Language Log has not yet commented on the most stupid recent case of censorship in the arts motivated by vocabulary taboos. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), an independent broadcasting agency charged with overseeing private radio stations in Canada, has banned Mark Knopfler's wonderful 1985 Dire Straits rock anthem "Money For Nothing" from the airwaves. The reason? The word faggot appears in three of the song's lines (as originally written), and the CBSC believes that this lexical item should never again sully Canadian air.
Many readers (and all the readers who are fans of Dire Straits) will know that songwriter Mark Knopfler's inspiration for the song came from real life. In a New York appliance store he saw a man in baseball cap, work boots, and checkered shirt delivering boxes. As the man looked up at a bank of TVs all tuned to MTV, he started a contemptuous running commentary. Knopfler was captivated by the classic lines the man came out with as the bigoted diatribe went on: "Look at them yo-yos!"; "That ain't working!"; "Look at that mama, she got it sticking in the camera!"; and so on.
The man's bottom-line objection was that he was doing real work and these rock stars weren't. The song captures beautifully the contradictions in his attitudes. He wants to be the drummer ("I should have learned to play them drums"), yet despises him at the same time ("banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee"). He rejects the hedonistic and apparently easy lifestyle ("That ain't working!"), yet envies it too ("That's the way you do it — get your money for nothing, get your chicks for free"). [Afterthought: He's wrong on a point of fact here. I worked five years as a professional rock musician. It is hard, hard work, involving lifting of heavy gear and spending a lot of boring time in trucks and dressing rooms. Only for the extremely successful are there full teams of road managers and valets and private jets, and the stresses on the top stars mean life is quite tough for them too.]
Working men like him, the man grumbles (as the chorus of Knopfler's song recasts it), have to deal with mundane matters and heavy lifting:
We got to install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators
We got to move these colour T.V.'s…
So there was Knopfler literally writing down the lines as he heard them, right there in the store, using a borrowed pen. And among the lines that he copied down and later adapted were the remarks that turned up in the song like this (and notice again the mixture of contempt and envy):
The little faggot with the earring and the makeup —
Yeah buddy, that's his own hair —
That little faggot got his own jet airplane;
That little faggot he's a millionaire
The banned song, properly understood, doesn't call anyone a faggot; but it paints a portrait someone who did. It's a gentle, brilliant, unflinching glimpse of real life. There's a wonderful irony in the story: this envious delivery man who will never ever get to play a red Stratocaster in front of a hundred thousand people is (unknown to him) standing right near a young man who does that for a living. The song is a beautiful little work of art, a poetic rock cartoon drawn from life. And without including the phrases that give the delivery man his character, Mark Knopfler cannot properly portray him in poetry.
Or at least, not in the way he originally wanted. He has faced criticism before, and various performances of the song have had bowdlerized lyrics or have omitted the above verse. (Those versions can be played on private radio stations with the CBSC's approval.) Knopfler is a thoughtful man, and has in fact expressed misgivings about "whether it's a good idea to write songs that aren't in the first person, to take on other characters": see the Wikipedia article about the song, which summarizes earlier allegations of sexism ("chicks") and racism ("chimpanzee"?) as well as homophobia. All of this earlier controversy is just as ridiculous, but not as official or broad-ranging as a national ban on a poem.
I stress that we are talking about poetry here. I think Knopfler is one of the best and most thoughtful poets to come out of 20th-century songwriting, comparable with Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Oscar Hammerstein, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, John Lennon (and I would put Chuck Berry on that list too). It is hard to believe that in 2011, more than a quarter of a century after it was written, Canada has censored piece of poetry because of the vocabulary of a character it depicts. It should not be necessary to spell out what would happen to poetry, novels, plays, and films about topics like race and sex and religion if such practice was followed through consistently (no more performances of Othello, for example).
One commenter on a YouTube page below a video of Dire Straits performing "Money For Nothing" said the CBSC decision made him "ashamed to be Canadian". That is going a bit far. Huge numbers of Canadians have been protesting the decision. One radio station rebelled by playing the song, unexpurgated, continuously for an hour. Canadians should be proud of that. But the national chair of the CBSC, Ronald Cohen, cares nothing for the many letters and petitions that have complained about the decision (according to this newspaper account), and is entirely explicit about the fact that he is implementing a word taboo: "The number of complaints is irrelevant. Everybody is on our back about it, [but] I think it was absolutely the right decision. This is a word that has no place today on the airwaves."
A word with no place on the airwaves? Not even in plays, documentaries, poems, novels, or songs about sexism and racism and homophobia that involve vivid depiction of sexists, racists, and homophobes? Will that help in dealing with these social evils? And do we really think so little of the intelligence of our gay friends that we imagine they will not be able to bear hearing abusive epithets being quoted?
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the trial in which a fine and tender novel about love by D. H. Lawrence was claimed to violate English obscenity law, and Penguin Books, the publishers, were charged with a criminal offense. The key point was that a working-class character in the book — Mellors, the gamekeeper — used words such as "fuck" and "cunt". There is a disanalogy: Mellors did not use the words as swearwords, he used them tenderly and approvingly in their literal senses, as folk-biological descriptive terms. But word taboo was at the heart of the case. I find it staggering that half a century later some people's attitudes toward art are still this benighted.
The CBSC has made itself look as foolish as the English legal establishment looked fifty years ago, when prosecuting barrister Mervyn Griffith-Jones attracted ridicule by opining that Lady Chatterley's Lover was hardly the sort of book "you would wish your wife or servants to read". A civilized society should not be banning either Lawrence's prose or Knopfler's poetry in the service of a dumb word taboo.
[Update: I understand that the CRTC, which is the official, government regulated standards board for radio in Canada (notice: this is NOT a story about censorship by a government, which the Lady Chatterley case was), has asked the CBSC to reconsider its decision. There is a form on the web for submitting comments at http://www.cbsc.ca/english/documents/prs/2011/110112-review.php. See also
[Comments are off because I estimate there is zero likelihood of a discussion complying with the Language Log comments policy when the topic is as juicy as the present one (just imagine it: sex, homophobia, rock music, Canadians, broadcasting, MTV, law, poetry, obscenity, and Lady Chatterley's Lover). But you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a comment or a correction.]