Drugs, sex & swear words

Conservative government’s effort to censor art is tantamount to moral regulation

Conservatives have taken issue with the use of public funds to support the InSite safe injection site (left), films such as Young People Fucking (centre) and bands such as Holy Fuck (right).
Conservatives have taken issue with the use of public funds to support the InSite safe injection site (left), films such as Young People Fucking (centre) and bands such as Holy Fuck (right).
Credit: 
Supplied and by Adèle Barclay
Brandin O’Connor, ArtSci '09
Brandin O’Connor, ArtSci '09

Less than two years ago, the ‘new’ Conservative government lost its motion to reopen the same-sex marriage debate 175 to 123. Those in favour of an equal society let out a sigh of relief as the issue was put to rest. Heading into this month’s federal election, however, the ranks of the ruling party are still ripe with fervent fundamentalists. So what if our public safety minister believes in creationism?

Over the last two years, Stockwell Day, Stephen Harper and the rest of the Reform Party cohort have sought to force the government into some areas of society, while abandoning others. The result is nothing less than moral regulation at a time of economic deregulation.

Take our health minister for example. On Aug. 17, Tony Clement—a man with no formal medical training—spent his Sunday preaching to the Canadian Medical Association. Here, the 80 per cent of Canada’s doctors who support safe-injection sites were chastised by a Minister who won his cottage riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka by 28 votes (0.06%) because he couldn’t win back home in Brampton. The absurdity of his remarks was summarized best by InSite Doctor Gabor Mate: “The repugnant aspect is his attack on the morality and ethics of human beings who are trying to work with a very difficult population … where does he come off? Where does he appoint himself as a moral judge of professionals who he doesn’t understand and knows nothing about?” It seems somebody also appointed the Conservatives to regulate Canadian culture. Harper has axed millions in arts funding, including programs like Trade Routes and PromArt. A conservative recently fired back at me, “So what? If the art is good shouldn’t it come to the market without public handouts?” Yes, I’m sure the next Emily Carr will be commissioned by Zellers. The comment captures the philistine attitude and Wal-Mart culture of the party, in keeping with Harper’s recent claim that “ordinary people” don’t care about the arts.

The Tories are taking issue with independent creativity in the middle of a Canadian cultural heyday. Our current artistic output is remarkably dynamic and valued around the world. But it is this independence that prompts Conservative distaste. Columnist Heather Mallick recently called out the Conservatives’ ideological umbrage with the content of publicly funded projects—flicks like The Take by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, a lefty doc that snagged a distribution deal and netted profits for the National Film Board. Even bands like Holy Fuck are seen as fringe and offensive, despite their Juno and Polaris Prize nominations.

Who gets to define mainstream? You guessed it. And what are the criteria? F-bombs, apparently. Yes, beyond Holy Fuck’s soul-corrupting title, Canada’s moral authoritarians took issue with Young People Fucking (the film, but I’m sure in general as well). The brashly titled Canadian comedy became a whipping boy for the government in the midst of their covert efforts to establish Ministerial discretion over funded films. For everyone who scoffs at the ‘hidden agenda’ charge, consider section 12 of the controversial Bill C-10. Lurking in 600 pages of other amendments, the clause allows the government to declare tax credit ineligibility for film and television production with ‘unacceptable’ content.

Now conservatives will chirp, “It’s not censorship; we just don’t want to fund porn!” (of course, porn does not receive grant money). The reality is that this measure is an attempt to impart arbitrary and narrow values on a diverse cultural landscape. Either you fund arts or you don’t. We do because the net social benefits exceed the private costs—costs often borne by low-income artists unable to tap into the economic spin-offs and human cultural value of their contributions. We fund arts because it employs 125,000 Canadians directly and because every dollar invested publicly reaps 10 times as much direct and indirect economic benefit. Try to imagine a similar Conservative cut to support for the energy sector—an industry with negative rather than positive market externalities. So we fund art, but what is art? Spontaneous human creativity. But once you start attaching moral conditions to funding, artists bend and contort their vision to make their work financially feasible. This is not creativity; it is moral regulation.

So on Oct. 14, don’t forget to climb aboard the steam-locomotive back to the 1950s when we all watched Disney, swore by scripture and accepted the government’s monopoly on morality.

Brandin O’Connor is the president of the Queen’s New Democrats.

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