Billy Bragg has called for artistic censorship.
Bragg is a gifted socialist singer from Britain. On a recent TV panel Bragg squared off with Professor Gigi Foster. Foster is liberal, but argued against the current woke insanity of going through old books like those written by Roald Dahl — a devout Christian for most of his life — and removing “offensive language” like the term “fat.” Bragg defended the censorship, arguing that we should ban language “that is abusive” because “abusive language is not free speech.”
When I saw the clip of Bragg, I felt my heart break a little bit. I adored Bragg’s music when I was in college. One of the first articles I got published professionally was a 1986 profile of Bragg for the Progressive magazine. I was a student at Catholic University and Bragg was playing at a club in Pittsburg. Me and a buddy skipped class — I was a paid journalist now! — and drove up for the show.
He Wasn’t Always Afraid
Bragg was brilliant. He sang socialist anthems of course, but also tender love songs. He was very funny and relatable. I interviewed him after the show and the story was published. I still remember the title: “Billy Bragg: Unafraid of the S-Word.” The “S-Word” was, you guessed it, socialism. No matter how anyone might mock, belittle or threaten him, Bragg was not going to back down. He wasn’t afraid of a word.
Now in 2024 Billy Bragg is very much afraid of words. On TV he claimed we should censor “words that are abusive.” Note: Bragg was not talking about the civil language we use in our everyday lives. He was specifically responding to the question of artistic freedom. He was specifically referring to the great books of British author Roald Dahl.
Next Target: The Word of God
As many critics have I observed, when you start to censor Roald Dahl and other artists the next step can very easily be the Bible. The Bible is a hugely offensive book to those who don’t want to hear the truth. Indeed the Bible used to enrage me around the time I was interviewing Billy Bragg in the 1980s. I was a young left-winger and libertine and the searing truth of the gospels drove me crazy. I couldn’t handle the truth.
However, the suggestion that the Bible should be censored would have sent me and my friends, as well as Billy Bragg, into a rage. Bragg often told me how he was inspired by punk rock, whose prevailing ethic (other than loud music) was a total resistance to censorship.
When my college friends and I would go see Bragg or a punk or New Wave band there were often moments when we would look at each other in mild shock — wait, did he really just say that? One band we loved had a song with a vicious chorus — “I’d rather be the devil than go creeping to the cross.” They were an Irish group. Their message could not compare with the incredible and liberating Christian songs of U2. God is love.
In an essay about the censorship of Roald Dahl, Christian writer Katharine Bennett wrote the following:
Our freedom to speak and write words that flow naturally and instinctively from the human heart must not be curtailed; not out of a desire to offend but always from a desire for authentic freedom to become the people that God has created us to be. We cannot be authentically free in a sanitised soft totalitarianism. A system where, in the words of the band Dirt Poor Robins, they’ve ‘fenced off the ledges and rounded the edges of all that goes wrong … a true hedonist indeed, so don’t lift a finger, your warden provides all you’ll need, but never a key.’
That sounds like a band which believes in freedom.
I wish Billy did.