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Rights + Justice

The Blacklisting of Tom Flanagan

Conservative pundit reflects on the child porn remark that turned his world against him.

Crawford Kilian 10 May

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

I have a certain fellow-feeling toward Tom Flanagan.

We are about the same age (he's a couple of years younger). We're both part of the 1960s American diaspora in Canada, and we've both had rewarding academic careers combined with writing and political commentary. Early on, we discovered intellectual guides: he found the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, and I the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Our guides illuminated our paths: he as a conservative political scientist, I as a novelist.

Our mothers were both school teachers. Flanagan grew up in a bourgeois Catholic family in Illinois as I was growing up in a bourgeois Marxist family in California and Mexico.

Our upbringings affected our politics: after exploring the left, Flanagan swung right and fetched up in the Reform Party. I gravitated to the still-new New Democrats. And now that the New Democrats and I are both old, my feelings for them are of affectionate exasperation. I feel something similar for Flanagan's new book.

As novelists know, stress reveals character, and Flanagan under stress certainly reveals his. The stress was triggered by what he calls "the Incident" -- his answer to an off-the-wall question from First Nations members of the audience at a talk he gave in Lethbridge on Feb. 27, 2013. His talk had to do with the Indian Act, on which he is something of an expert. The question had to do with child pornography, and was based on a casual comment he'd made at another event in 2009.

Very much in academic mode, Flanagan answered with a question that would have provoked an amusing discussion in an upper-division course or a graduate seminar, where the students would know their prof was trying to provoke them into thinking.

But posted on YouTube that night with the caption "Flanagan OK with child pornography," his answer turned him instantly from elder pundit to dirty old man. As he blithely drove home to Calgary next morning, without access to email and his phone, his world collapsed around him.

Guilt by association

On the strength of that two-minute video clip, the Prime Minister's Office cut whatever tenuous string remained between Stephen Harper and Flanagan. Alberta's Wildrose Party, which Flanagan had helped and whose leader Danielle Smith is his former student, also repudiated him. CBC's Power & Politics instantly fired him from his gig as a spinmeister for conservatism, if not for the Conservatives. Even the president of the University of Calgary issued a news release dissociating the university from Flanagan's comment -- as if an institution dedicated to academic freedom might be guilty by association.

Ever since, Flanagan has been slowly rehabilitating himself, and this book is a key step in the process. The stress of the incident and its aftermath has revealed his character: he is a scholar, turning to documentary evidence to back up his conclusions, rather than a politician appealing to raw emotion. He also appears even more naive than he says he is.

As a scholar making his case, Flanagan meticulously breaks down the incident into its components: "moral panic," the "virtual mobbing" made possible by the Internet, academic freedom, child pornography and freedom of speech. Where he needs to, he parses actual law on child pornography just as he's parsed the Indian Act.

In general, he's extremely good on all these issues. He points out that academic freedom has to be built into collective agreements. His thoughts on child pornography are nuanced, and his love of teaching is clear. (I wish we'd been in each other's classes, if only for the fun of the fights.)

Flanagan's discussion of moral panic is brilliant, and the keystone of his argument: without general social anxiety about some perceived threat, we wouldn't turn against those we associate with that threat.

From Cold War to the surveillance state

Flanagan describes the moral panic of the Cold War, when the threat of Reds under the beds resulted in blacklisting thousands of people like my father and grandfather. (Moral panic also drove Canadians and Americans of Japanese ancestry into concentration campus during the Second World War, it has inspired hatred and suspicion of Muslims since 9/11, and it justifies the surveillance state that now reads our email.)

He mentions the bizarre moral panic of the 1990s around satanic cults and false memories of childhood sexual abuse; after destroying the lives of many people, it morphed into obsession about child pornography -- which until then had been a minor facet of a major industry. He argues with reason that the "rings" of kiddie-porn fans and child abusers are harder to find than to fret about. And he points out very frankly that Canadian right-wingers jumped on the kiddie-porn moral panic bandwagon and have yet to jump off.

Perhaps the worst aspect of moral panic is how it reduces educated and intelligent people to the jerk level. After Pearl Harbor, Time magazine declared the Second World War a race war: "Why, those little yellow bastards!" And its sister publication Life magazine ran a serious photo essay on how to tell a good Chinese from a bad "Jap."

Similarly, moral panic drove the push to futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather than say, "Hey, wait a minute," the North American media and intelligentsia cheered as a generation of young men and women (including Canadians) marched into a horror show from which many have yet to emerge.

The caving of the intelligentsia

Faced with a similar challenge in Flanagan's Lethbridge comments, Canada's intelligentsia caved in before he ever got back to Calgary. Every freaked-out person who sacked him that morning must have taken some university course where the prof had intoned: "Strong claims demand strong evidence," and they'd all written it down and forgotten it. As an educator, I cringe for the failure of my profession to drive that simple idea into the thick skulls of our present politicians, educators and media.

I also cringe for Flanagan's failure to see how he had it coming. As a political scientist and historian, he wrote books about the expropriation of the First Nations and Métis, and then regarded their own version of events as "a mythology they had constructed." He seems to have enjoyed exploding those myths in court testimony, rather than engaging in a serious dialogue with the people he'd studied and dismissed. No wonder they enjoyed ambushing him in Lethbridge.

He also managed to divide his scholarship from his career as a political mentor. To turn his Hayekian dreams into reality, he encouraged dangerous prodigies like Stephen Harper and Danielle Smith to ignore reasoned argument. In his book Harper's Team, he shared his hard-won wisdom: Fear works. Scare your own party into following your candidate, then scare the electorate into putting your candidate into power. Stampede the voters and let them carry you into power on their moral panic.

Naively, Flanagan blabbed this insight and it cost him Harper's friendship. Naively, he thought he could joke on Power & Politics about assassinating Julian Assange.

Even more naively, he seems to have thought that in his academic mode he could ruminate about a moral-panic issue like child pornography. But in his political mode, he had spent years helping to create and intensify a climate of moral panic by promoting Reform, and then the Conservatives like Vic Toews, who thought anyone opposing his bill must be siding with the child pornographers.

All things considered, Tom Flanagan has got off lightly compared to the veterans home from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the blacklisted bourgeois Marxists like my father and grandfather. He has bounced back with a commercially published book, complete with some snark about Harper and his other persecutors, and he's enjoying a lot of attention from the media that turned against him back on Feb. 28, 2013.

He's planning another book, on political campaigning. No doubt someone will give him a pundit gig again. He's outlived his blacklisting just as my father and grandfather eventually did. Perhaps, like them, he'll outlive his political folly as well.  [Tyee]

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