Young people in Ontario are failing to live up to the moral expectations of their provincial government. Apparently, the young speak harshly to one another -- certain boys, for example, treat girls with disdain or worse. So the politicians have decided that the young must be raised to a higher standard of civility (perhaps even to the legislature's level of discourse).
Ontario can't provide adequate emergency hospital services or good public schools. Nevertheless, the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty apparently has so much extra time and money that it's launched a propaganda campaign to improve the private conversation of children and adolescents.
This month, we who belong to the suffering movie-going masses find ourselves confronted, against our will, by a nasty, heavy-handed commercial that's supposed to improve young lives. The ad begins with a male employee in a burger restaurant insulting a teenaged girl. As she pauses to consider her order, he rudely demands that she make up her mind. Then, staring at her, he says, "The last thing you need is a burger." As she edges away from him toward another cashier he says, "Don't you walk away from me." She leaves anyway.
By now, movie-goers are wondering what in the world this nonsense wants to say. Is it telling us not to work in (or, maybe, not to eat in) burger joints? Finally, the screen carries the words "it's not okay here" and then "and it's not okay from a boyfriend." It's advice for girls: Don't let your boyfriend talk to you the way the burger-man talks.
A Web address, Equality Rules.ca, appears, then the words "Paid for by the Government of Ontario."
The Web site tells us that the Ontario Women's Directorate in the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration has presented this little drama.
The Web site also has interactive cartoons telling kids how to behave (for instance, don't tease girls).
There's also some text online: "Have you ever heard a boy tease a girl at your school? Or watched as someone made a friend of yours feel bad about themselves? No one deserves to be treated unfairly." Equality Rules.ca rides to the rescue, eager to teach respect and equality between boys and girls.
The government sees this as part of the campaign against domestic violence; a notion has emerged that boys who are rude to girls will grow up to be men who beat women. But what if the young act as they usually do and refuse to accept the advice of their elders, particularly elders in the government?
Everybody should be against bullies, but politicians are in no position to deliver that message. Legislating decency is probably among the many tasks that government cannot hope to accomplish. Nevertheless, the provincial government thinks teenage conversation is part of its mandate.
(Dating behaviour: Is that a federal or a provincial responsibility? Discuss.)
Possibly, there are citizens who see nothing wrong here. In eroding the line between public and private life, the Ontario Women's Directorate and Sandra Pupatello, the minister responsible for women's issues, may reflect widespread opinion.
Officious, intrusive and presumptuous, the campaign carries more than a whiff of totalitarianism. Political reshaping of private lives has an ugly record. The Soviets believed they were creating, through education and mass media, a New Soviet Man, an industrious Marxist-Leninist whose dedication to communism would outweigh loyalties to religion, region or ethnicity. It was all a question of social engineering. Josef Skvorecky expressed that notion when he titled his much-admired 1993 novel The Engineer of Human Souls, referring to Stalin's insistence that novelists recreate humanity in the Soviet style.
In 1953, in what was then known as East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic, communist economics led to food shortages and crowds of citizens protested by rioting in East Berlin and several other cities.
The government had to bring in Soviet tanks to keep the workers in their place.
According to a poem written shortly after by Bertolt Brecht, an official leaflet was distributed in East Berlin stating that the people, by rioting, had lost the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts.
In that case, Brecht asked, would it not be easier "for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?"
With the help of the Soviets and its own secret police, that German government lasted an incredible 35 more years, then dissolved in an orgy of shame and recrimination. A democratic government that arrogantly treats citizens as clay to be moulded may have a much shorter life.
© National Post 2007