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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

05/27/2015
Know Your Rights
The Clash

This is a public service announcement
With guitars
Know your rights all three of them

Number one: you have the right not to be killed
Murder is a crime!
Unless it was done by a
Policeman or aristocrat
Know your rights

And Number two: You have the right to food, money
Providing of course you
Don’t mind a little
Investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers
Rehabilitation

Know your rights
These are your rights

Know these rights

Number three: You have the right to free speech
As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.

Know your rights
These are your rights
All three of ‘em

It has been suggested
In some quarters that this is not enough!
Well...

Get off the streets
Get off the streets

When I was in high school I was a big fan of The Clash. I identified with the frustration inherent in songs like the Magnificent Seven or Lost in the Supermarket. I learned about the Spanish Civil War for the first time from Spanish Bombs and when I first began to understand the roots of contemporary violence in Mesoamerica, for me it was a callback to their 1980 album Sandinista!

As I got older, I became skeptical of the band. It was a burgeoning realization, brought on in part by paying more attention to lyrics like those on Know Your Rights. It’s not that I thought the song was wrong — more that I thought it was graceless and disjointed, as if to say, “I have feelings about freedom of speech, and also these other things. Blah!” And then I saw a documentary on the Clash in which Joe Strummer talked about the band’s politics. I was not too sure about his reading of Marxism in general, but it was when he got to discussing going to art school that my skepticism reached its zenith, as he explained how the way they had been taught to draw apples was too bourgeoisie.

And at that point, I thought, “Joe, you are a silly, silly man.”

It took a few years after that for me to come back to the Clash, and I’m not sure I’ve ever liked them as much as I did as a 16-year-old. Regardless of how much I liked the music, it felt as if there was something ham-fisted about their politics.

Or at least, it felt that way until recently. About a week ago at the time of writing this, a CityTV news reporter called out a group of men at a Toronto FC football game for harassing her when she was trying to interview fans outside the stadium. Rather than apologize, or even say something remotely intelligent, this group of fellows decided to double down and not only stand by their decision to be sexist and offensive, but become asinine and stupid as well as sexist and offensive. The video went viral, one of the guys was identified, and he was subsequently fired from his job for making his company look bad by virtue of being asinine, stupid, sexist, and offensive on national television.

As things like this are wont to do, it sparked a national debate about whether or not the job loss was warranted, and what this meant about one’s behaviour in the public sphere, and did companies have the right to do this. Then someone threw in the idea of free speech, of course, and suddenly the argument was about basic civil liberties in conflict with a woman’s right not to be harassed in public.

Leaving aside the tedious fact that Canada does not grant its citizens carte-blanche freedom of speech, even if it did, “freedom of speech” is not the right to go unchallenged, nor is it the right to not have to face consequences for the stupid things one might say. It’s the right not to be persecuted by the government for speaking one’s mind. So far as I know, none of those men have been thrown in jail for what they said that day. And thus, their civil liberties have not been compromised.

You know whose civil liberties are truly in danger of being compromised, though? Ours. All of ours. As public debate raged over this viral video, Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-terrorism Act, passed from the House of Commons to the Senate. Its third reading had passed in Parliament on May 6. Dutifully, I wrote to my senators and I asked my friends to write to their senators. We asked them to reject fear, and to reject this bill, which will compromise Canadian citizens’ right to privacy, right to due process, and right to free speech, such as we have in Canada. I don’t hold out much hope the bill will fail in the Senate, as I presume Conservative senators will toe the party line, but I’m not willing to give up on miracles, either. After all, Jesus rose from the dead and Alberta has an NDP government. Every once in a while the laws of nature are permitted to go haywire.

And yet, that week, the national debate surrounding free speech was not about a bill that could seriously compromise people’s ability to criticize the government and turn CSIS into a de facto secret police. No, it was about whether drunk dudes should have to face consequences for yelling obscenities at women.

Has anyone else ever noticed that free speech gets trotted out most commonly when people are defending the right to be offensive? From white people demanding to preserve their racist mascots to men demanding the right to pass judgment on women’s appearances in the street, it’s always that moment when someone drags out the dreaded slippery slope. Apparently, the only alternative to street harassment is Stalinism.

But while we’re arguing over how many racist misogynists are allowed to dance on the head of a pin before it’s fair to ask them to stop, we’re already tumbling down that slippery slope. Bill C-51 is potentially very close to being enacted into law, the Harper government consistently muzzles scientists who disagree with Conservative doctrine, and Canadian mining regulations are so lax that every crook with a blasting cap has set up shop in our country. And I’m worried I’m now on a government watchlist for daring to write that last sentence. To name a few things.

So I’ve been thinking about the Clash in the political context they were writing: the late 1970s and early 1980s in England. Rampant unemployment. The Winter of Discontent 1978-79. The closing of the mines and the breaking of the unions. American-sanctioned civil wars in Mesoamerica. England at war over the Falklands. It must have been terrifying, and it must have been infuriating.

Bourgeoisie apples aside, no wonder Strummer’s lyrics lacked artistry. He was just too angry.

 

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings