Tom Flanagan, thinking about controversial things.
“It doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be plausible.” In 2009, Tom Flanagan was on a roll. He’d first made this comment about truth in Canadian political campaigns during September to Maclean’s Magazine, he was about to release another book on Aboriginal treaty rights, and in November he uttered the phrase that recently resurfaced to end his career. In November 2009, Flanagan was in a room full of University of Manitoba students and faculty to discuss the ethics of negative campaigning and media manipulation in Canadian elections. It was in the middle of this lecture that Flanagan, for no apparent reason, wondered aloud about what it is that’s so bad about child pornography, before continuing on his designated topic. He added that he knows he could never run for office since he could never follow the first rule of Politico Club, which is to never, ever answer a question directly. You would think he’d know better than to answer questions no one had even asked.
Last week, a little over three years since he spoke at the University of Manitoba, Flanagan was speaking at a university in Lethbridge, Alberta, when a man named Levi Little Mustache asked him to clarify his comments. Flanagan answered Little Mustache’s question and expanded on his 2009 musing, which has led to virtually all his old political allies distancing themselves from him or firing him outright, including the Prime Minister’s Office, who has been distancing itself for a while now; the Wildrose Party of Alberta, whose campaign he’d been advising; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who have now fired him as a paid pundit from Power and Politics; the list goes on.
As an audience member in 2009, I thought the rest of the lecture was pretty good. Flanagan was at times funny, at times cynical, and always brutally honest about his opinions and observations. As a journalist, I knew that where Tom Flanagan went, weird stories would follow.
As part of the lecture, Flanagan reminded the audience of Aristotle’s three forms of rhetorical persuasion: Ethos, the character and authority of the person who delivers the argument; Pathos, the emotion the argument evokes in the audience; and Logos, the words and logic of the argument itself. Flanagan coached his mentees on these principles to remind them that logic alone will not be enough in the political sphere; people will always want to consider the source, and the emotional weight of your ideas will determine the context in which people are willing to listen to them. Flanagan now states that he was trying to open up an academic debate about what society should do with people who look at child porn, but do not physically molest children. Should they go to jail, or have more counselling services?
Who is Tom Flanagan, and why does it matter if he spouts off non-sequiturs in the middle of university lectures? Is he simply an old professor, as he states? Or is his position influential enough in Canadian politics that he should be held to the same standards as those candidates he has groomed to take office?
Tom Flanagan has shaped the Canadian political landscape over the last 45 years as a professor at the University of Calgary, a researcher and author, a political pundit, and a political campaign manager for our current prime minister, Stephen Harper, as well as the Wildrose Party of Alberta’s leader, Danielle Smith. This is the man who Canadian political science scholars can’t ignore; he’s literally written the textbook for many undergraduate classes.
This is also the man who wrote First Nations? Second Thoughts, a book inspired by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that looks at the First Nations treaties of Canada — and asks whether we ought not to scrap the lot of them in an attempt to try and assimilate Aboriginal people into white Canadian culture completely. Like the minute percentage of climatologists who think that global climate change isn’t really “a thing,” Flanagan describes his findings on Aboriginal issues as that of an underrepresented minority, a viewpoint that was “politely ignored” according to his book.
"Tell PETA my mink is draggin' on the floor!" -Kanye West
If there’s one thing I believe about Tom Flanagan, it’s that he hates to be ignored. He’s long been known as someone who uses his platform to make bizarre, at times intelligent, and oftentimes infuriating statements. He has coached our current prime minister on question redirection and how to avoid controversy, but does not take his own advice. He’s appealed to President Obama to use drones to assassinate Julian Assange, as a (presumably) hyperbolic way to register his displeasure with WikiLeaks’ threat to Canadian security and integrity. He’s worn a crazy-looking bison fur coat, to protest the cutbacks to the CBC, a sartorial decision that has garnered comparisons to Kanye West and the IKEA Monkey, which overshadowed any intellectual point he was trying to make.
His visit to the U of M was preceded by the circulation of a petition to prevent him from speaking on campus because of his dismissive attitude towards treaty rights. Political Science students were asked by the organizing profs to please, please ask questions during the Q and A sessions after the lectures so no radicals could get in to challenge Flanagan and make him say something controversial. Aboriginal students or those sitting with members of the Aboriginal Students Association would not be called on to ask questions. In the end, however, no amount of preparation and nervous tweaking by organizers could save Flanagan from himself.
Although not a politician, Flanagan had made himself out to be a political adversary to so many people; they just needed to find the one completely undeniable horror that could be used to bring him down.
In Canadian legend, the Windigo is a monster that roams the darkest parts of our minds, we could become him or fall victim to him and his icy heart as he devours children who stray too far from home.
Last Wednesday, Levi Little Mustache, now known as the “Windigo slayer,” asked Flanagan what he meant about child pornography being “just pictures,” and Flanagan responded, in his direct, cool manner by digging himself in even deeper. Most of us would preface a question like that with something like “of course, we all know child pornography is terrible,” or not even touch that question, knowing what a hot-button issue it is and how quickly any misinterpretation could go terribly, terribly wrong. Tom Flanagan is a different sort of guy, though. He’s the type who says he could never run for office because he likes answering questions directly so much. So he doubled down and added that he didn’t think someone should go to jail for something that doesn’t “harm another person,” and revealed that he has been on the mailing list for the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) for a few years.
It is entirely plausible that Flanagan hates child pornography as much as the next person. It is possible that a friend (or foe) of his signed him up to receive mailouts from NAMBLA, and he didn’t know how to get off the mailing list for several years, or thought that responding would somehow garner more attention or unwanted mail, or that he’d been wondering if he could go to jail just for possessing his NAMBLA pamphlets. Because of what he said, and didn’t say, we don’t know what was going through his head when he made the assertion that child pornography materials “do not harm another person.”
If you want to have an open discussion about something as nuanced as law and society, or as controversial and sensitive as child porn, why not do it right? Why not come to the table, having done some research that you can show the audience, prepare something ahead of time, and not spring it on them during the middle of a lecture about a completely unrelated topic? After a lifetime of little to no consequences for his irreverent comments, it may have seemed implausible that anything would happen now.
It is plausible that Flanagan will lie low for a while, research more, write more, and be asked to speak at engagements in the future. It is plausible that political science students will still ask him to sign their books as they sit nervously in their collared shirts and ties while they look to him for some sign of approval, some knowing look that says “I could have made you into something.” It is also possible that his days as the conservative jester who tweaks the noses of the stiff-necked, bleeding heart liberals are at an end, and he will slink away to lick his wounds and complain about how people just don’t get academic freedom. Only time will tell which is true.