Unplanned totalitarianism: Canada’s Careless Flirtation with Censorship

censorshipI have no plans to see Unplanned.

With two busy medical practices and four non-passive kids between us, the odds of my wife and I carving out time to take in the anti-abortion film – or any other movie for that matter – are roughly on par with Donald Trump resigning his presidency to take up knitting.

It’s not that I have no interest in the abortion debate.  Like many Canadians, I do, and as I have explained elsewhere, one doesn’t have to be religious to entertain moral misgivings about ending unborn life.

After a tempestuous run in the United States the movie has triggered a spate of protests in Canada.  Threats of violence against theatre employees forced cancellation of a planned showing in Salmon Arm, B.C., and two independent theatre owners yanked the film from their rosters in the face of death threats.

The documentary stars Ashley Bratcher as a Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas who, according to the film’s website, becomes an anti-abortion speaker after “the day she saw something that changed everything”.

Media reviews have been, for the most part, excoriating.  This take-down by Amanda Marcotte in Salon is typical:

“From the subject matter to the script to the marketing, “Unplanned” is infused with right-wing grift, a pure exercise in the craft of exploiting reactionary impulses to separate fools not just from their money, but from common sense.” 

Perhaps that assessment – echoed in many other quarters – is correct.  And what if it is?  Should Canadian theatres be banned from screening it?  Should we be prevented from trudging to cinemas to judge for ourselves?

The very notion puts me in mind of book-burning crazes of yore, long used by authoritarians, religious and secular both, to incinerate dissenting views deemed threatening to the prevailing order.

One doesn’t have to be overly-schooled in the tenets of liberty to understand that freedom of expression lies at the beating heart of our democracy.

That principle, however, apparently eludes Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  Affronted by the screening of Unplanned in Canada, she had this to say on Twitter:

“This is happening, at least in part, thanks to the support received by federal Conservative politicians.”

That Telford would fan the flames of censorship for partisan gain is disturbing, to put it mildly.  But it’s not surprising.  After all, she serves a prime minister overtly hostile to differences of opinion on abortion.  “Tolerance for all – unless you disagree with me, then no tolerance for you” seems to be his inner guiding light.

Shortly after he became Liberal party leader Trudeau mandated that all members of his caucus be pro-choice.  He swung the authoritarian hammer again in 2018 to create the “Summer Jobs” fiasco:  charitable organizations were denied taxpayer funding unless they hopped on board with the Liberal Party pro-choice position.  (Rather than sell their souls to the state, venerable organizations like Calgary’s Mustard Seed, tireless providers of shelter and meals to the poor and hungry, simply declined the funds.)

Trudeau’s autocratic nature is thoroughly cloaked in “progressive” prattling, but his authoritarian streak is glaringly obvious to anyone paying attention.

This is a man, after all, who saluted murderous Cuban dictator Fidel Castro with a glowing tribute after his death in 2016.

This is a man who admires China’s “basic dictatorship” (which is darkly ironic, given that China has contemptuously “turned on a dime” this year to sabotage economic trade with our nation while unjustly imprisoning our citizens).

This is a man who thinks it’s perfectly OK to buy off our media with $600 million of taxpayers’ dollars to solidify its function as Liberal government mouthpiece. 

Trudeau was in Edmonton last week to assure downtrodden Albertans that the TransMountain pipeline will finally be built.  He wasn’t fazed by the fact that a day earlier he had proudly presented rabid anti-pipeline activist Steven Guilbeault as Liberal candidate for the Montreal riding of Laurier—Sainte-Marie.  Pointed questions about his latest hypocrisy prompted this response:

One of the important things for us is to make sure we are listening to the voices of Canadians, the preoccupations of Canadians… We are a government that understands that Canadians have a broad range of views on a lot of different issues.  That’s why we have a great and diverse team that we are building that’ll have strong perspectives and strong opinions on what to say.”

It’s safe to say that we’ll never witness Trudeau recruiting ardent pro-lifers to his team of candidates, the better to incorporate Canadians’ “broad range of views” around abortion.  Consistency, suffice it to say, isn’t the PM’s schtick.

This essay isn’t meant to defend the content, message or quality of Unplanned.  As I said, I haven’t seen it.  But Canadians’ should vehemently resist attempts to censor what we are permitted to view.  National Post columnist John Ivison, responding to Telford on Twitter, drilled to the nub of the matter:

“I’d imagine I disapprove of the content of this film.  But I would defend to the death the right of its producers to say it.”

In a refreshing display of corporate courage, Cineplex Odeon, the theatre giant supplying some of its Canadian screens to the film, got it exactly right:

“We understand and can appreciate the concerns some have expressed about the film. That said, we have a long legacy of not censoring content, as our role as a film exhibitor is to provide our guests with movie choices.  We believe it is up to the public to decide whether they would like to see a particular film and our guests can give voice to their views and opinions by choosing to buy a ticket to the movie or not.”

“Documentaries”, of course, are notorious vehicles of misinformation, best approached with truckloads of skepticism.  Kernels of truth are shrouded in layers of hyperbole and distortion before the whole mess is passed off as settled fact.  Producers do it over and over again because it’s extremely effective.

The highest grossing documentary of all time, Michael Moore’s much celebrated 2004 creation Fahrenheit 9/11, stands as shining example of this sort of thing.  The film is a no-holds-barred smear of George W. Bush’s presidency and character, courtesy of a complex scaffolding of innuendo and conspiracy theories built around Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq.  Moore’s production generated plenty of controversy and heated discussion.  But I don’t recall anyone on the left – or the right – agitating for the film to be banned.

Assessing how closely “documentary” material aligns with truth is a treacherous exercise.  People crowd the arena with their agendas – jostling, manipulating, distorting, screeching.  But a healthy, free society allows for this, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.

If Unplanned is indeed a festering packet of lies, if Conservative politicians are gullibly supporting unsupportable propaganda, well, then Telford has every right to make that case, to present evidence thereof, to demonstrate their folly and bury them politically in own wrongheadedness.

But she has no right to suggest that the film should be banned.

There are circumstances, I should point out, in which censorship is absolutely warranted, even in the healthiest of democracies.  There are some lines that should never be crossed, subject matter that should never be aired.

In any normal time, for instance, we would collectively agree that a television show celebrating the objectivation, fetishization, and sexual exploitation of children should be entirely off limits.

But these are not normal times.

In twisted juxtaposition to the fuss over Unplanned, our taxpayer-funded national broadcaster is airing Drag Kids, a documentary celebrating the immersion of four Canadian pre-teens (three males and one female) in the hyper-sexualized drag queen scene.

This breathless promo from the CBC:

“A new type of queen is emerging on the scene: she’s fierce, she’s living in a time of unprecedented access to queer culture and she’s younger than ever before.

And from the liberal media, in response?  Crickets.

Well, not “crickets” exactly.  Instead, glowing affirmation and enthusiastic plaudits lauding the “bravery” of these poor kids and the woke-ness of their exploitative parents, in holy supplication to the dogmas of “diversity” and “inclusivity”.

Welcome to the world of drag kids,” gushed the Huffington Post, “A burgeoning scene of wig-loving, sequin-covered, pint-sized showboats with all the gender-pushing attitude and sass of their adult counterparts.”

And welcome to modern-day Canada, where we celebrate the exploitation of young children while stifling debate around terminating the unborn.

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