Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When You Stop Taking Advice: It happened to Britney Spears and it will happen to Canada

There was a moment in the short and tumultuous career of Britney Spears where she fired everyone who disagreed with her and surrounded herself with a team of people who smiled and nodded their fat heads along at every little thing she said. Can you guess what happened? Well, amongst other things, this happened:

A crude, cruel, and exploitative way to make a point, perhaps, but unfortunately it's a perfect metaphor for our lives right now. You see, there is a period in every too-short entertainment career where the people who pay too much attention to the culture-machine for a living say “…that person has become too powerful, too confident, they have strayed too far from their ability to be self-critical, they think that everything they do is right, and they are ready to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. They’re done.” And what happens next - every time - (with the possible exception of Neil Young, though only sort of) is that person’s career comes to a comedically tragic halt. The next time you see them, if you see them again at all, they are a confused shadow of their former selves, too scared (and scarred) to put on the show we all know they were capable of. The time after that, they’re Elvis Presley, performing in some kind of bloated gospel train wreck in Las Vegas, taking breaks to eat a bacon and peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich on a doublewide hoagie bun.  Or they’re over compensating for themselves in some kind of a twisted self-celebratory-circus at a half-sold area that is barely big enough to hold all the pieces of their broken ego. If you see them once more, it is often in a photograph that leaked to a tabloid by an intern at the hospital where they were pronounced dead, and it isn’t pretty. Not that it ever was.

The reason you hire people to give you advice is so that opinions and ideas other than your own are on the table. The reason you consider these opinions and ideas is because it will make the final product better. The reason we have agreed to give credibility to people who have areas of expertise is because it is impossible for any of us to know everything by ourselves, and the only ways out of that involve either going in blind, or asking someone who might know better than us.  Even if you say “no” to their advice, it is inherently a more informed “no.”

Except in Canada. In Canada, we’re learning, the people in charge favour the Britney Spears (circa 2005) approach to decision making, and have, over time, consistently continued to devalue the role of advice in the process of governing the country and in the day-to-day life of Canadians. That process has been accelerating rapidly since The Conservative Party of Canada attained a Majority in the House of Commons Last year.

We see this, for example, in the Harper Government's recent saber-rattling surrounding environmental groups and their status as charities. The government has put environmental groups on alert, saying that their activities are acting against "Canadian interests," and that if they continue to do so, they will lose their ability to issue charitable tax receipts to donors.

Party of the Conservatives line of argument here, as I understand it, is that Canadian environmental groups are taking an advocacy role (as opposed to a charitable one, whatever that is), and that they are doing it with foreign money that reflects outside interests. Let’s consider the validity of these statements one by one.

Environment Minister Peter Kent recently accused environmental charity groups of “laundering” foreign money. I’ll do Mr. Kent a favour and ignore the fact that he made up a new definition for “money laundering” (which as far as I know refers to concealing the source of illicitly attained funds). Instead, I will draw up a list of all of the charity organizations in Canada and put them in order of how much money they receive from foreign donors. As it turns out, of the top ten organizations on that list, only one of those organizations could even remotely be considered an environmental organization. Any guesses? Greenpeace Canada? Nope. Some angry long hairs in the anti-oil-and-gas sands business channeling vast quantities of Venezuelan capital into Fort Mac via their Hugo Chavez inspired bristol board protest campaigns? Not this time. Ducks Unlimited?


The environmental organization in Canada that, far and away, “launders” the most un-Canadian dollars into the country uses Daffy Duck as their spokes-cartoon, and is dedicated to preserving Canadian wetlands so that their grandchildren will be able to go shoot ducks on it just like they did when they were kids. And they money they're receiving? A lot of it comes from "U.S. federal and state governments." Radicals.

And how about this whole charitable status thing? Currently, if you have charitable status in Canada, you can offer your donors charitable tax receipts that allows them to, in short, pay less taxes. It can be a huge incentive for some larger donors, and so it plays a huge role in an organization's ability to fund raise. Conservatives in the house and senate have been arguing that opposing projects like the oil sands is uncharitable and should result in a loss of status.

You get a charitable tax receipt for donating to laughably right wing think tanks like The Fraser Institute (apparently opposing public health care is a perfectly charitable activity). You get a charitable tax receipt for donating to the charismatically-challenged soft social democrats at The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You get a tax receipt for giving money to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, to homeless shelters that make their vulnerable guests listen to bible study, and to homeless outreach teams that give away free crack pipes. The point isn’t whether or not you agree. In fact, it is very much the opposite of that. The point is helping people with various viewpoints and goals (whether they be artistic, environmental, social, Christian, corporate, etc.) acquire the necessary resources to start and facilitate the kind of conversation that will help us collectively reach the best possible outcome.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the people in charge have ever listened particularly well. What I am suggesting that there is a difference between, say, just ignoring what an environmentally interested organization has to offer, and removing their charitable status and thus their ability to raise money, produce research, and circulate information. Or, if you want to get even more Conservative, just wiping them off of the map entirely.

You see, the Conservatives approach to tolerating dissenting opinions was articulated even further earlier this week by Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, when he was re-explaining why his government was eliminating funding to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE).

Lets back this truck up: Since 1988, the NRTEE (an independent, scientific, arms-length, public organization) has been tasked with producing research on how business and government policies can work together for sustainable development. This year, their budget reduced to zero. This week, Baird confirmed that they were shut down because all they do is produce research on how business and government policies can work together for sustainable development.

There’s nothing particularly shocking about this. It’s annoying, but I’ve found Conservatives annoying for a long time now. Baird, though, kept talking. Speaking in the House of Commons, the Honourable Member said, verbatim, "Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected?”

Okay. Maybe. I don’t actually remember us rejecting that, but whatever, Baird hates the carbon tax so much he thinks we shouldn't help people think about it. It gets better. Because next Baird said that if the NRTEE wanted to be a funded organization, they "should agree with Canadians.” At first I found this confusing, but he kindly clarified that what he meant is that: “It should agree with the government.”

Ding ding.

There it is. Grade A1 honesty. This is where we go from “if you don’t agree with us, we don’t want to hear about it,” to “if you don’t agree with us, we don’t want anybody to hear about it, and we will actively try and prevent you from having the resources to communicate your independent research.”

Now, I happen to think the notion of a carbon tax is - in many ways - a deeply flawed idea. Does that mean that I don’t think we should ask someone who isn’t motivated one way or the other by carbon-profits to look into it, and to do their best to convince me otherwise? Of course it doesn’t. I want to know about what they find, and I want to be given the opportunity to weigh their expertise and their biases against my own, so that I can make up my mind. I want the society I live in to be able to produce enough quality information to let me make an informed decision about my own values.

And this is what makes me think about the moment when Britney Spears stopped taking the advice of her manager, and started getting in and out of limousines without any underwear on.

I don’t mean Britney Spears should have done everything her coke-fueled, label-mandated, cash-eyed, record-shilling manager told her too, and I don't mean Conservatives should do everything an environmental charity says, but taking good advice is just as valuable a skill as rejecting bad advice. After all, where would we be if Johnny Cash had believed Sun Records' Sam Phillips when he said that dark gospel music wasn't commercially viable. If Andy Kauffman relented to critics and just told jokes? Or if former Prime Minister Paul Martin took his church seriously about the moral degradation that was sure to ensue from equal marriage? Or if Neil Young had just made the commercial record David Geffen wanted him to (again though, only sort of)?

But the over arching point here is that there is a difference between valuing advice and simply doing what you’re told. Because on the other hand, where would we be if the Talking Heads hadn’t reluctantly taken Brian Eno’s fine advice about the off-beat drum hit on Once In A Lifetime? If Butch Vig hadn’t tricked Kurt Cobain, against his will, into layering the guitars and double tracking his vocals on Nevermind? If Bruce Springsteen hadn’t taken his manager John Landau’s advice, and instead sold Hungry Heart to The Ramones like he wanted to do (true story)? If The Beatles hadn’t taken manager Brian Epstein’s advice and ditched the black leather onesies

When you fail to consider the fact that other people at the table with different ideas might be correct, it’s over. When you kick them off the team, you’re done. You’re done as a singer. You’re done as an artist. You’re done as a nation. You’re done as a society.

So, we’ve got a choice: On one hand, we can (metaphorically) invite David Geffin, and John Landau, and Brian Epstein, and Brian Eno, and Butch Vig, and Neil Young, and even John Baird (though I’m not promising I’ll be nice to him), and Paul Martin’s Priest, to the table. We can play a couple of rounds of cards, ask about the kids, and get down to the business of finding out who has the best idea. Alternatively, we can fire everyone who disagrees with us, suppress their ability to talk to others, and charge blindly forward into a pathetic world of wardrobe malfunctions, endless unwanted reunion tours, discount-bin-destined “Greatest Hits” records, public meltdowns, and front-page-tabloid death certificates.

Unfortunately, if I was hedging my bets, I’d be buying myself front row season’s ticket seats to the Fat-Later-Years-Canada traveling-circus-road-show in the hopes that I could be there to catch the handkerchief that we toss into the crowd after using it to wipe the alcohol-and-pills-fueled sweat off of our cellulite brow. I would take it home and never wash it and hang it up on the wall next to a picture of our country when we were young and skinny and pretty and we weren’t so damn worthless.

Sorry. Prove me wrong.