First Mark Twain, next Mark Knopfler, now that ain't workin'

Neil Macdonald on the word censors and Dire Straits.

Over the years, I've dealt with many gay rights activists here and in Canada. Generally speaking, I've found them to be a pretty sharp bunch, with a wicked sense of irony.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Virginia's anti-sodomy law back in 2003, I took a camera crew over to a gay bar in Crystal City, near the Pentagon, and filmed a group of men toasting the decision.

One of them told me it was great to have your favorite pastime legalized. Great line.

I tried to use it in a report on The National that night, but it was too much for my editors.

Anyway, when I opened the CBC News website today and saw that the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council had banned the old Dire Straits classic Money for Nothing, citing its use of the word "faggot," I was sure that I'd soon be hearing prominent gay rights advocates snickering and maybe even ridiculing the ruling.

Guitarist and songwriter Mark Knopfler performing in Cordoba, Spain, in July 2010. (Reuters)


"It perpetuates the stereotype, it's negative and it's offensive," declared the director of EGALE Canada, Helen Kennedy. She applauded the decision to ban the song. "If you look to the origin of the word, it's disgusting."

It sure is. Which is exactly why Mark Knopfler wrote it into the lyrics. The entire song drips with irony.

In fact, Knopfler himself has spoken about how those words made it into the song.

He had been in an appliance store where a guy dressed in a baseball cap, work boots and a checkered shirt was watching MTV on a wall of televisions and muttering "Hawaiian noises" and "faggots" about the performers he was seeing on the screen: "Chimpanzees banging on bongos."

"Now that ain't working," the guy declared. Knopfler grabbed a pencil and paper and scribbled down the lines.

The resulting song was actually written in the voice of the ignoramus in the baseball cap, with someone admonishing 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.

I bought the album, Brothers in Arms, when it came out in 1985, and I got what Knopfler was saying immediately: Rock stars might look silly to you, pal, but somebody sure likes us. We're rich, and we don't even have to work very hard. Maybe get a blister on our little fingers. You just keep on hauling refrigerators for a living.

No matter.

Now it turns out that 25 years after the song came out, a listener in Newfoundland complained that "faggot" is discriminatory and offensive to gays, which of course it is.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council agreed and went further: "The word 'faggot', even if once acceptable, has evolved to become unacceptable in most circumstances," the council wrote.

Who gets it?

Well, I've been around quite a while. My memory goes back well into the Sixties. I don't remember "faggot" or any of its various crude synonyms ever being acceptable.

From Louie Louie to My Ding a Lingan abbreviated history of controversial pop lyrics.

But that's not the point. The point is that Knopfler was using the word faggot against people who use it seriously. Sort of the way many of my gay friends do. (They call themselves "queers," which I find a little jarring, but I get that, too.)

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council reminds me of the activists who lambasted Paul Simon for recording Graceland in apartheid-era South Africa.

Simon introduced the world to the extraordinary sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and used his star power to showcase black South African music to the world.

One of the album's songs, Homeless, was clearly an indictment of the racist government in Pretoria.

No matter. Simon was pilloried for having broken the UN cultural sanctions on South Africa by recording there.

I spoke to the EGALE director, Helen Kennedy, an impressively quick woman with a sharp Irish accent.

She told me her group hadn't received any complaints, and she even conceded the ironic use of the word. But, she said, "that has to be explained to people. Not everybody gets it."

What would Mark Twain do?

Kennedy's subtext is clear and it is a recurring theme of those who advocate censorship of offensive speech: The not-so-smart members of the public need to be shielded from references that smarter people can put into context.

The other Mark, born Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. (Associated Press)

Well. That's a viewpoint.

I also spoke to Ron Cohen at the broadcast council, another pretty sharp individual. He pointed out that Knopfler himself has substituted other words for "faggot" when performing the song in recent years.

I pointed out that the Van Morrison classic Brown Eyed Girl had been bowdlerized once by the record company so that he wound up singing "laughin' and a-runnin'" rather than the original lyric, "makin' love in the green grass" on some early recordings.

"Artists do what they have to do," agreed Cohen.


Already, the Dire Straits decision is being compared to the publisher in Montgomery, Alabama, who has redacted the word "nigger" from the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, substituting it with "slave" because he felt the original reference was putting off too many school-age readers and their teachers.

Never mind that the book is an anti-racism statement and that Twain used the word against the people who used it seriously, the same way so many contemporary American blacks do.

I asked Kennedy whether changing Twain's book was the right thing to do.

"I think it was," she told me.

"That's a non-issue to us," Cohen said.