antiwar demonstration.

It is precisely her ability to shock that got her those bookings in the first place, and now that she has lived up to her name by invoking the catchphrase of the most notoriously bigoted homophobes in the country—Westboro Baptist Church in Westboro, Kansas, she is being effectively blacklisted in reverse—having already scheduled concerts cancelled by promoters who no longer want to be associated with her—and that includes McCabe’s Guitar Shop, whose web site for this Saturday now reads:

SAT MAR 23 / CANCELED

MICHELLE SHOCKED

To quote the punch line of an old folktale, they knew she was a snake when they picked her up. By what measure of outraged ignorant sensibilities are they now in a position to claim “We didn’t know.”  That’s like claiming they didn’t know the Pope was Catholic, or Fats Domino was overweight.

It doesn’t pass the smell test, and I for one have no problem coming to her defense. Mind you, I’m not defending what Michelle Shocked said, or the manner in which she said it. I wholeheartedly believe in complete equality for gays and lesbians in every walk of life, and have written and recorded a number of songs expressing those beliefs for demonstrations and vigils since 1993, when my friendship with gay Navy veteran Eddie Goggans, who was living with AIDS when we met, brought me into the human rights campaign focused at the time on lifting the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. I regard with profound distaste the opinions Michelle Shocked is reported to have expressed.

But I also recall with equal distaste the sorry history of the blacklist in this country, and how it was used to destroy the careers of both Paul Robeson and the Weavers, including cancelled shows based on their political opinions, not their music. No one is forcing promoters and booking agents to schedule concerts with an artist they don’t happen to agree with on significant social issues; but that does not give them—including McCabe’s—the right to break contracts and cancel concerts with her—especially for those same reasons.

Let them add a clause to future contracts if they like, to prevent an artist from espousing whatever they may not want to hear from the stage; let them tell Michelle Shocked what the Dixie Chicks’ former fans told them—and which became the title of a documentary on them—Shut Up and Sing!

But that does not give them—including McCabe’s—the right to void the First Amendment to the Constitution and punish someone for exercising her right of freedom of speech. She will be punished enough in the marketplace, where anyone is free to buy what they want to buy and support musicians they want to support, including venues where she has worked in the past.

Michelle Shocked is a savvy self-promoter, who must have known that walking into the heart of the city that produced Harvey Milk—the Mayor of Castro Street and first openly gay City Councilman in San Francisco, who was murdered in cold blood by homophobe Dan White—and uttering her outrageous anti-gay prejudices would put her back in the spotlight in a big way; as indeed it has.

But for those with liberal sensibilities who believe passionately in the very rights that Michelle Shocked would evidently deny to gays and lesbians the choice is clear. We don’t have a First Amendment to protect speech with which we agree—we have it rather to protect the speech of those with whom we could not disagree more.

That is what Voltaire understood when he said of the Michelle Shocked of his time, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

As SDS President Carl Oglesby wrote in 1965, “Democracy is nothing if it is not dangerous.”

Michelle Shocked and Pete Anderson WILL NOT BE playing at McCabe’s Guitar Shop this Saturday, March 23.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.