OFF THE RECORD
Warning: This editorial may contain thoughts and phrases that might make you think about bigotry, censorship and free speech.
Nestled on my bookshelves between the journalism texts and autobiographies of important newsmen and politicians are books narrow-minded school trustees and prissy parents have for years attempted to ban from the library and from discussion in the classroom. In my personal library you would find Of Mice and Men, The Handmaid’s Tale, Deliverance, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series, Mein Kampf, The Lord of the Flies, the Little House on the Prairie series, the Holy Bible, Catcher in the Rye and a few W.P Kinsella novels, just for snickers.
These critically acclaimed books have been the targets of scissor-wielding censors because they deal with such issues as sexual orientation, violence, religious content and criticism, sexual situations, witchcraft and racial minorities.
My music collection is bound to have a few selections that would offend some school marms but get others up on the dance floor shaking their moneymakers. And that includes Money for Nothing by Dire Straits, a number 1 hit back in 1985.
Censorship is nothing new to Rimbey and Ponoka County. In 1994 school trustee Susan Koots was offended by a story, Shirley Jackson’s The Witch, that was contained in an anthology approved by Alberta Education for classroom discussion.
Koots described the story as “sick” and wanted it banned. She somehow managed to convince her fellow trustees, who had not read the material or talked to their teachers about it, to confiscate the books.
They were later returned to the classroom with The Witch and another story, Images by Alice Munro, cut out by staff using razor blades.
Once the school board was amalgamated and populated with freethinking trustees, the stories were re-instated.
Just last week the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) determined Money for Nothing by Dire Straits, a song that has been playing on radios around the world for a generation, contravenes the human rights clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code. A single, solitary Newfie listening to a station in St. John’s N.L. complained last year that the Grammy Award-winning song is discriminatory because it includes the word “faggot” in its lyrics.
The CBSC ruled the song would be acceptable for airplay if the song were “suitably edited.” The panel ruled that even if “faggot” had been an acceptable word at one time, it has become unacceptable in most circumstances.
I don’t think faggot has ever been an acceptable word to describe homosexuals, nor has nigger have been an acceptable word to describe Blacks. Yet, excising the words from our language, our literature and our history does not remove ignorance and racism from society.
Earlier this year (which is shaping up to be a banner year for censorship) a publisher in Alabama plans to release the NewSouth edition of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” It’s not the first time a publisher, school teacher or parent has been offended by the use of “nigger” in a book and wanted it removed from schools and libraries. So in this sanitized version of the American classic, “Nigger Jim” would become “Slave Jim.”
You don’t have to have a Confederate flag hanging in your bedroom window or as a bumper sticker on your pickup to know that not every slave is a nigger and not every nigger is a slave.
Twain wasn’t writing from the point of view of an educated man, he was embodied as a dirt-poor Southern kid who is finding himself and his way in pre-Civil War America. As Huck travels with Jim, his attitudes about slavery and life change — just as you might expect of teenagers who read and discuss this book with their teacher. The book is a statement against racism.
In Money for Nothing, lyricist Mark Knopfler recounts an experience when he overheard a bigot disparaging musicians performing in an MTV video. Dire Straits is singing the song in the character of the racist deliveryman, an Archie Bunker type, and ridiculing him. “See 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 irony and satire of working class attitudes toward high-rolling musicians played out in the song seems to be lost on the CBSC panel.
Canadians should not accept sanitized, versions of books and music from people who want to decide what you can read or listen to. As individuals, surely we can determine for ourselves what is offensive and put down a book, turn the radio knob or watch a Disney movie instead of going to the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the art gallery.
We view the world through our books and our music. Removing now-offensive words from classic literature, and from contemporary works written to jar readers into challenging society’s precepts is a slippery slope we slide down far too often in today’s politically correct society.