By Jonathan Kay
A Review of Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age. Tom Flanagan. Signal, 2014.
From the Spring-Summer 2014 issue of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, available now on newsstands & at Chapters/Indigo.
THE LAST YEAR of Tom Flanagan’s life offers proof that success is the best revenge. In early 2013, his detractors vilified him as an apologist for pedophilia, and hounded him out of prestigious roles as a pundit and public speaker. But his exile turned out to be temporary: instead of curling up in a ball and retreating from public life, he took to the media, and explained forthrightly why he’d said what he did. And in time, a backlash grew against those who had rushed to judgment. Now, Flanagan has written a fascinating (and surprisingly wide-ranging) book about the experience. In Persona Non Grata he describes not only the effect that the ordeal had on his life, but also the lessons it taught him about mob behaviour, modern politics, social media and Canada’s anti-pornography laws.
For four decades, Flanagan built a career out of Calgary as a respected historian specializing in Louis Riel, a CBC panelist, and a political advisor to right-of-centre politicians — up to and including Stephen Harper. Yet all of that seemed to go up in smoke when he answered a question about child pornography during a Q&A session at a February 27, 2013 speaking event in Lethbridge, Alberta.
The ostensible subject of discussion that night was listed as “Is It Time to Reconsider The Indian Act?” — a question to which Flanagan has devoted much of his professional life. But the hall was packed with protestors from Idle No More who were eager to humiliate Flanagan (whose somewhat conservative views on aboriginal issues they revile) in any way they could.
When given the chance to hold forth on a sensitive subject raised by one of the audience members, Flanagan took the bait. “On the child pornography issue, since that was brought up, you know a lot of people on [my] conservative side of the spectrum are on a jihad against pornography — and child pornography in particular,” he told the crowd. “And I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters. But I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures. I don’t look at these pictures. [However], it is a real issue of personal liberty to what extent we put people in jail for something in which they do not harm another person.”
Notwithstanding the somewhat flippant way in which Flanagan made his point (“taste in pictures”), his argument was entirely defensible. Every reasonable and humane person agrees that sexually abusing children should be treated as a serious crime, as should the production and trafficking of pornography derived from such abuse. But the wording of Canada’s child-porn law covers much more than that: It also criminalizes all sorts of imaginary works that arise solely out of the imagination of their creator. It even covers pornography made using adult models who are merely pretending to be younger than 18. Plenty of mainstream pornography sites contain images of adult women dressed as schoolgirls — and any of the millions of Canadians who have looked at them on a home computer could, under a literal reading of our Criminal Code, theoretically be arrested for child-porn possession. Given all this, it should not be out of bounds for Flanagan — or anyone else — to argue that it is wrong to impose mandatory six-month jail sentences (as Canadian law now stipulates) on anyone convicted under such an overly broad law.
But once a mobbing begins, such fine legalisms are just words in the wind. Arnell Tailfeathers, the native activist who recorded Flanagan’s Lethbridge speech, posted the video to YouTube under the tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” That description was a flat-out lie. Yet across Canada, the mob believed the lie — despite the fact it would have taken just a minute or two to check the video and listen to what Flanagan actually said.
At first, the social-media mob leaders were Idle No More activists with a pre-existing anti-Flanagan axe to grind. But within mere hours, the fevered denunciations had spread to mainstream commentators. As the mobbing continued for several days, Bruce Wallace, editor of Montreal-based Policy Options magazine, declared to Flanagan: “I take issue, in the strongest terms, with your statement that viewing child pornography does not cause harm to children. That statement reflects values that are deeply at odds with my own. As a result, I will not publish your work in the magazine I edit.”
Amazingly, during the two-and-a-half blissful hours that Flanagan spent driving home from Lethbridge to Calgary, listening to an audiobook version of Sue Grafton’s V Is for Vengeance, he had no idea that he was being savagely denounced by Canadians from coast to coast. It was only when he arrived home that he got wind of the video, and saw the fallout pour out of his inbox. As he puts it, “I left Lethbridge as a respected academic and public commentator, and arrived in Calgary as persona non grata.”
One might expect this book to be soaked in self-pity. But Flanagan, ever the detached intellectual, instead tries to situate his ordeal in a larger sociological context. He notes, for instance, that mob-like bullying behaviour is well-ingrained in evolutionary psychology (and not just in humans, as any bird-watcher can attest). Regarding the hysterical reaction to his own comments, he describes it as a form of “moral panic,” of the type documented by English sociologist Stanley Cohen. Since the 1980s, parents in Western societies have become obsessed with the fear that a whole army of sexual predators is scheming to pounce on their children. Anyone who questions the increasingly draconian legal framework designed to address this fearful attitude is denounced as an enabler of pedophilia.
Not too long ago, the greatest mobbing threat came on college campuses, where professors or students accused of expressions of racism, sexism or some other thought crime would be brought up before disciplinary committees based on some stray classroom remark. But Flanagan’s experience shows how this is changing. It is now right-wing conservative politicians, eager to demonstrate their zero-tolerance attitude toward criminal sexual perversions, who most enthusiastically take up the torch and pitchfork.
“On at least three occasions, conservative politicians or campaign organizations have tried to label opponents as supporters of child pornography,” the author notes. “Stockwell Day against Lorne Goddard in 1999; the Conservative war room against Liberal prime minister Paul Martin in the 2004 federal election campaign; and Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews against opponents of his draft Internet surveillance legislation in 2012.” (To this list, Flanagan might have added Sun News host Ezra Levant, who in March, 2014, attacked opposing counsel in a libel case on the grounds that the law firm in question represented an accused child-porn user. Apparently, the hardcore conservative view is that these defendants aren’t even allowed to have lawyers anymore.)
The sheer viciousness of conservatives’ attacks against Flanagan was quite despicable. Alberta Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith — a woman whom Flanagan had known for 20 years — put out a press release declaring that “there is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan’s comments.” Flanagan had been an advisor to Wildrose for several years, but was instantly cast into purdah. “Dr. Flanagan does not speak for me or the Wildrose caucus and he will have no role — formal or informal — with our organization going forward,” Ms. Smith added.
The same day, Andrew McDougall, Stephen Harper’s communications director, tweeted: “Tom Flanagan’s comments on child pornography are repugnant, ignorant and appalling.” Alberta Premier Alison Redford told reporters that Flanagan’s comments “turned my stomach. I’m absolutely disgusted by it.” The Manning Centre for Building Democracy, at whose March 2013 conference in Ottawa Flanagan was supposed to speak, told him not to bother showing up — and Manning himself personally criticized Flanagan in his remarks from the podium. (“Ironically,” notes Flanagan, “the featured speaker at the conference was American libertarian Ron Paul, whose views on child pornography are similar to mine and who was the only Republican to vote against some of the more extreme and repressive legislation passed by Congress.”)
With Persona Non Grata, Flanagan did not set out to write a book about Stephen Harper’s government. (He already did that in 2007 with Harper’s Team.) Yet he provides us with a damning indictment of the man, nonetheless: Flanagan’s treatment by the prime minister — a man with whom he worked intimately, and in several capacities, for many years — is described as being typical of the manner by which Harper politically annihilates any former friend he comes to regard as inconvenient.
Harper, Flanagan writes, “has enormous gifts of intelligence, willpower, and work ethic; but there is also a dark, almost Nixonian side to the man … He can be suspicious, secretive, and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia.” The list of Conservatives exiled by Harper during his dark moods is long and growing: Helena Guergis, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Nigel Wright. But the saddest example cited by Flanagan is that of Brian Mulroney, who telephoned Harper from his hospital bed in 2005, despite having almost died of pancreatitis, to cheer him up after Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to the Liberals. Yet shortly thereafter, when Mulroney was getting bad press because of the re-emergence of Karl-Heinz Schreiber, Harper told his entire caucus to shun the former Conservative PM.
In truth, it is not just the Conservatives whom Flanagan is taking to task in his book, but the whole shallow enterprise of modern Canadian politics (an enterprise that, Flanagan fully admits, he helped to construct as part of his successful work as a political advisor). Political parties are so desperate to protect their brands from social-media attacks that they will jettison someone overboard instantly, at the first hint of trouble. Political journalists call this “enforcing party discipline.” But taken to the extreme, it is essentially a mob-led witch hunt.
“A person I know in the PMO told me afterwards that their phones were ‘melting down’ after the YouTube video was posted, and that they had to distance themselves from the words ‘no harm’ that I had used,” Flanagan writes. “The rationale is familiar: react to the inflammatory phrase taken out of context, respond immediately, don’t worry about collateral damage to people … To some extent, this is a reflection of the shadow side of Harper’s personality, but it is also a cancer eating at the whole conservative movement in Canada … When the Liberals seemed to be in power forever, Conservatives concluded that part of their secret of success was ruthlessness … We concluded that we would have to beat them at their own game, and we did. Harper led the way.”
Of course, politics always has been a dirty game. But as Persona Non Grata makes clear, it wasn’t just politicians who mobbed Flanagan, but also fellow academics. University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon, for instance, put out a press release suggesting that Flanagan had said something reprehensible, and that his pending retirement from university life was due to these comments. When federal Heritage Minister James Moore and Alberta deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk both demanded that Flanagan be immediately terminated by the university, no prominent voice in the world of academia — no university president, no faculty union, no blue-chip scholar — came to Flanagan’s defence.
When you take a moment to think about that, it is actually quite shocking. The spectacle of a government minister demanding the sacking of a specific university professor because of his policy views is the sort of thing one expects in Russia or Belarus or Venezuela, not in a Western democracy. And, indeed, if a Canadian government minister were to demand the firing of a professor because of his comments about, say, Quebec separatism, or assisted suicide, or the gun registry, or the Burka, or Marxism, or the origins of the First World War, the nation’s academic societies would howl with outrage. Yet even a mild questioning of the prevailing criminal regime regarding child pornography apparently now is seen as so outrageous, so taboo, as to be beyond the limits of academic freedom.
How did we get to the point where moral panic has completely overwhelmed rational discussion in this area of policy-making? Flanagan describes it as a combination of unlikely bedfellows: (a) militant feminists, who cast sex as a species of violence; (b) fundamentalist Christians, who have given credence to far-fetched stories of ritual satanic abuse at day-care centres and the like; (c) police agencies, whose officers are thrilled to receive the earmarked funds and task-force support that goes with politically popular anti-child-porn campaigns; and (d) socially conservative politicians, who embrace any issue that allows them to posture as guardians of a society about to descend into a hellish, libertine free-for-all.
The result is a legal regime under which a person can be labeled a child-porn sex criminal based on his own erotic scribblings. Possession of a sex-themed Manga (comic book) imported from Japan — the sort of thing people read on the subways in that country — also can land you in jail here in Canada for a minimum six-month child-porn-possession term. And once branded as a sex criminal, you become unemployable and a social leper. It ruins your life, in other words — even if the pornography in question has no connection with an act of sexual exploitation of children.
What’s worse, as Flanagan notes, the expanding crusade against child porn is swallowing up forms of criminal behaviour that have very little to do with “pornography,” as the term once was understood. When two teenagers end a sexual relationship, and the estranged male circulates compromising photos of the female on the Internet, that is a despicable act. But should it really be treated as “child pornography” — and thereby lumped in with horrific images of small children being raped?
“Child pornographer” has become a life-defining mark of Cain on criminals. And in the worst cases, where live real children are abused, such a stigma is deserved: These dangerous individuals really should live their lives in prison or as outcasts. But not everyone who falls under the technical parameters of our child-porn law is equally monstrous. In the case of those who do not act on their desires, but are found to be in possession of child pornography, judges should possess the discretion to find solutions that do not involve imprisonment and lifelong disgrace. And it should not be treated as out of bounds for any politician, academic or journalist to make this point publicly.
As noted above, Flanagan’s reputation has rebounded considerably over the last year (in part due to a common-sense campaign led by my colleagues at the National Post). With only scattered exceptions, he has been invited back to the conferences and publications that joined the mob reaction against him in early 2013. And yet, my sense from reading Persona Non Grata is that Flanagan’s relationship with fellow intellectuals — and conservatives, more specifically — will never again be the same.
Many right-wing thinkers live by the conceit that political correctness is a disease of the left. However, the Flanagan affair shows that conservatives can be just as blinkered, dogmatic and cruel when it comes to mobbing someone who challenges one of their own policy shibboleths. The next time the mob takes up its hue and cry — against anyone, from either idea side of the political spectrum — let us all think twice before we run shrieking about it on our Twitter accounts •
Jonathan Kay is managing editor for comment at the National Post and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Among the Believers, a study of conspiracy theorists. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay.