This won't be a popular position, so I'll just write it, close my eyes and brace myself for the smack.

You've got to admire the Dixie Chicks.

Sure, they were more like Dipsy Chicks in 2003 when lead singer Natalie Maines said the group was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush.

If she said it today, nobody would notice.

But Maines said it at the start of the Iraq war, when the president and our troops needed our support. And she said it in Europe, at the height of our country's lowest approval ratings overseas.

I wrote at the time that I doubted very much that Maines would have said the same thing had she been doing a USO concert in Bahrain.

Even still, Maines had to know that the Dixie Chicks' core audience would view the statement as offensive and borderline treasonous.

After boycotts by country radio stations and protests at concerts by demonstrators who smashed their Chicks CDs, the group's detractors were heard, and indeed, are still being heard.

Maines apologized after the backlash, but recently took it back, telling Time magazine the president "doesn't deserve any respect whatsoever."

Let me be clear about this: I did not agree with Maines in 2003 and I don't agree with her today, and I certainly wouldn't care what she thinks about President Bush if not for the massive amount of controversy her comments have caused — after all, she's a singer in a band called the Dixie Chicks.

Nonetheless, millions of people are paying attention, and recently the group infuriated the co-hosts of "The View," calling the syndicated chat-fest unimportant and a show Bruce Springsteen wouldn't do in the same Time article — whatever that means.

"Today" show-bound Meredith Vieira was particularly miffed.

But I have to say that I respect Maines' resolve and her commitment to her political views.

I recently wrote that actors and celebrities bore us with their political opinions all the time. But in one response, an e-mailer asked me what makes me or anyone with a job like mine any more qualified to broadcast an opinion?

In a way, that person is correct.

Of course I could say that people click on my column specifically for my Grrr! opinion, while we go to the movies to watch Tom Cruise beat up imaginary bad guys, or listen to the Dixie Chicks because we like the sound of their voices or the lyrics of their songs.

So when Cruise decides to lecture on the pros and cons of psychiatric medicine, or Maines blasts us with her political opinions, naturally it gives one pause.

If I were to suddenly appear in a movie and stink as an actor — as much as Cruise stinks as an expert on medicine — I'd expect the same kind of reaction.

Nonetheless, we all have the right to say exactly what we think, especially when it comes to our government — and that is one of the reasons America is the greatest country in the world.

On the flip side, we also have the right to boycott the Dixie Chicks and to not buy their CDs, and to skip "M:I 3." That doesn't cost the offended public anything, but it sure as heck costs the offending artist a pretty penny.

That said — money shouldn't ever be a factor when it comes to one's integrity, celebrity or not.

As long as we're all true to ourselves and committed to our beliefs, America will continue to be the greatest country in the world. We may not all agree with each other, but we are all Americans.

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