For more than two decades, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan was an ultimate insider in Canada’s conservative movement.
He was once chief of staff and director of operations for then Opposition leader Stephen Harper and the Conservatives’ national campaign manager.
A regular commentator in the national media with frequent CBC appearances and columns in the Globe and Mail and the National Post, Flanagan was also a top adviser to Danielle Smith, the right-wing leader of Alberta’s Wildrose party.
Then, in February last year, his comments about child pornography turned him into a pariah.
In response to a question put to him during a public lecture on the Indian Act at the University of Lethbridge, Flanagan said that he had no sympathy for child molesters, but mentioned having “grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures”.
He revealed that in the past, he had been on the mailing list of the “National Man/Boy Love Association”, which was “the closest” he had ever come to child pornography.
“It is 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 at the time.
First Nations activist Arnell Tailfeathers posted a video of the comments on YouTube under the incendiary tagline “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography”. His comments were condemned in a tweet from the Prime Minister’s Office as “repugnant, ignorant, and appalling”, and a media firestorm ensued.
Flanagan has written about his online mobbing in a new book, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Signal). In an interview at the Georgia Straight office, he insists that he’s not “okay” with child pornography.
Still, he was denounced and dismissed by Smith, whom he considered a close friend. B.C.’s most powerful cabinet minister, James Moore, demanded that he be fired from his position at the University of Calgary, whose president also criticized him. No high-profile academics publicly defended him, though he says his union did a "terrific job" in resolving internal problems at the university.
Flanagan seems unperturbed as he discusses the politicians’ responses to his comments. With a professorial demeanour and an almost Mr. Spock–like detachment, he suggests there’s a “general epidemic of ruthlessness” in politics.
“Maybe the reasons are different for different persons, but I think it’s ultimately destructive,” Flanagan says. “It may in fact help you win short-term political victories, but the price that you pay if you treat your own people like that is you find it harder and harder to recruit top-quality people.”
He cites Harper’s firing of his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, as another example of this ruthlessness. Wright was canned after he secretly gave Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to repay questionable expenses.
“What future Nigel Wright is going to say, ‘Hey, what a great chance,’ to be chief of staff to this prime minister?”
The Straight asks Flanagan how he ended up on a man-boy love association’s mailing list.
He replies that the problem originated in the early 1990s, when he chaired a Reform Party of Canada committee that was created to keep white supremacists and neo-Nazis out of the party.
To try to identify these people, he subscribed to the Heritage Front’s Up Front magazine in his own name. “I wanted to keep tabs on them,” he explains.
Later, the magazine published a fake article under his byline.
After he objected, he says, the white supremacists offered up “some smart-ass reply” but refused to correct the record.
“So the conclusion I drew was you can’t deal personally with any of these fringe organizations,” he states.
Flanagan explains that three or four years later, he began receiving mailings from neo-Nazi groups in the United States and Great Britain, as well as a newsletter from the man-boy love association. He assumed that his name was sold to these groups when the Heritage Front ran into financial trouble.
“So, when I started to get this avalanche of mail, I just said, ‘Well, it’ll pass.’ So I just received it and tossed it.”
Flanagan says that the most important part of his book deals with “moral panics”, which have cropped up repeatedly in history, including during the Salem witch trials, the Nazis’ condemnation of Jews, and the McCarthyite crusade against Communists.
In Persona Non Grata, he points to three overlapping moral panics from the late 1970s to the early 1990s that influenced the evolution of child-pornography legislation.
They concerned growing fears of satanic abuse of children in daycare centres, widespread reports of adults experiencing recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, and stories of organized rings of pedophiles—all of which, he says, were blown vastly out of proportion but left the impression that children were extremely vulnerable to harm from evil forces.
He mentions that an inquiry costing $15 million was held to investigate claims of a pedophile ring in Cornwall, Ontario, which never turned up any evidence.
“Pedophiles do sometimes distribute child pornography among themselves, but that high level of organization was never shown,” Flanagan tells the Straight.
He emphasizes that he supports criminalizing child pornography.
“I do think it creates a climate for the sexual exploitation of children that we don’t want,” he says. “The question is: what is the appropriate punishment and, also, how do you define it?”
Anyone in Canada who accesses child pornography is subject to a minimum term of six months in prison on an indictable offence or 90 days in prison on a summary conviction. The Harper government has introduced legislation to “stack” mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of child pornography.
Flanagan maintains that his opposition to mandatory minimum prison sentences for accessing child pornography resembles the position of U.S. Republican senator Rand Paul, who may seek his party’s presidential nomination.
Flanagan also claims that because the Canadian legislation “casts a very wide net”—including visual representations, written material, and depictions involving sexual activity or advocating sexual activity with anyone under 18—a case could be made that Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, or a stage production of Romeo and Juliet could conceivably result in charges being laid.
“Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, she’s only 13,” Flanagan points out. “There have been modern productions of Romeo and Juliet that show sexual activity between the two of them. Shakespeare didn’t, but sometimes modern interpretations do. They’re probably open to prosecution under this, too. I mean, we don’t know how the courts would interpret the art defence.”
Harper comes under fire
His book includes some stinging criticism of Harper, claiming that the prime minister "can be suspicious, secretive, and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia, at other times falling into week-long depressions in which he is incapable of making decisions".
"I was tired of all the psychodrama, and I feared, as I still do, that he might someday bring himself down Nixon-style by pushing too hard against the network of rules constraining authority in a constitutional government," Flanagan writes. "The Senate scandal of spring 2013, in which the prime minister's secretive management of a small issue turned into a major embarrassment, was exactly the sort of thing I have long feared might happen."
In speaking to the Straight, however, Flanagan has positive things to say about Harper, particularly in his ability to satisfy the interests of libertarian conservatives and social conservatives.
Flanagan explains that Harper was "personally opposed" to same-sex marriage and thought it was unnecessary.
"But when it was clear that it was a political loser [to continue opposing], he used a free vote in Parliament to get the monkey off his back," he says. "On abortion, right from the beginning he has said that he won't bring that up."
Flanagan notes that Harper has mollified social conservatives and kept the coalition with libertarians intact with the party's tough-on-crime agenda.
"At the beginning, I thought there were some changes that needed to be made in our criminal-justice system," Flanagan admits. "I think we were unduly lax in returning some really dangerous people to the streets, and so forth. As time has gone on, it has extended to things like [a mandatory jail sentence for] six marijuana plants and the compulsory prison term for viewing child pornography. Who knows what's coming down the pipe further? I think it's pushed too far. But if you asked me politically, Harper has done actually quite a remarkable job of holding that coalition together."
Flanagan describes himself as a "Hayekian", in honour of 20th-century libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek, but adds that he's been drummed out of all conservative parties in Canada.
"I still call myself a conservative with a small 'c', but on this particular issue of criminal offences and punishment, I have become more and more skeptical of where the government is going with this."