Mark Knopfler's satirical Money For Nothing, banned in Canada since last January for having the word faggot in it, has now been unbanned. His gentle ribbing of working-class bigotry can once again be played on Canadian radio. (With that extraordinary opening guitar riff. How does he do it? He tries to explain in this YouTube clip, but really it's still magic.) However, meanwhile a South African court has banned a song: the Zulu apartheid-era call-and-response anthem Dubula ibhunu (or Dubul'ibhunu, given that the final vowel of the first word is elided in speech). So it's one song in, one song out. And on balance I think both decisions are exactly right.
I already defended Knopfler's wry poetic picture of working men's attitudes to long-haired rock stars in "That little faggot, he's a millionaire". But I have no plans to defend Dubula ibhunu. Bono recently caused a minor storm by appearing to defend it, but if he truly thinks Julius Malema's use of it in political rallies should be protected in the guise of folk music, then we disagree.
No one was more implacably opposed to the white South African apartheid regime than I was. But South Africa has completely changed now, and the task before it is to build an inherently multiracial democracy, despite the historical background of brutality and violence. That legacy of hate and violence must never be allowed to come back. Yet dubul'ibhunu doesn't mean "We will rock you"; it means "Shoot the Boer". It is about murdering white farmers of Dutch ancestry, and it means it.
There is a difference between speech that may offend some people and what is traditionally compared in legal texts to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Some black South Africans really do go out attacking white farmers in their homes and robbing or murdering them; farm attack is a common idiom now. For Julius Malema to be out there doing rousing renditions of Dubula ibhunu to political audiences suggests there is no place for him in modern South Africa's politics — apartheid-era folk music be damned.
This isn't a double standard as regards freedom of speech. There is a single standard to be aimed at here in a democracy: maximum freedom of artistic and political expression under conditions of maximum protection from inter-communal hatred and violence. I have often noted the UK's striking tendency to lean toward statutory restrictions on freedom of expression. I think British law tends to err on the side of undesirable legal restraints on language use. Some may criticize the USA's firm insistence on complete freedom of linguistic expression regardless of offense or damage to reputations, though on balance I think the US Supreme Court gets it mostly right. What we need to consider is whether Mark Knopfler is directly encouraging people to go out beat gay men to death, and whether Julius Malema is directly encouraging people to go out and beat white farmers to death. I think the answers are "Of course not" and "It looks like it", respectively. If I am correct, then both the recent song censorship decisions are good ones.
[Comments are closed. But by all means put your comments into musical form and sing them. I support your right to do so. If you're not inciting murder.]