It’s probably been some time since you thought about the song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” by country music star and last man in America to wear a ‘do rag, Toby Keith. For a song that Keith allegedly wrote in 20 minutes, it was a huge hit – it went platinum and reached #1 on the country charts in 2002. It also sparked a feud between Keith and Peter Jennings and Keith and the Dixie Chicks, as well as between Toby Keith and people who like good songs.
The video for the song features Keith with the four Gs of a patriotic country song: goatee, guitar, gun, and grotesquely oversized cargo pants. With those locked down, the video was given a “Flameworthy” award by Country Music Television in 2003. When this was first pointed out to me, I honestly thought it meant that people wanted to set fire to it. That’s still more understandable than the truth, which is that there remain enough people carrying cigarette lighters that waving them around at concerts is something that is done.
I was thinking of this song recently, and not because I spend a lot of time thinking about terrible jingoistic country songs with lyrics a first grader could compose. I was thinking specifically of the climax of the song, where Keith sings “…you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A / ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” Watch that moment in the video, at about 2:07:
Keith gives a little smirk as he gets to the line, then pauses just before delivering it. The soldiers in the video go crazy. And not the kind of crazy you might go knowing that you just invaded Iraq on behalf of an Administration that has no idea what to do next, is going to send you on multiple tours to secure the same place, and then screw you on benefits. That’s bad crazy. This is good crazy. Good, patriotic, high-fiving, fist-pumping crazy. Coming so soon after 9/11, it’s hard to resist the sentiment. It’s simple, forceful, and very American. The song makes me want to load up an F-350 dualie with apple pie, baseballs, and AR-15s and go invade somewhere myself.
“Courtesy” and that line in particular make me a little nostalgic for the clarity of purpose and muscular patriotism we shared in the aftermath of September 11th. It all eroded some time ago, and the last remnants were surely swept away last week with the publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture. We were once the country that, if messed with, would put a boot in your ass. Yeah! That’s what tough guys do! And the reality? Well, according to page 115 of the report’s executive summary:
“Majid Khan’s ‘lunch tray,’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was ‘pureed’
and rectally infused. Additional sessions of rectal feeding and hydration followed”
How did we go from a country that assaults the behinds of our enemies with leather clad feet to one that commits these assaults by “get(ting) a tube up as far as you can, then open the IV wide. No need to squeeze the bag – let gravity do the work” (p. 100). This is some sick, depraved stuff. When Toby Keith was singing about the “whole wide world raining down on you,” I can’t imagine he was thinking about rectal rehydration. Would Keith change his tune if he knew what “Mother Freedom” was doing in his name? Probably not. He posted this image to his Twitter account on July 4th:
But back to the point. What if the CIA had only been kicking America’s enemies, as Keith’s lyrics suggest they should? Funny thing. In June of 2013, CIA director Michael Hayden said that the use of punches and kicks were not authorized. And yet, the report cites internal CIA records finding that CIA officers punched and kicked a detainee repeatedly. A detainee who was of course naked and bound with Mylar tape (p.489). What’s great about the CIA is that it has to take even run of the mill brutality and make it sick and weird.
With the release of the report, the country seems to be debating not whether or not these acts constitute torture, but if the torture is justified. Survey data actually shows that Americans are growing more supportive of torture, which is encouraging. Whatever terrible things the CIA is doing to people now won’t require them wasting so much time obstructing oversight by the Executive Branch, Congress, and its own inspector general. Checks and balances and accountability? Boring. We’ll put a tube in your ass – it’s the American way!
I think that anyone surprised by public support of torture against our enemies wasn’t paying enough attention to Toby Keith in 2002-03. Peter Jennings and the Dixie Chicks criticized “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” for its simpleminded advocacy of violence. That’s not all Keith was advocating for back then. In 2003, he released the song “Beer for my Horses,” which some suggested was pro-lynching. Toby Keith sharply pointed out that nowhere in the lines “Find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys/ Hang them high in the street for all the people to see that” does it say the word “lynching.” He’s right. The song isn’t justifying lynching. It’s justifying extra-judicial executions and mob violence. Eleven years ago, Toby Keith knew just where we would be in 2014.