“America has entered one of its periods of historical madness,” argues author John Le Carré, who suggests that the current drive by conservatives in Congress and their media allies to search out and destroy dissent is “worse than McCarthyism.” That may sound extreme to some, but it certainly must ring true for Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, whose mild criticism of President Bush in the days before the war with Iraq began has made the group target No. 1 for the Elite Republican Guardians of patriotic propriety.

After Maines, a native of Lubbock, told a crowd at a London Dixie Chicks show that “we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” South Carolina legislators passed a bill declaring those words to be “unpatriotic,” disc jockeys organized rallies at which tractors were used to destroy Dixie Chicks CDs, and radio stations across the south barred songs by the groups. Though officials of Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that controls more than 1,200 radio stations across the US denied that they had issued a network-wide ban order, Clear Channel’s country and pop music stations were among the first to declare themselves “Chicks Free.” And the chattering class of conservative talk-radio and talk-TV piled on with calls for boycotts of the group’s upcoming concert tour.

With the experience of the Dixie Chicks providing a cautionary tale–and with high-profile actors who have expressed antiwar views, such as Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garofalo, being branded “casting couch Bolsheviks” and worse–there was a clear signal coming from the entertainment industry in general, and the music industry in particular, about what happens when artists speak out. While outspoken groups and individual performers such as the Beastie Boys, System of the Down, REM, Lenny Kravitz, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Zack de la Rocha dared to speak out musically, radio playlists have tended increasingly to feature Bush Administration-friendly songs like Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgetten” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith–who criticizes Maines as a “big mouth.” Madonna remade what had been described as an antiwar video for her new single, “American Life,” because she said, “I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.” And, against the pressure to make music conform to the conservative agenda of the Bush Administration, there has been a whole lot of silence from most of the music industry’s biggest names.

But Bruce Springsteen is not one to let his voice be frozen out by a free speech chill. Springsteen featured a roaring version of Edwin Starr’s anti-war hit, “War (What Is It Good For?),” during March shows in the U.S. and Australia; at a Melbourne show during the first days of the war, he told the crowd between performances of the songs “My City of Ruins” and “Land Of Hope and Dreams” that: “We pray for the safety of our sons and daughters, innocent sons and daughters and innocent Iraqi civilians.” Now, the man whose song “Born in the USA” remains an anthem for patriots of many stripes–including those who see dissent as the truest expression of Americanism–has let rip with a powerful defense of the Dixie Chicks and artistic free speech.

“The Dixie Chicks have taken a big hit lately for exercising their basic right to express themselves. To me, they’re terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American,” Springsteen said in a statement that was set to be posted today on the www.brucespringsteen.net website.

“The pressure coming from the government and big business to enforce conformity of thought concerning the war and politics goes against everything that this country is about–namely freedom. Right now, we are supposedly fighting to create freedom in Iraq, at the same time that some are trying to intimidate and punish people for using that same freedom here at home,” added Springtseen, whose 2002 album The Rising, a groundbreaking rumination on September 11th and its aftermath, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and has been certified double platinum.

“I don’t know what happens next,” Springsteen said of America’s current moment, “but I do want to add my voice to those who think that the Dixie Chicks are getting a raw deal, and an un-American one to boot. I send them my support.”

As usual, Springsteen has his finger closer to the pulse of America than the ranting right and those over-cautious celebrities who have shied away from the controversy. Of the 59 shows on the upcoming Dixie Chicks tour of major arenas, 53 have already sold out and the remainder are on the verge of being fully booked.