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Federal Politics

Sic Transit Flanagan

Former Tory advisor's comments about child porn viewers triggered his fall from grace. What's behind such an error?

Crawford Kilian 28 Feb

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

At a meeting in Lethbridge Wednesday night, Tom Flanagan somehow allowed himself to be diverted from First Nations' rights to child pornography. His remarks were videotaped, and the repercussions have been swift.

On Thursday morning the news broke. Before noon, Vancouver time, the CBC had dropped him from its roster of spin doctors on Evan Solomon's Power and Politics. CBC News general manager and editor in chief Jennifer McGuire issued a statement picked up on Kady O'Malley's blog:

"In light of recent remarks made by Tom Flanagan at the University of Lethbridge, CBC News has taken the decision to end our association with him as a commentator on Power and Politics.  

"While we support and encourage free speech across the country and a diverse range of voices, we believe Mr. Flanagan's comments to have crossed the line and impacted his credibility as a commentator for us."  

O'Malley also cited a tweet from Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

"Tom Flanagan's comments on child pornography are repugnant, ignorant, and appalling."

The Wildrose Alliance, where Flanagan had been a campaign manager, also published a repudiation:

"There is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan's comments. Child pornography is a despicable crime that seriously harms all those involved, including the viewer. The viewing of child pornography first requires the production of child pornography, which causes untold suffering and abuse towards children. In no uncertain terms, Wildrose condemns the production, transmission and viewing of child pornography.

"Three years ago, Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth put forward a private members bill compelling the mandatory reporting of child pornography and we were very proud that the bill received unanimous support in the Alberta legislature. We await its proclamation.

"To be clear, 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."

Flanagan found no supporters among the right. Dean Skoreyko, who blogs as BC Blue, posted the story under the headline "CBC's Tom Flanagan has officially lost it," noting in an update that the Manning Centre has dropped him as one of its speakers.

Even his own university has disowned him:

"Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday absolutely do not represent the views of the University of Calgary. In the university's view, child pornography is not a victimless crime. All aspects of this horrific crime involve the exploitation of children. Viewing pictures serves to create more demand for these terrible images, which leads to further exploitation of defenseless children. Tom Flanagan has been on a research and scholarship leave from the University of Calgary since January of 2013."

Wikipedia, meanwhile, has added this event to its history of his career.

On Thursday Flanagan issued an apology.

"I absolutely condemn the sexual abuse of children, including the use of children to produce pornography. These are crimes and should be punished under the law," he said.

"Last night, in an academic setting, I raised a theoretical question about how far criminalization should extend toward the consumption of pornography. My words were badly chosen, and in the resulting uproar I was not able to express my abhorrence of child pornography and the sexual abuse of children. I apologize unreservedly to all who were offended by my statement, and most especially to victims of sexual abuse and their families."

When ideology rears its head

Tom Flanagan has enjoyed a pretty good run in politics and the media. I first became aware of him as a regular panelist on Power and Politics, where his schtick was the kindly, wicked uncle who was willing to say what everyone else wouldn't dare to.

Having toiled for decades as a peasant in the B.C. community colleges, I recognized his smile: that of the white male university Ph.D. with tenure and a good opinion of himself. He could afford to be shocking because no one could threaten him. That's what academic freedom is supposed to be about.

In practice, of course, the university rarely tolerates much deviation from the norm, however defined on a particular campus. Flanagan's politics helped to give Calgary a reputation as a hotbed of right-wing intellectuals, and I doubt that the university has ever regretted its role as Stephen Harper's alma mater. Until this lapse in Lethbridge, Flanagan appears to have felt free to say anything he pleased, including a call on Power and Politics for someone to assassinate Julian Assange. Even that was just Tom being Tom.

But why would an intelligent man, a professional scholar and political expert, make such a ghastly error? Perhaps because he believed what he said.

Tom Flanagan is a libertarian, after all. Libertarians don't like coercion or violence, least of all in the pursuit of making people behave according to some arbitrary set of values. And like ideologies of all stripes, libertarianism offers a consistent verbal image of the world that looks beautifully self-evident to the believer and powerfully silly to the infidel.

So Flanagan was pursuing the logic of his ideology wherever it would lead, and it led him into a dead end. Like most ideologies, his conveniently ignored the exploitation of the children whose images make up child pornography, just as most versions of communism ignore the massacre of the class enemy as a prelude to paradise.

Some of the most outraged criticism of Stephen Harper has come from the libertarian right, which sees itself betrayed by Harper's lack of ideological purity. Perhaps that's why Flanagan and Harper parted ways, and why Flanagan gravitated to Wildrose as an attractively orthodox, Rand-flavoured libertarianism.

Libertarians have to recognize the reality-based world they live in, even if tenured Calgary professors don't. So Tom Flanagan can spend the rest of his research leave pondering the world he will find himself in when that leave ends. He will be 69 years old on March 5, according to Wikipedia, and perhaps retirement will at last look attractive. It would certainly be more tranquil than trying to retain his post over the principle of academic freedom.  [Tyee]

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