Almost exactly seven years ago, I made the first of what would ultimately be three or four pilgrimages to the flagship annual gathering of Canadian conservatism. To say that it didn’t disappoint would be something of an understatement. The first panel alone, in fact, proved to be such an interesting case study in conservatism that if I’d decided to leave the conference center and get back on the train then and there, the trip would still have been worth the trouble.
The panel in question featured one Adam Guillette of something called the “Moving Picture Institute”: a Koch-affiliated outfit which “promotes freedom through film” in the form of right-wing cinema enjoyed by God-knows-who. In the span of only a few minutes, Guillette delivered a spiel that has lingered in my memory ever since as the ultimate distillation of conservative victimhood and cultural grievance. For what it’s worth, the basic thrust of the speech was sound enough from a messaging point of view: effective political storytelling, as Guillette argued, is all about emotion, and good populist agitprop generally employs a David vs. Goliath framing.
In this particular room, of course, what this actually implied sounded like a discarded segment from a 2010 episode of The Colbert Report: Guillette waxing with absolutely zero irony about the need for stories featuring underdog billionaires and salt-of-the-earth petroleum executives put upon by the dark forces of Big Ozone. “The Left,” which in his mind seemed to include everyone and everything even one iota à gauche of right-wing conservatism, was — as I was surprised to learn — hegemonic almost everywhere in the culture: extending from schools and universities to Hollywood and popular children’s literature, the latter being especially complicit in spreading anti-capitalist ideology to the masses.
I am often given cause to remember this speech because its core ideas are so regularly reflected in conservative rhetoric today and, if anything, have only assumed a more prominent place in right-wing politics post-Trump. Conservatism in its present form, as has been exhaustively pointed out, is obsessed with culture and utterly drunk on its own victimhood. It’s also, as Marco Rubio recently reminded us, astonishingly adept at finding antagonists in the unlikeliest of places (the latest being that infamous bastion of Marxist dogma Amazon, Incorporated). When these three impulses are combined, the result is often pure absurdism — and the latest culture war panic out of Western Canada is no exception.
By way of background: in 2019 the province of Alberta, a major oil producer and for decades the heartland of Canadian conservatism, returned to right-wing governance after an unusual four-year stint of center-left rule. During his first year in office its new premier Jason Kenney (a veteran of the now defunct Reform Party and the federal cabinet of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper) made clear that the petroleum identity politics that had sustained the province’s right while in opposition would be carried forward into government in the form of a multimillion dollar, state-funded “war room” tasked with running defense for the oil industry.
Absurd as this already sounds, the idea has somehow proven still dumber in execution: this month, the so-called Canadian Energy Centre launched a public pressure campaign against Netflix because of a cartoon the company debuted in February called Bigfoot Family. Here’s a short rundown of the film’s plot, as summarized by the Toronto Star:
In the movie, the Bigfoot father is joined by protesters after he comes out in support of a local wildlife preserve that is up for oil development before mysteriously disappearing. His son, Adam, eventually tracks him down with the help of some animal friends and exposes the oil tycoon’s plans to develop oil by bomb before the hero gets a kiss from his crush.
And here’s how the Alberta government’s “war room” has responded:
Netflix recently added a kids movie that is spreading misinformation about the oil and gas industry…. The movie — called Bigfoot Family — was number one in Canada and the US when it debuted on the streaming service earlier this year – and peddles lies about the energy sector…. It even shows oil being extracted by blowing up a valley using glowing red bombs that look like something out of an action movie.
In a form letter drafted as part of its absurd campaign, the agency demands that Netflix executives make use of their “powerful platform to tell the true story of Canada’s peerless oil and gas industry and not contribute to misinformation targeting your youngest, most vulnerable and impressionable viewers.”
“Brainwashing our kids with anti-oil and gas propaganda is just wrong,” the site hosting the letter reads. “And Netflix needs to know that!”
As conservative culture war absurdity goes — a state-funded agency mounting a national pressure campaign against a children’s cartoon — the Government of Alberta vs. Bigfoot Family is definitely one for the record books. But hilarity aside, what’s striking is how precisely this kind of right-wing moral panic seems to replicate all the impulses conservatives depict as running rampant on the Left: hypersensitivity, an identity built on performative victimhood, the irrepressible urge to squelch ideas, and cultural products deemed to be offensive.
Jason Kenney’s vendetta against Netflix is transparently ridiculous. But it’s also what the Right’s absurdist culture war looks like when taken to its logical conclusion: David fighting Goliath, armed with nothing but a sling, a few stones, and the resources of a powerful provincial government in alliance with several major oil companies.