“Human politics … is certainly different from chimpanzee politics, but not categorically different,” Tom Flanagan writes in Winning Power, his new book about political campaigning. The Conservative party war-room vet and University of Calgary political scientist cites, for example, “a dominance hierarchy with privileges for those at the top,” the “male obsession with attaining rank” and “lethal coalitional violence against outsiders.” In a recent interview, he compared his time in politics to “field observation or laboratory work” for his academic studies. And he’s going to unleash an interesting experiment next month, with the release of another book, titled Persona Non Grata.
It’s about what he calls “The Incident.” On Feb. 27 last year, in a discussion about the Indian Act at the University of Lethbridge, he tangentially remarked (having been asked about previous remarks to similar effect) that he had “grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures” — that is, for viewing child pornography. “It’s a real issue of personal liberty to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person,” he said.
Up it went on YouTube, and … kablooey. Even among his conservative friends, it was a race to denounce him: “Tom Flanagan’s comments on child pornography are repugnant, ignorant, and appalling,” tweeted Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesman, Andrew MacDougall. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, whose campaign Mr. Flanagan had just finished running, declared “there is no language strong enough to condemn [his] comments. … He will have no role — formal or informal — with our organization going forward.”
Conservative-haters, meanwhile, could hardly contain their glee: Here was the purported “man behind Stephen Harper” (as The Walrus dubbed Mr. Flanagan in 2004), the Prime Minister who perfected the permanent political attack machine, touching what might be the ultimate third rail in Canadian politics. For the Twittering partisans, mercy clearly seemedboth inappropriate and out of the question.
To this point, it was all understandable. The story became grimly fascinating, however, as it transcended partisan politics. CBC’s Power and Politics axed him, saying it valued “free speech” and “a diverse range of voices,” but that Mr. Flanagan’s “comments [had] crossed the line.” Then-Heritage Minister James Moore applauded this decision and suggested the University of Calgary fire Mr. Flanagan as well. And in lieu of a ringing endorsement of academic freedom, the university put out a statement saying Mr. Flanagan’s views “absolutely do not represent” the university’s — universities have views now, apparently — and left the distinct impression he had, in fact, been let go. (He hadn’t.)
As artless as Mr. Flanagan freely and apologetically admitted to being, it was quite astonishing: Are differing opinions on how to sentence criminals really beyond the bounds of discussion at the national broadcaster? At a public university?
And then, perhaps the bitterest pill: The right-wing Manning Centre struck Mr. Flanagan off the list of speakers at its fast-approaching conference, the annual gathering of what Preston Manning calls the “conservative family.”
Mr. Manning’s event attracts a very free speech-friendly audience. (The keynote speaker was Ron Paul, who is himself something of a heretic on anti-child pornography measures.) But in his address to the conference, Mr. Manning twisted the knife, warning against “intemperate and ill-considered remarks by those who hold … positions deeply but in fits of carelessness or zealousness say things that discredit … conservative governments, parties, and campaigns.” He explicitly cited Mr. Flanagan — but not, pointedly, by name.
You don’t have to like Mr. Flanagan to think what happened to him was pretty hideous.
On Feb. 28, 2013, the general consensus seemed to be that Tom Flanagan had torched his career. But the furor already seemed to have died down by the time of the Manning conference. And a year later — last month — Mr. Flanagan was back on the program, on an “authors’ panel,” flogging Winning Power. It was as if “The Incident” had never occurred.
Before the conference, I asked Mr. Manning if he had any regrets about how he handled the affair. “There was no time to investigate it, hear both sides of the story,” he said, wistfully. (For the record, there was over a week do that.) “If we had had more time, in retrospect, that could have been handled better.”
Indeed. You don’t have to like Mr. Flanagan to think what happened to him was pretty hideous — if not in the political arena then certainly in the media and academic arenas, where free speech is supposed to be sacred. The contents of Persona Non Grata are under embargo, but I hope McLelland & Stewart won’t begrudge my saying it is not boring and has a lot to say — about free speech, about academic freedom, about political correctness.
I hope and suspect now that everyone has calmed down, it will be received in the contemplative spirit it’s intended. It will be intriguing, for example, to see if any of his denouncers publicly reconsider, if not their opinions, then theway they expressed them and the mob mentality of which they partook.
At the Manning Centre Conference, I asked Mr. Flanagan if we should worry about behaving like chimpanzees. He shrugged. “These are our cousins,” he said. “It helps to understand why ideas in themselves don’t triumph.” I suspect many of us would like to aim higher.