The Adventures of Mark Twain and Dire Straits

(Or, Money For Nothing and Your Slurs For Free)

Recently, two pieces of news have caught my attention.  The first piece of news, which enraged me, is the announcement that a (supposed) Mark Twain scholar is releasing a version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (in a combined volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) that replaces the word ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’ in a PC move that’s meant to allow teachers to assign the books.  Notice that I do not censor the word here, because it would be rather hypocritical, given my stance, to censor myself only to condemn censorship.  The second piece of news is the decision by Canadian broadcasters to ban unaltered versions of the iconic 80s hit Money For Nothing by Dire Straits from airplay, due to the use of the word ‘faggot’ in the lyrics.

I am all for combating racism and homophobia in the media; I deal with them regularly as a bisexual woman in an interracial relationship.  I do not tolerate the use of faggot or nigger as insults.  That said, when it comes to literature and music, I feel there needs to be an appreciation of context and purpose of language, before we react with all of the intellectual prowess of the ‘Find and Replace’ function in a word processor.

Take Twain’s novels, for example.  The books are set in 1835-1845, and written in the late 1800s; thus, the use of the word, and a derogatory attitude towards those of another race by Caucasians, is historically accurate, if uncomfortable or offensive.  Second, the entire point of the novel is to attack slavery and the racist beliefs held at the time, through Huck’s befriending the slave Jim and, upon realizing what a decent person he is, resolving to help him be free.  The novel is not an assault by Twain on black people, but a tribute to their equality, and a condemnation of those who think otherwise.  For its time, it was a bold piece of a literature.

To remove the word ‘nigger’ now and replace it with ‘slave’ is to diminish the seriousness of Jim’s plight, and water down the multi-faceted oppression he faced.  It’s an insult to Twain, and to those who he defended.

Interestingly, the first I learned of this proposed new edition was on Twitter, where nearly every enraged Tweet early on was from black youth completely baffled and furious at the new edition.  If this edition is meant to be less offensive to black people, it’s completely off the mark.  What this edition truly is, is an effort to bury the racism of the 1800s for the sake of uncomfortable Caucasians who want to make the word go away.  Erasing a word from a novel does not erase the damage done by the KKK and other forms of racist behaviour, nor does it ‘apologize perpetually’ for it.

Turning now to Money For Nothing, it’s important to examine the story behind the song and its genesis.  From an interview in 1985 with Bill Flanagan, via Wikipedia:

The lead character in “Money for Nothing” is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He’s singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real…. (emphasis added)

Plainly, the piece is in the ‘voice’ of another, and the entire song, in fact, is a satire of the belief that rock stars ‘have it easy’ and ‘don’t work’.  The use of faggot as an insult is upsetting to those of us who are offended by homophobia instinctively, but it must then be noted that Knopfler is mocking the character using these insults.  He himself is not insulting gays; he is insulting the homophobe ‘macho man’ who doesn’t consider the arts to be real or hard work.   Further, the same character then repeatedly asserts that said ‘faggot’ gets ‘money for nothing and your chicks for free’, indicating his view that the MTV star is actually straight.

The band name Dire Straits refers to the notion of being financially in ruins, which many musicians are before they make it big.  Bands that slowly grow to success struggle to pay the bills and get their music recorded, let alone heard.  Music is, indeed, hard work for bands; Mark Knopfler’s inner outrage at the real man who inspired the song is what drives the satire.  It’s not different than South Park’s episode The Passion of the Jew, in my opinion.

This is hardly the first time that a song has used the term ‘faggot’ in the voice of a song’s character, in order to make a statement.  Me’Shell Ndegeocello uses the word repeatedly in her controversial song Leviticus: Faggot (later shortened by censors to Leviticus).  In the song, a homophobic religious father insults his gay son and throws him out at 16, leaving him to a life of prostitution and, eventually, death.  The video features an abusive father who beats his song, the gay teen eventually killing himself, no longer able to cope with the hatred flung at him.  The word is used as an insult, but the song is telling a story, with a sympathetic leaning towards the victim of the hatred.  Context makes the word acceptable for meaning.

Banning Money For Nothing as written is foolish, not PC; editing Huckleberry Finn is even more ridiculous.  Censorship is meant to protect the public, not allow them to be ignorant of reality or to prevent satire.

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