VANOC vs. Freedom of Speech = VANOC Wins

4 Dec

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. It’s like I have a real staff or something.

Let me explain.

I’ve written before about my correspondents, who I think will henceforth be capitalized due to their near-mythical status at this point – so I’ve written before about my Correspondents who send me story ideas and bring issues to my attention they feel are worthy to be featured on State of Affairs. Sometimes they send me truly silly things to make me laugh:

and for that I appreciate them even more, but today I was looking not for something funny but for something I could really sink my teeth into.

You see, there’s a sweet spot as far as State of Affairs posts go for me. An ideal story is one I can have a strong opinion about, poke fun at and generally use as a vehicle to exercise my literary brilliance – but one that can conceivably be covered in some meaningful way in the course of my day. Contrary to the evidence of the last few weeks, I do make a concerted effort to update this site more often than not, and doing research for things like the Pirate Bay article can be somewhat time consuming. More research equals less writing time, so I try to find topics that are either specialized enough or else broad enough that I can get away with having an opinion without having to fact-check the shit out of it, while maintaining some semblance of a regular update schedule to appease you, my dear readers.

Which is why I have spent my morning grinning ear-to-ear, because thanks to D., one of my vaunted team of Correspondents, I have discovered just such an issue.

As every Canadian is well aware thanks to the huge volume of press and hype we’ve been fed over the last year or so, Vancouver is gearing up to host the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralymic Games. I’ll pause here for the collective Heritage Moment circle-jerk of typically Canadian patriotism (just like we’re a real country or something!) and then I’ll continue.

Okay, now that we’re finished with all that True North Strong And Free hooey, we can get on with it. The Vancouver Organizing Committee (curiously acronym’d “VANOC” which sounds vaguely like what I’d imagine an Orc surname would) has been charged with organizing not only the Games themselves, but also what they’re calling the Cultural Olympiad. The Cultural Olympiad is envisioned as an artistic partnership to the athletics of the Games; it will include, according to CTV:

“A forest walk featuring sculpture and trombone music, a huge screen projecting cutting-edge videos and films by some of the world’s best visual artists, and DJs spinning electronic music into the early morning hours…”

as well as a concert tribute to Neil Young and performances by traditional musicians from all over the world. For my money, I’m almost more interested in that than the Games themselves, and I think it’s a wonderful idea, very much in line with the Canadian interest in diversity and multiculturalism for which we’re well known (even if we’re not well known for arts funding any other time).

But here’s the part where another great Canadian characteristic starts causing problems: that characteristic is politeness. Having done some travelling in my life, I think the biggest Canadian stereotype I’ve encountered (outside of a love of hockey, decent beer and anything that tastes like maple) is that we’re apparently all very polite individuals. I live in Toronto and I have to say I take some umbrage with that assertion, but I’m willing to concede that as a culture we’re rather more affable than the residents of some other places I’ve been.

Unfortunately, our desire to avoid stepping on toes sometimes clashes with our desire to be forward-thinking.

In the contract written by VANOC for all contributing Cultural Olympiad performers, they included the following stipulation:

“The artist shall at all times refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell and/or other sponsors associated with VANOC.”

Apparently this clause has a lot of the artists, as well as groups like the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) up in arms. A number of artists are pissed because they signed the contract without realizing this provision existed, and the BCCLA feels the clause is unacceptable due to the fact that VANOC is being funded both publicly and by the government. A statement released by BCCLA has called it a “propaganda clause” and is lobbying for its removal.

Part of the reason the clause has been called into question is because it’s a relatively new development in the history of the Games. Ray Grant, artistic director for the Cultural Olympiad at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, said:

“There was nothing from Salt Lake in which we in any way censored or shackled [our artists] through their work of art or in anything they wanted to say about the Olympics…[i]f this is a trend, it’s a bit of a dangerous trend for the arts.”

VANOC has responded to these allegations with a statement from the Cultural Olympiad’s program director Robert Kerr:

“If someone were to get up in the middle of a production and all of a sudden start coming off on an anti-Olympic rant, well that would be completely antithetical to the context of the work and the Games and the presenter…[w]e’re not asking anyone to promote our sponsors, but that they not come out and disrespect our sponsors.”

See what I mean? Canadian politeness at its best. Don’t step on any toes, right?

As a musician I have a few things to say about this.

First of all, if it ever comes down to across-the-board government sanction of what I can and can’t say either in my music or on this blog, you’d best believe I’ll be the first guy to take up arms against that particular sea of troubles. I believe very strongly in my right to say, quite frankly, whatever the hell I want on this blog and in my recordings; although I personally feel a responsibility to be well-informed about the issue before I put my head on the chopping block, in the interest of glass houses I will throw my support behind anyone who stands up and says what they believe – even if I don’t believe the same things. It’s the root of our culture in Canada to promote active discourse and free expression of opinions, and in my estimation it’s the heart of what we like to believe is the democratic society in which we all live.

In that respect I understand the concerns of artists and activists alike at the VANOC contract clause, and I believe it’s well within their rights to make their feelings known.

However.

I have spent considerable time over the years donating my time and, often, my musical ability to various causes I deem worthy, most notably a show I recently played in support of the Big Brothers and Sisters organization. In my situation, there was no contract to sign; it was a paying gig, nothing more. But if I had come out on stage and expressed my so-called constitutional right to freedom of speech by saying “these organizations are nothing more than breeding grounds for pedophiles” I would fully expect to be wrenched from the stage by enraged contributors and members and have my head strategically placed right through the body of my guitar. And I would deserve it.

Why?

First of all, even the smallest bar gigs are not easy to come by when you consider the sheer number of talented musicians that exist in this country. I consider it nothing short of an honour to be asked to play for an audience, because in some way it’s a validation of my talents (and there’s no place I love to be more than on a stage in front of a crowd). In the case of the Big Brothers show, I was granted that privilege by the organizers of that event – an event designed to raise money for that charity. What would it say about me to shit in the faces of those organizers – the very people who, on that night, were contributing to my ability to showcase my work (which could ostensibly lead to more gigs) not to mention helping to pay my rent for that month – by badmouthing their organization at their own event?

Simply put, I wouldn’t – and given it was a relatively small gig, they didn’t feel the need to make me sign something saying I wouldn’t because they could quite easily wrench me off the stage and put my head through my guitar if I did.

In the case of the VANOC situation, we’re not talking about a small charity gig – we’re talking about the Winter Olympics, an event held in front of quite literally millions of viewers in which Canada will be featured in the international spotlight. Knowing artist and activists as I do, that certainly looks to me like a plumb opportunity for them to showcase not only their talents but also whatever message they happen to be plugging this week – an opportunity many outspoken individuals would not hesitate to use to their advantage. Think about it: being part of the Cultural Olympiad guarantees you an audience that numbers, as I said, in the millions on an international stage. Given a great deal of Olympic footage is aired live, what devout supporter of this-or-that Cause of the Week could resist getting their message out before somebody could tackle them off the stage?

I’d like to take a moment to point out the fact that VANOC is not in any way limiting commentary on any major issue – except for the ones with which they’re directly associated. The Olympics are giving you the opportunity to be seen by the world; I don’t think it’s much to ask that you not trash-talk the Olympics while you’re there. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Same goes for their financial backers, also known as the people who are paying for the big-ass stage, the equipment, and the venue. You can shit on Bell anytime you like; why would you do it when they’re the ones putting you on stage?

Obviously, VANOC feels they can’t trust every performer to be respectful of the honour they’re being handed, so they put in this clause to ensure a little decorum. And to be frank I don’t see any problem with this at all.

First of all, if you’re an artist who signed the contract sight-unseen and now you’re bitching that you didn’t know the clause was there: either you need to hire better handlers to actually read the documentation or you should have bloody well read it yourself. If VANOC had put the clausein after you signed it, I’d be right there with you, but it was there from day one. Ignorance of the law is not a defense, people, so shut up – your stupidity ensures you don’t get an opinion anymore.

Second of all, like I said before, it boils down to a question of respect. If you have a beef with the Olympics or their sponsors, why would you want to play there to begin with unless it was specifically to get a chance to tear them down on their own turf? You’re not going to see me playing any Ku Klux Klan meetings anytime soon, because I fundamentally disagree with the tenets of their organization. If you don’t like the Olympics, don’t play them. And if you don’t have a problem with them, why are you getting all worked up over the stipulation? If it’s a question of principle you need your head read.

I know, I just know I’m going to get hate mail for this, but I’m sorry – the principle of “freedom of speech” is less important than its functionality. This is not a big deal at all, for the reasons I just stated. Is it setting a “precedent” towards limiting contact with the press or freedom of speech? Absolutely not! This is Canada – you can say more in public in this country than almost anywhere else in the world. Do you really think for a second that VANOC’s move is going to alter what’s in our Charter? No, it’s a specialized case.

Back in 1990 an Albertan high school teacher called James Keegstra was charged with promoting hate when it was discovered he was promoting an anti-Semitic agenda in his classroom. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court of Canada because the defense tried to make the charge out to be a violation of Keegstra’s freedom of speech. The Supreme Court held firm, however; they stated the proliferation of hate propaganda was more detrimental than allegedly denying a citizen freedom of speech. When you figure the guy was a teacher, ostensibly an authority figure from whom children were supposed to be learning, this ruling makes perfect sense.

Okay, it’s a bit overreaching to compare a Holocaust denier with some hippie who doesn’t like Bell, but the principle remains the same. Sometimes, the freedom to say whatever you want directly contrasts with your venue, kind of like running into a movie theatre and screaming “fire”. The point is VANOC is not impeding its artists’ freedom of speech anywhere but at that specific venue, for a specific period of time. After it’s all over, you can go home and scream “fire” as much as you want to, but while you’re at the theatre and the movie is playing, keep your goddamn mouth shut. And if you don’t like it, leave and go scream “fire” elsewhere.

I’m sick and tired of people hiding behind freedom to promote their own agendas. There are plenty of venues – in this case, any other venue you could possibly name in this country – where you can air your opinions about whatever you want. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, and stop taking advantage of our freedoms by trying to shoehorn your so-called rights into every conceivable situation.

Oh, Canada.

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3 Responses to “VANOC vs. Freedom of Speech = VANOC Wins”

  1. dusty December 4, 2009 at 3:25 PM #

    clearing up my field of view
    (like this article)
    makes it easier to see your point of view

  2. Brent Chittenden December 4, 2009 at 3:28 PM #

    Well put.

    What it really boils down to is this.

    READ

    WHAT

    YOU

    SIGN

    You don’t like the fact this clause is in there? Return the money, cancel the contract.

    And if it makes you feel any better to the artists, the Olympics are going to destroy Vancouver when they’re done and then you will have tons to gripe about.

  3. dusty December 4, 2009 at 5:04 PM #

    thanks BC

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