Comedian Yakov Smirnov reminisced in 2014: “As a comedian in the Soviet Union, I was censored by the “Department of Jokes.” Well, actually it was called the Humor Department of the Censorship Apparatus of Soviet Ministry of Culture. I think they were hoping that by the time you finished saying their name, you’d be too exhausted to tell more jokes.”
The CIA, bless their hearts, translated the 1956 Soviet RSFSR Criminal Code, which you may know as Ugolovnyy Kodeks RSFSR if you run in such circles. It is a fascinating read, full of concepts like social danger, counterrevolutionary crimes, odd qualifiers (“This section shall not apply to persons who commit crimes in a state of intoxication.”), etc. Crimes against the Soviet system had their own preeminent status, as somewhat comedically noted (comedically because I did not have to live under it…):
You might wonder what kind of weirdo would go rummaging through such a document. I can’t answer that question specifically, weirdness has many stripes, but I can say that I know I did, and you may measure that as you will. The machinations of the old Soviet system have long been fascinating. It was somewhat startling then to read some recent proposed Canadian legislation and have a tiny voice sear through my brain saying “You’ve seen this before somewhere.”
Yakov Smirnov again: “So, a communist party official goes to a factory and says to one of the workers, ‘If you had a glass of vodka could you work today?’ The worker said, ‘I guess I could.’ ‘If you had two glasses of vodka, could you work?’ He said, ‘I guess I could.’ ‘If you had three glasses of vodka, could you work?’ He said, ‘I’m here, aren’t I?’ That joke did not pass.”
The legislation I am referring to is, of course, NDP MP Charlie Angus’ Bill C-372: An Act respecting fossil fuel advertising. You can’t help but burst out laughing if you read that Act’s name, and compare it to its contents.
The draft bill specifies penalties for producers (“on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding $1,000,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to both”) and individuals of any stripe (“Every person, other than a producer, who contravenes section 6 is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $500,000.”)
The true scope of the legislation is driven home even more forcefully elsewhere in the bill, and no, it does not stop at advertising. This is Bill C-372’s definition of ‘promotion’ [emphasis added]: promotion means a representation about a product or service by any means, whether directly or indirectly, including any communication of information about the product or service and its price and distribution, that is likely to influence and shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about the product or service.”
Don’t be silly, says the NDP, we’re not censoring anyone; the legislation is only aimed at false advertising. Sheesh, comrades, read the title. Mr. Angus himself, on Twitter: “Not to panic. #BillC372 doesn’t jail people for liking fossil fuels. It’s simply focused on false advertising…”
Really? From Bill C-372 itself: “8 It is prohibited for a person to promote a fossil fuel or the production of a fossil fuel…(b) in a manner that states or suggests that a fossil fuel or the practices of a producer or of the fossil fuel industry would lead to positive outcomes in relation to the environment, the health of Canadians, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples or the Canadian or global economy.”
Take a breather for one more memory from Mr. Smirnov: “It could take years to get a car in Soviet Russia at that time. So the guy goes to the car dealer and says, ‘I’d like to buy a car.’ The sales manager said, ‘Okay, put your name on the list, and come back in 20 years to pick up your car.’ The guy said, ‘Do I come back in the morning or in the afternoon?’ The manager said, ‘What’s the difference? It’s 20 years from now.’ The guy said, ‘The plumber is scheduled to come that morning.’ That joke did not pass either.”
OK, back to business. It will be necessary to address the catcalls that will be emanating forth from the bill’s defenders, guffawing in their lattes that someone would compare Soviet laws with Canada’s.
Remember a few paragraphs before, this nugget from Angus’ Act: “The draft bill specifies penalties for producers (“on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding $1,000,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to both.”
Hey, would you look at that…
Beyond the sentencing parallels, the overarching and all-encompassing murkiness is startling. A ‘representation about a product that is likely to influence or shape attitudes’ is so astonishingly broad that it catches almost any dialogue about fossil fuels at all. One could argue that influencing people negatively about fossil fuels would create a criminal, according to this legislation. That’s how broad and insidious it is; the bill seeks the power to control the narrative, however the authors would like to define it. The draft legislation is astonishingly even more broad based than the Soviet law 59-7, which only creates a criminal if the person did something ‘designed to arouse national enmity or discord’. According to the NDP, you would be guilty for simply ‘influencing or shaping attitudes’.
Almost everyone that speaks about energy would be a criminal under this legislation. Even Justin Trudeau, believe it or not. From the Liberal Party website: “We also believe that TMX could solve a core economic challenge we currently face.” That statement clearly violates ‘promoting the production of a fossil fuel…in a manner that states or suggests that a fossil fuel or the practices of a producer or of the fossil fuel industry would lead to positive outcomes in relation to the environment, the health of Canadians, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples or the Canadian or global economy.’
What can one conclude, when draft censorship legislation catches almost everyone that comments on energy? Which by definition is true, because if one speaks of fossil fuels long enough, with a clear brain, it will be necessary to admit fossil fuels are at least in some way beneficial for society.
The draft legislation is clearly laughable, but consider the very useful side effect. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes is something wonderful about all this legislative brain-gunk, and how it actually can help clarify and clear the air. Bear with me for a second before getting to that.
In the days after Angus’ press conference announcing the draft legislation, his supporters took to the airwaves in support. This tweet was from a writer at the far-end-of-spectrum National Observer: “You’ve hit a nerve @CharlieAngusNDP. One can measure the merit & strength of a climate policy by the reaction of the oil and gas companies and their political/media defenders.”
Think about the quality of thought that would “measure the merit & strength” of a censorship policy based on how upset the people being censored become. A naked and value-less attempt at provocation. An abdication of reason, an abdication of constructiveness, a purposeful attempt to do nothing more than get under someone’s skin.
The same vicious vacuousness forms the core of Angus’ attempt to do whatever it is he’s trying to do. In his new conference, he compared fossil fuels to tobacco, repeatedly, which is a handy shortcut indeed, because that comparison is the seal of authenticity – guaranteed ignorance, present. Comparing tobacco to fuel is a complete forfeiture of common sense: Tell us how you heat your home with tobacco. Tell us how a farmer fills his tractor with tobacco to grow your food. Tell us how virtually every consumer product and medical staple is made from tobacco.
When you think about it, this draft legislation and supportive reactions remind one of Alex Jones. Yes, that Alex Jones, the Infowars shotgun-mouth guy that claimed the Sandyhook elementary school massacre never happened. The type of guy that will stare the camera in the eye and declare Joe Biden or Hilary Clinton to be pedophiles. He’s a bombastic schnook that thunders away relentlessly, drifting further and further from sane dialogue like a boat that’s lost its tether. (I watched Alex Jones enter a ‘debate’ about the events of January 6. A person from each side presented arguments that were researched and reasoned. Jones floated in the middle, hovering and shouting, unable to rise to the level of the surrounding discourse in any vislble way. It was painful.)
You might ask what those could possibly have in common – hard left and hard right. Here’s the beauty of free speech: When every voice is allowed to be heard, the common person with any reasoning capability whatsoever can spot the lunatic. It doesn’t matter what your middle of the road political leanings are, there is a wide swath of people that just know instinctively to distance themselves.
Here’s what’s so awesome: When free speech is allowed, the lunatics plaster the fact that they’re lunatics right across their foreheads. They self-identify as such. We know who to exclude from civilized and/or constructive conversations. To a rational person, it becomes impossible to ‘take sides’ with these people, even if you agree with the underlying thesis they vaguely try to stand on.
The outstanding Tara Henley, an ex-CBC journalist now independent, had these excellent thoughts on her Substack the other day, in reference to what she calls identitarian moralism: “The problem with this ideology, I think, is that it has taken the very good instincts of very many well-meaning Canadians — This thinking has dominated the media. It’s a very difficult thing to unpack, because it is presented as a moral imperative. ‘If you are a decent person, this is how you should think about the world.’… Many of the arguments that I had in the newsroom, for example, were about pointing out that this is a political ideology and we are politicizing content… It’s very divisive. Many of its ideas go against the liberal, pluralistic ethos that many of us have been raised with.”
The liberal, pluralistic ethos Henley refers to is arguably one that we most want to see. Acceptance of various viewpoints, with the most important overriding criteria that they be grounded in reality. Universalities have to be.
There is no good path forward if thinking like this legislation is part of the discourse. It doesn’t fit with anything a society should be working towards, even if working towards a better environment. We have a lot of work to do. No productive person should be wasting a second even contemplating hate-filled fringe output, but because it is not fringe – taxpayers in one way or another funded this censorship legislation, right into the house of parliament – we can’t entirely ignore it.
Canada has a million things to fix, like the cost of living, like housing, or Indigenous drinking water, or our lamentable military capabilities. As part of the global energy community we are part of many fantastic new energy developments that we can build, and build especially well, if we leverage the full might of our hydrocarbon sector, and not work to erase it. There is no room in the discourse for the spectrum-end wingnuts.
Having said that, the last thing we want to do, or should do, is silence them, censorship is for doomed dictatorships. But we don’t have to fixate on them – the best thing is to just step around them and get to work.
Energy conversations should be positive, grounded in reality, and…funny! Life depends on it, both the energy and the humour. Find out more in “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. Thanks!