Dolly Parton refuses to take a stance on many political issues. Should more people follow her lead?
Jad Abumrad's new podcast explores why Dolly Parton is such a unifying force in America
Would the world be better if more people followed Dolly Parton's lead, and refused to take a stance on politically charged issues?
Jad Abumrad, co-host of Radiolab, sought out to learn how the singer's concerts became unifying spaces, where drag queens and evangelicals might be found side-by-side, in his latest podcast Dolly Parton's America.
"I think it's more important to me personally … to see somebody who doesn't speak out, who actually chooses not to, because that choice creates a space where people can just stand next to each other," Abumbrad told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.
A Parton concert, where attendees all races and political beliefs sing along to the same songs, seemed like a far cry from "the garbage fire that is American politics right now," he said.
"There is the America of the Dolly Parton concert where those divisions are there, they're certainly not healed, but people are polite."
The reason for that, Abumrad suspects, is that Parton has remained relentlessly apolitical throughout her public life.
She refuses to discuss her opinions on U.S. President Donald Trump, and her team recently sent a letter to Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to stop using her song 9 to 5 at her campaign events.
"What's sort of amazing is it's a deeply political song that is very literally about a union … [and] Elizabeth Warren is very pro-union," said Abumrad.
"But Dolly and her team sent a letter saying, 'We don't approve of this usage,' and have done that any time any candidate has tried to use the song on either the left or the right."
Similarly, Abumrad found while making the podcast, Parton bristled at the idea of calling herself a feminist.
"If you look at Dolly Parton's life, the life she has led — even going back to 1967 and becoming this pioneering musician at a moment when there were no roles for female musicians, and yet she was determined to be that — that's a feminist act. And yet she didn't want to take on the label," he said.
One label she hasn't shied away from is LGBTQ advocate. When asked about her support of the LGBT community in 2016, she told Larry King that "we are all God's children. We are who we are, and we should be allowed to be who we are."
Jordan Leuthel, who often dresses in drag as Parton and also goes by the drag name Tiffany Boxx, told The Current that Parton "has always stood for acceptance, love, being who you are."
"She has a very famous quote: 'Find who you are and do it on purpose.' I think that kind of really relates to the LGBT community," said Leuthel.
Abumrad said that that acceptance and her political neutrality have a lot to do with each other.
"I think the reason that she can draw such a diverse crowd is because she has modelled a kind of radical welcoming-ness. She will not cast anyone out. And yet it means she can't make political statements," he said.
The controversial stance of neutrality
The idea of not taking a stance on charged issues has itself proven to be highly controversial.
Many writers and activists have argued that calls for civility often benefit people who already have power, and make it harder for people who face discrimination to call it out.
"American history is full of fights, including the ongoing struggle for civil rights, that have been as fierce as they are ultimately effective," Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic not long after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"Civility is overrated," he continued.
Parton's own sister, Stella Parton, has criticized Dolly for not calling herself a feminist and declining to speak out in support of the #MeToo movement.
"I'm ashamed of my sister for keeping her mouth shut," Stella told the country music podcast Our Stories in February. "She can run it when it is about something else, but speak up about injustice, Dolly Parton. Speak up."
Walking the talk
Abumrad said he thought criticisms of remaining neutral, or silent, on political issues were fair.
But, he said, "in an environment where we're all screaming at each other from the comfort of our own silos, what good does it do to add another voice screaming?"
"I'd personally like to believe that Dolly is one of the few people who could move the needle if she chose to speak out on politics. But I don't think anyone can move the needle right now," he added.
"So maybe the more radical move is to model civility."
Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Ben Jamieson.