Let’s not try to rewrite what’s already been written

Last week the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council inflamed music lovers across Canada with its decision that the song Money for Nothing by British rock band Dire Straits (from their 1985 album Brothers in Arms) contravened the Human Rights Clauses of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code.

Apparently, a year ago, one listener heard the original version of the mega hit song on St. John’s, Newfoundland’s radio CHOZ-FM. That unedited version contains three mentions of the word ‘faggot’ and the listener complained that it was discriminatory toward gay people. Based on that one person’s complaint, the CBSC deemed the song unacceptable for broadcast and that the radio station was in violation of the codes of ethics.

Who are these socially correct commandoes?

Whether or not you like Dire Straits or the song in question, the points of reference here are a) does the complaint of only one person justify the ban of a song for 34 million Canadians and b) why, when this huge 1985 hit has been played countless thousands of times on public airwaves in the past 26 years, is it an issue now?

Money for Nothing was Billboard’s No. 1 single from September 21 to October 5, 1985 and won the 1986 Grammy for Record of the Year and the 1986 American Music Award for Record of the Year.

The irony of this whole thing, so the story goes, is that when songwriter Mark Knopfler wrote the offensive word into the song he did so to make a point against the people who used the word seriously. In fact, the whole song is loaded with the irony of rock singers earning big money for doing next to nothing while the average Joe drudges through a 9-5 day job. It was never written as an anti-gay song. It’s the opposite, mocking those who use a gay slur.

OK, so they can edit the word out. But why? There is fundamental danger in editing text, whether lyrics or literature, to fit the comfort zone of today’s sensitivities. The act of editing sanitizes history. It discards the proof of the context in which it was written.

It’s no different from the decision by NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish its upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s classic ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, by replacing the word ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’.

The whole point of keeping these words in the language as written is that they honestly depict the values and beliefs of the past. A 21st century take on the story removes it from being true to the period. Huck Fin, in its original form,  is No. 14 in the top 50 banned books of the decade, according to the American Library Association. How shortsighted is that? Twain’s book eerily parallels Knopfler’s lyrics in that they are both misunderstood in the context of the prejudiced attitudes they are criticising.

The word ‘faggot’, derived from Old French and Latin, actually means ‘bundle of sticks’ and has been used since the 16th century. In the 19th century faggot-gatherers, usually elderly widows, gathered firewood for a meagre income. At some time, the word degenerated into a general insult and crossed a line when its historical gender link became a slur against gays.

Since the CBSC ban, rock stations across the country have been flaunting Money for Nothing. A Halifax station had a mini-marathon, playing the unedited version on repeat for an hour.

It’s wrong that just one person can create all this brouhaha over a hugely successful rock classic. There are many contemporary songs with equally inflammatory words. Are they slated for the ban list on the grunt of just one listener?

Scary thought.