You get Norman McLaren. We get Baseball (A question from time at Hollyhock)

3 June 2011

Here’s a question that came up for me at the Media that Matters gathering at Hollyhock a couple of weeks ago. I’m no expert on things Canadian, so if it’s totally off the mark, toss it.

We got to Hollyhock just after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won majority control over the national government in Ottawa, so it wasn’t all that surprising that in the 4 days we were together, a lot of people were still trying to figure out what that victory signified. It triggered some anxious questioning for people who had spent much of their professional lives in an environment supported by public funding, and who had mastered the art of obtaining it.  

Am I imagining all this, or is this a new situation for filmmakers and other Canadian content creators who’ve relied on institutions like the National Film Board of Canada? I have no idea.

But is the Harper government a first for Canada: a ruling party that will do everything it can to eliminate public funding for the arts (and everything else) –  and what they can’t get rid of, privatize? If it is true, then I think it’s important to recognize that the Harper threat goes much deeper than a debate over the level of public subsidy.

Ah, to be an American: we’ve got plenty of experience living without much in the way of public support for the arts – easily a generation, probably longer. Sure you can still get federal money from the National Endowment for the Arts, but good luck with that (a measly $88 million budget this year, compared to $181 million for the Canada Council for the Arts in 2010). And  if it’s the least bit controversial, forget it (no way would something like this get NEA money behind it). Same with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2011 federal subsidy: $430 million) compared to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2010 federal subsidy: $1.1 billion). (By the way: your population of about 34 million? A tenth of ours. Do the math in terms of arts and culture funding per person.)

You get Norman McLaren. We get Baseball.

Truth is, I’ve lived most of my adult life dealing with a deep, vicious and well-financed assault on the very notion of “the public.” I’m talking about a fundamental, ideological attack on the very notion of the American “commonwealth.”

You wouldn’t know it these days, but there are deep roots for an American tradition based in notions of community and commonwealth – very different from the ideology of individualism and the dominion of the private over all facets of life in American culture these days.  The small town barn raising, the New England town commons, the traditional urban neighborhood – these were real, lived pieces of American life. Sometimes they intersected with an authentically radical concept of democracy as well as a subversive culture of anti-authoritarianism. Leaven all that with waves of immigrant driven cultures of solidarity and communitarianism, combine it with socialists and populists both agrarian and urban, fire it in the heat of the African-American, Latino, and Asian-American struggle for justice, and shape it with the women’s movement, and the environmental movement.  There are deep roots here.

That’s why I don’t think today’s hegemony of the private is by any means permanent, even for this most individualistic of nations. But we have done such a terrible job of articulating the alternative definition of the “American experience” that the commons is almost invisible these days. Here in the States, we’ve really lost that ideological battle, at least for the time being.

I think that’s a lesson worth drawing from our experience here in the States. And a situation worth avoiding in the Canadian context.

So if it’s actually true that (regardless of how unexpected, even accidental, his majority win) the Harper government is about to embark on a fundamental attack on the Canadian commonweal, then the response needs to be commensurate to that threat. It’s not just (or even mainly) about the money. It’s a battle about what it means to be a Canadian, how a nation’s history, culture, sense of self is seen and understood, and what “the public” means today.

That’s a fight that extends way beyond how to finance the next movie. It binds artists, media makers, and creative types together with a whole range of other Canadians whose lives depend on a healthy, robust public sphere, a true commonwealth.

So maybe this is what will define media that really matters in Canada for the next few years. And maybe that’s what Media that Matters should think about for next year’s gathering, too.

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