Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age by: Tom Flanagan
256pp.: Signal, 2014
Reviewed by: Paul Bunner
Levi Little Moustache and Arnell Tailfeathers are, respectively, the interrogator and smart-phone videographer who ambushed University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan last year and proclaimed him “okay with child pornography.” The ambush was sprung during a two-and-a-half hour discussion about the Indian Act at the University of Lethbridge, using a rambling, insult-laden question that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. Ironically, a case can be made that Little Moustache and Tailfeathers should themselves be charged with making and distributing child pornography.
After all, under Section 163 of Canada’s Criminal Code, child porn is defined as, among other things, any visual presentation or audio recording that advocates or counsels sex with children. By creating a three-minute YouTube video of Flanagan raising questions about “putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures” and “for doing something in which they do not harm another person,” Little Moustache and Tailfeathers arguably made and distributed material that advocates the decriminalization of child porn. Moreover, it was premeditated. They devised an elaborate plan to get the quote, divorced it from Flanagan’s qualifications, then posted it under the tagline “Flanagan okay with child pornography.” Nothing in Section 163 prohibits somebody from verbally expressing such ideas in a public setting, so Flanagan’s off the hook. His malevolent publicists, however, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Ok, that’s a stretch, but it illustrates one of the main arguments in persona non grata, Flanagan’s deliciously vengeful new book about what he calls the “Incident.” Demonstrating the scholarly rigour, political fearlessness and mischievous humour that is his trademark, Flanagan traces the history of Canada’s current child porn laws back to the “moral panic” that erupted in the late 20th century over allegedly rampant child sexual abuse, fueled by bogus tales of satanic cults in daycare centres and imagined pedophile conspiracies and the junk science of “repressed memory syndrome.” He emphatically agrees that the manufacture and distribution of pornography involving real, live children is a heinous crime, but argues persuasively that we may have gone too far in legislating harsh, mandatory criminal sanctions against simple possession of virtually any depiction of sex involving humans under 18. In other words, he asks whether we should be jailing people for looking at Japanese manga comics or reading Nabokov’s Lolita.
This is a debate that has been raging in legislatures, the courts and the public square for a long time. It has heated up in recent decades as ardent defenders of traditional morals have teamed up with paleofeminists and opportunistic conservative politicians to wage jihad against sexual libertarianism in the name of child protection. The porn-saturated Internet and hyper-sexualization of popular culture has made everybody edgy and confused about where the boundaries should be drawn on sexual morality. The relentless lobbying by gay rights activists and advocates for the legalization of prostitution are pulling us ever farther down the road toward either unrepressed sexual utopia or Sodom and Gomorrah. However it turns out, all sides seem to agree the kids should have no part of it.
Beyond Flanagan’s analysis of the legal and social characteristics of this debate, persona non grata is a chilling, first-person account of what it’s like to be “virtually mobbed” on the Internet. The assault occurred primarily while he was incommunicado during the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Calgary from Lethbridge. During that time he was disowned and denounced by the Prime Minister’s Office, Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, and his employers at the CBC. He was also disinvited from numerous speaking engagements, including the annual Networking Conference of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Adding insult to injury, the president of the University of Calgary, his academic home for 45 years, issued a condemnatory statement. None of them waited to talk to Flanagan before reacting to the story, and their actions made it infinitely bigger and more damaging to his reputation.
The “Incident” raises many questions about the terrifying power of the Internet, journalistic ethics, academic freedom, and political gutlessness, all of which Flanagan deals with substantively. He notes he is far from the first or last public figure to be virtually mobbed, and ponders its growing use as a political weapon by political parties and activist groups like Idle No More, which was chiefly responsible for the Lethbridge ambush. He examines the decline of fact-checking and truth-seeking in contemporary journalism, casualties of the ultra-fast and ultra-competitive news environment fostered by the Internet. And he challenges university administrators to stand up for academic freedom, including the freedom of teachers to say outrageous things that spark critical thinking in their students, lest our classrooms become dull and timid places where the pursuit of knowledge is effectively paralyzed.
Much of persona non grata is alarming and worrisome for those who cherish freedom of expression, but readers will be reassured to hear that hundreds of friends, colleagues, journalists and strangers publicly and privately rose to Flanagan’s defence. Buoyed by their support, he mounted a belated but effective counterattack, including this fine book, that has undone much of the damage to his reputation and restored his stature as an academic and pundit.
Some friends and colleagues maintain he should have known better than to issue such incendiary comments in such an obviously hostile environment, and defend the actions of conservative parties and politicians who threw him under their buses as ruthless but necessary to protect their brands. Flanagan respects these arguments, even if he doesn’t agree with them, and he appreciates those who came to him privately to explain and in some cases apologize for their actions. These include Preston Manning, whom Flanagan describes as standing out “as he always has, as a man of character in our often shoddy political scene.”
For some readers, l’affaire Flanagan will serve as a litmus test for the principles and character of certain politicians. It is disheartening that Stephen Harper’s PMO attacked Flanagan so quickly and viciously, but it is at least understood that these two old friends and political collaborators have been estranged for years. The demand that Flanagan be fired from the U of C by federal Conservative Industry Minister James Moore, who postures as a libertarian, speaks volumes about this potential Harper successor. The same call came from former Alberta minister of advanced education Thomas Lukazsuk, which might give pause to those considering voting for him in the current Progressive Conservative leadership contest. Former Premier Alison Redford’s piling on was to be expected since Flanagan tried to topple her in 2012 as manager of the Wildrose party’s election campaign.
The greatest disappointment was Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, who was mentored by Flanagan as a student and politician, yet did not have the decency to call him personally and tell him he was road kill. Smith has evidently succumbed to the relentless criticism she endured from supporters who said she lost the 2012 election by failing to fire a candidate who was virtually mobbed over homophobic statements. Back then she showed courage in condemning his comments but defending his right to express them. One hopes she will read her old professor’s book and recall that hanging together is preferable to hanging separately.
Paul Bunner is the incoming editor of C2C Journal. He is a longtime journalist and former speechwriter for numerous federal, provincial and municipal politicians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith.