Censorship: Dire Straits, Little House, and Huckleberry Finn

Did you hear that “Money for Nothing” is now banned on Canadian radio stations?  Banned!  This is incredibly startling news for me, given that the song originally came out in 1985.  So, twenty-six years later, it has been decided that the word “faggot” – when used by derogatory men who are moving the singer’s fantastic possessions including but not limited to a colour TV and a microwave oven  – is unacceptable and the song must be taken off the air.  Really.  Have you heard “Shake That” by Eminem?  It is possibly the freakiest song ever, given the details about a) getting so drunk that one barfs and then gets drunk again, immediately, b) going to a strip club, c) popping the date rape drug into one of the strippers champagne glasses, d) looking for a slut to fuck in a Hummer truck.  Among other things.  As far as I know, that song is still on the radio, but the word “fuck” is censored.  Thank goodness we have standards.
Censorship is a sticky subject.  Clearly hatred and derogatory terms are not acceptable in this day and age, but is retroactively changing art and literature a fix?  There’s a whole debate currently raging about changing parts of Huckleberry Finn, a novel I never liked, but recognize its importance in American literature.  Is sanitizing art really the thing to do?
Here’s the thing: the n-word currently is used in nearly every hip-hop song by Kanye West and Jay-Z, and a lot of other artists whose names I do not know because I’m pretty out of the loop and I mostly listen to radio stations that play songs like the Pina Colada song and Margaritaville.  Also that song Santa Maria, about everyone on the yacht getting loaded.  I hear that song all the time.  But if the n-word is erased from Huckleberry Finn, then shouldn’t it be taken from rap and hip-hop songs?  Where does it stop?  Should that entire musical genre be banned?
I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books when I was a child.  There was a lot of abject racism in those books, especially in Little House on the Prairie, where the Ingalls family moves to Indian Territory.  The plot of the book is that settlers move to Kansas to take the land from the Indians, and are pretty angry that they are forced to move at the end of the book, as the land is going to remain with the Indians.  There is a lot of fear and hatred in that book.  There are a lot of non-flattering descriptions in that book, about Indians wearing skunk pelts and smelling badly, about Indians stealing all the corn bread and Pa’s tobacco, about terrifying war cries keeping the Ingalls family awake at night. 
But yet it is a time piece.  Those feelings were real.  Those things did happen; settlers did fear and, possibly, hate Indians, white settlers believed that the land was inherently theirs and not the Indians’.  The whites in the book say frequently that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, which is horrifying to modern ears.  But what I also remember about that book is that Pa realizes that there are good people and bad people, whites and Indians both, and he shows immense respect for one person in particular, referred to as the “Osage”.  I remember the Osage catching and killing a panther that was on the prowl. 
“Laura asked if a panther would carry off a little papoose and kill and eat her, too, and Pa said yes.  Probably that was why the Indian had killed that panther.”
Despite the racist undertones, there is a thread of common humanity in that book.  Reading this book today, it strikes me that it is better to use art and literature as tools to teach about the roots of racism – fear and ignorance come to mind – rather than erase and sanitize.   What do you think?


  1. I am completely against “sanitizing” history. It is what it is. Is not our whole motto of remembrance day “lest we forget”. Why wouldn’t we apply the same thinking to books and movies. I read the Little House book to my 7 Daughter and used it as an opportunity to explain to her how people used to think, unlike today when we have so much more respect for First Nations people.

    Then again, I’m white. Maybe if I was black or First Nations, or from India then perhaps I’d find it offensive too.

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  3. I think that we can not truly measure how far we have come OR more importantly how far we NEED to go unless we have a sincere collection of the past and present.

    AND little house rocks

  4. I’d really like to know how much money went into investigating the inappropriateness of that Dire Straits’ song because ONE person complained after hearing it played on a St. John’s radio station. ONE person. In 26 years. I’m tempted to complain about Kim Mitchell’s Patio Lanterns — just to ensure I don’t have to listen to it. EVER. AGAIN.

  5. Nan: OMG, yes. Patio Lanterns is the worst song ever recorded, except possibly Might as Well Go For A Soda. Or, anything Kim Mitchell ever wrote.

    Also, think about that Nickleback song. Girls come easy, drugs come cheap. That’s just not cool. Even if it is true for Chad Kruger.

    Okay, so it’s decided then? We will go to the CRTC and complain? No more Patio Lanterns? Let’s get T-shirts!

  6. Censorship is a silly silly thing. Trying to erase a history by censoring it does not teach our future anything. We learn from our past and our mistakes.
    Are we going to censor the holocaust?

  7. I did hear about this. I love Dire Straits, but I admit to not singing those particular lyrics in front of the kids. I also don’t like Mark Twain or any book her wrote, but I don’t agree with censoring the “n” word.

    I don’t know. I’m not a keener on censorship in most cases, however that book that was being sold on Amazon a few months back where the guy was teaching pedophiles how to prep young children to be sexually abused? Um, yeah, I was all over censoring that crap.

    I guess I’m for censorship in some cases, and if there’s any question on what should be censored or not, the government can just come and ask me, and I’ll set them straight.

  8. Okay, guys, lay of “Might as Well Go For a Soda” – it’s better than slander, after all. And better than lies.

    I just finished reading Little House on the Prairie to my daughter, and I agree with your analysis. There were parts of it I chose not to read aloud (especially the parts with the skunk pelts), but Pa’s respect for the Indians balances Ma’s fear and disgust. What I appreciate about the whole series is the narrator’s ability to withhold commentary – to lay something out there and let readers make their own minds up about it.

  9. I now have Patio Lanterns in my head. Thanks guys. I disagree with glossing over history myself. And that Dire Straits song ban is ridiculous.


  10. I think that these books/songs give us perspective on how far we have come (and how far we still have to go). We can’t erase the times of slavery and racism, but we can learn from them. I know for me, I try to turn these messages into a positive and use them to teach my children lessons – about how it used to be and why it’s wrong and how we need to ensure that any kind of racism doesn’t continue. If my kids heard the word faggot on the radio and asked me what it meant, I would sit down with them and tell them how it’s a hurtful word and why.

  11. We just finished Little House a few weeks ago – me and my six year old daughter. I found it to be a great jumping off point to talk about issues like racism and fear.

    But not all historical novels are like that. I am often amazed at how easily my kids believe the things they see on TV, hear on the radio, or read in books. They are young enough that they absolutely believe that everything they hear is true. So if they read something or hear something that treats certain people poorly, that’s a concern for me. If I can be there with them to talk about it, great. But I can’t always be.

    It’s a very grey area. I’m just glad I’m not the one to be making these kinds of calls.

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