He didn’t anticipate, while standing at the lecture hall podium, that his next few words would annihilate his career. Because of questions that Tom Flanagan raised about the relation between Conservative crime policies and viewers of child pornography, he has been dropped as a commentator on the CBC’s Power and Politics, Alberta’s Wildrose party has severed all ties with him, the University of Calgary announced that he had already decided to retire before he made the comments in question (whether or not he actually had is unclear), and the Manning Centre has dropped him as a speaker. Even spokesmen for his former employer, the Conservative Party of Canada, have strongly condemned his views, no doubt out of fear that his former association with them would cause the deluge of negative press to spill onto their party as well. This incident illustrates many of the strange quirks that pervade Canadian society.
To begin, I will point out that my political convictions are no secret. I am extremely critical of the hypocrites who advocate “Free Market” ideology in one breath, and demand that governments coddle plutocrats and powerful corporations like so many unweaned babies in the next. I firmly believe that the “Harper Government” is, by any meaningful measure, the worst in Canadian history. I think that most humans are fundamentally good, but that their good nature is often suppressed by social and cultural institutions that reward and glorify greed. One would expect such convictions to put me very much at odds with Tom Flanagan, who is Stephen Harper’s former advisor, campaign manager, and a staunch supporter of neo-conservative ideology—and indeed they have.
Given that Tom Flanagan and I could hardly disagree more vehemently on virtually every political issue, why do I refuse to engage in the mass cultural schadenfreude that has descended on him recently? Why do I find myself inclined to actually defend him? Like so many others, should I not revel in any misfortune that befalls him, no matter the reason or severity? And yet, I have no reservation in saying that Tom Flanagan has been mistreated on this issue. My argument here is not entirely sympathetic, however. As I will discuss, I think that Tom Flanagan should have fallen from grace a long time ago for transgressions that were much worse than his comments on child pornography. Let’s deal with the present issue first.
Issues with Tom Flanagan’s comments about the relation between viewers of child pornography and the justice system.
Here is the quote that burst open the floodgates in the first place:
A lot of people on my side of the spectrum—the conservative side of the spectrum—have been on kind of a jihad against pornography, and child pornography in particular. And I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures. . . . 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.
— Tom Flanagan, February 27th, 2013.
The first issue is Flanagan’s characterization of one’s preference for child pornography as being equivalent to one’s “taste in pictures.” It is a callous remark, to be sure, that under-represents the extent and seriousness of the issue. I have done a lot of research about Flanagan—know thy enemy, as they say—and have found that such remarks are typical of him. The fact that this remark was “typical Tom” certainly does not excuse its insensitive nature, of course, but I would expect that a sincere apology would suffice to appease his detractors—or at least something short of the utter annihilation of his reputation and career. Flanagan provided such an apology, and explanation as to what he was trying to say, soon after the incident with this article.
The second issue is Flanagan’s contention that viewing child pornography does not “harm another person.” In my view, those who pay to view child pornography harm another person in the same way that people who bet on dog fights harm the dogs. They help to finance the people who cause the problem.1 Once again, Flanagan under-represented the seriousness of the issue. There were, of course, arguments that Flanagan could have mustered in an attempt to defend his assertion—for instance, he could have made a distinction between buyers and viewers, or he could have argued that the harm in question is sufficiently indirect that it should not take precedent over the personal liberty to look at whatever one wants—but he didn’t expand enough to make such an argument. Even if he had, it may have made no difference. The response to his comments was anything but calm, thoughtful, or rational.
What was wrong with the response of the mainstream media and social media to Tom Flanagan’s comments?
Notice the title of the following video, which started this whole debacle:
As we can see, the title is “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” With all respect to the Idle No More protesters who posted this video, he did not say that he is “okay” with child pornography. He questioned whether viewers of child porn should always be sent to prison. That is a very different message.
Worse yet, the mainstream media—equipped with “professional” journalists—reported almost verbatim the message that arose from the digital peanut galleries of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets. The Province headline read “Tom Flanagan OK with people viewing child pornography.” The Toronto Star was closer to the mark, but still off—its headline read “Former political adviser Tom Flanagan says viewing child porn shouldn’t be a crime.” He did not say that—he merely said that he had “grave doubts” about jailing such people. Not all crimes result in jail sentences, so the Star’s headline is factually inaccurate and, like the rest, sensationalistic. A proper headline might have read “Flanagan questions Conservative policies on child pornography” or “Flanagan doubts mandatory jail is best way to deal with child porn viewers.” Of course, neither of those considerably more accurate headlines are as dramatic or “juicy” as those that were actually written.
We may well ask why this happens—why the mainstream media so often skew and sensationalize the facts. In my personal interactions with them, I have found two primary drivers of this phenomenon.
First, the mainstream media are, by and large, not in the business of fact reporting. They are in the business of storytelling. They even reveal this, perhaps unconsciously, through their own jargon. The media do not report on files, or cases, or issues, or events, or matters; they report on stories. Stories require a certain level of drama and entertainment, and this imposes certain constraints on the content that gets reported. The media use facts to provide substance for their stories, but the facts are often robbed of their original context, and can thus be misleading or meaningless. I summarized this issue in a recent letter to a friend as follows:
I found it very interesting to give interviews to media outlets … and then see how those interviews are turned into stories. Most of the time, they take such little content from what I said, and take it so out of context, that it no longer makes any real sense. They use these out-of-context bites to build whatever kind of story they want to tell. Any facts that don’t jibe with their story simply don’t get reported.
The media further demonstrate their fondness for stories through their use of images. For example, reporters have often asked me do a particular activity that fit with their desired story so that they could photograph or videotape me in the process. Very rarely have they asked me to do something that I would normally do. Essentially, they have asked me to act out a short fiction to lend visual credence to their stories. If they wanted their pieces to reflect reality, they would use images of me in a realistic situation—but staged photo-ops make for a much better story. My experiences with the media are certainly not unique. Most of the images they use are staged in one way or another.
The second primary reason that the mainstream media so often distort reality relates to brevity. To delve into any complex issue and give a proper treatment to all of the relevant facts requires a great deal of time and space, and the mainstream media often have neither. Print media has serious space constraints. To compound the issue, the writers of print media often have to write several pieces every day, leaving insufficent time for thorough research. Mainstream radio shows tend to be very short; a popular CBC radio show in New Brunswick, for instance, attempts to deal with politically complex issues in only fifteen minutes. Television programs are much the same. Even the nature of “news” in this age of rapidly moving information suggests that it needs to be reported now. Today’s news is old news tomorrow. The drive to report today’s news immediately is incompatible with the goal of taking the time to report it properly.
Social media have compounded the problem of brevity. Entire stories are sometimes written about Twitter interactions; other times, tweets are reported as key facts within larger stories. Each “tweet” is limited to only 140 characters. As anyone who has written tweets about anything of substance knows, one has to severely reduce the complexity of his thoughts to express them so briefly. In other words, thoughts are dumbed down to fit them onto social media. By including such dumbed-down thoughts in their content, the media, by extension, dumb down their own content.
On the topic of brevity and its ramifications for the quality of discourse, I am reminded of the words of Aldous Huxley:
The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth. However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation. On such a theme one can be brief only by omission and simplification. Omission and simplification help us to understand—but help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.
— Aldous Huxley, from the foreword of Brave New World Revisited.
The end result of the dramatic story-telling style of the mainstream media and the brevity of their content is that complex messages get lost. Simple messages that are likely to arouse controversy, be they firmly rooted in facts or not, are what get reported. Tom Flanagan received so much abuse partly because of these problems—it was more simple, brief, and controversial for the media to report that he is “okay with child pornography” than it would have been to report that he has grave doubts about the utility of the Conservative policy of mandatory minimum jail sentences for viewers of child porn. Ironically, however, Tom Flanagan has gotten away virtually unscathed with much worse in the past.
Tom Flanagan’s call for the murder of Julian Assange and threats to members of the public.
The following video aired on the CBC on November 30th, 2010:
Notice, first, the reaction of the CBC panelists to Tom Flanagan’s suggestion that Julian Assange should be murdered.2 One of them was actually giggling. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like the right reaction. There is nothing funny about inciting violence against other people.
The interviewer gave Flanagan every chance to recant his assertion that Assange should be murdered. Instead of recanting, Flanagan even reiterated, with a straight face, that he “would not feel unhappy if Assange disappeared.” After a flood of complaints to the CBC about this interview, Flanagan said that he was being “glib” when he said that Assange should be murdered. I do not for a moment accept that explanation. Killing is never a topic to be “glib” about in the first place; further, it was very clear from Flanagan’s countenance that he meant every word.
Flanagan further illustrated his fondness for violence (at least, when it is inflicted against people he doesn’t like) and his lack of respect for the rule of law when he responded to a complaint about his Assange interview. He threatened a woman in Toronto by writing: “Better be careful, we know where you live.”
I should also note that Tom Flanagan may have been one of the Conservative Party members who tried to bribe the late MP, Chuck Cadman, to vote against the Liberal budget. Cadman told his wife that Flanagan and another Conservative Party member offered him a million-dollar life insurance policy and other “considerations” in exchange for his vote against the Liberal budget, which would have brought down the Liberal government and forced an election. Cadman was dying of cancer at the time. Since this was not proven in court, I won’t linger on this point. Flanagan was never charged because the primary witness, Cadman himself, died.
My aim here is to illustrate the very strange case that Tom Flanagan’s career was destroyed for merely questioning the utility of sending all viewers of child porn to jail, while he got away virtually unscathed with inciting the murder of a human, threatening one of his critics, and possibly attempting to bribe an MP. Sure, he was subjected to some mild criticism for these slights, but that criticism never materialized into any actual, tangible penalties. It behooves us to ask why this is the case—why our society is more vehemently opposed to a particular line of academic inquiry (albeit one littered with callous remarks) than it is to calls for murder. Although the reasons for this are every bit as complex as human affairs tend to be, and could provide voluminous fodder for debate if desired, I will attempt to deal with them, and other issues raised by this incident, as best I can in the following paragraphs.
Canada is not ready for a calm, rational debate about child pornography.
In Canada, sex is a sensitive topic, child abuse is a sensitive topic, and the combination of the two is a really sensitive topic—to the point of being taboo. Anyone who dares to touch it, no matter how tangentially, is liable to get burned. This is a problem in public discourse, where rationality often struggles to gain a foothold, but less so in academic circles—most of which still permit some degree of academic freedom.
There will always be topics that arouse very strong feelings in people. Good examples are religion, patriotism, war, famine, the environment, civil rights—and, for reasons that Sigmund Freud would have no doubt loved to discuss, virtually anything related to sex (abortion, pornography, gay marriage, polygamy, and so on). Strong feelings are not intrinsically bad, but we must not allow them to cloud our judgment. If we, as a society, are going to make good decisions, we need to maintain a calm, thoughtful, and rational public discourse. If it sounds like I am repeating myself here, it is for good reason; I cannot emphasize this point enough. If we make decisions based purely on our “gut” feelings, or on what appears to be the truth at first glance, or on what the rest of the herd wants to do, then we may unwittingly put ourselves and our society in grave danger. It is not a coincidence that rational thought, free inquiry, and free speech are suppressed in virtually every dystopian narrative. We need these things to keep us sane and our policies just. It doesn’t take a great deal of reflection to see that respect for such ideals was conspicuously lacking in our society’s treatment of Tom Flanagan.
I have no opinion as to whether Flanagan’s objections to Conservative policies on child porn are well-founded, as I will discuss below. But regardless of whether we ultimately agree with the answer, we shouldn’t punish people for daring to ask the question.
It is instructive to withhold opinions about an issue until we know enough to make an informed opinion.
I only express opinions that I’ve had sufficient time to carefully formulate and challenge. As a result, I do not have an opinion about everything. I believe that the only opinion worth having is an informed one, and it simply isn’t possible, given the constraints of time, for anyone to be fully informed about everything. The humility to say “I don’t know” when appropriate is essential to any rational discussion. Socrates made his greatest contributions to society by encouraging this kind of humility, and we can learn a lot from his approach. He was most notorious for exposing the ignorance of people who expressed opinions without adequately challenging them first. Where “wise men” had answers, Socrates had only questions, and the latter proved to be more instructive.
In this case, I do not have an opinion as to whether those who view child pornography should go to prison or undergo a regime of mandatory counselling and therapy (Tom Flanagan supports the latter treatment). I do hold to the tenet that the justice system is meant to protect society and rehabilitate offenders—not to exact revenge—so our laws should be based on whatever best serves those ends. If that means sending viewers of child porn to prison and providing counselling for them there, so be it; if it means requiring them to attend counselling outside of prison and jailing them if they don’t show up, so be it. Either way, we should make the decision based on evidence rather than ideology. This point merits further discussion.
Ideology is driving Canadian public policy much more strongly than evidence.
I should take a moment to define exactly what I mean by “ideology” and “evidence.”
An ideology is a system of beliefs that is adopted and maintained despite any facts that cast doubt on the validity of its tenets or that would be subversive to its followers—should they ever take the time to consider the facts calmly, rationally, and with an open mind. Ideologies tend to be peddled by those who have the most to gain by their widespread acceptance. Historically, religions were peddled by a class of clergymen whose often outrageous wealth and power depended on the acceptance of their chosen religious ideology. Today, “free market3” ideology is peddled by corporatists4 who likewise stand to amass great wealth and power—at the expense of others—when their chosen ideology affects public policy.
Evidence allows us to make decisions without the dogma of ideology. Evidence-based policy is informed by objective fact. We decide what we want as a society, find the best evidence available for what will serve those ends, and act accordingly. Evidence-based policy, if used correctly, is simple and fair. Unlike an ideology, evidence-based policy can’t be manipulated by one particular group to give it power over others, unless it manages to falsify evidence and conceal the fact that such tampering occurred (which is very difficult to do in today’s world of ubiquitous information).
If we accept the definitions of ideology and evidence-based policy that I propose above, then we must conclude that both the “Harper Government’s” mandatory minimum jail sentences to which Flanagan takes exception and the public reaction to Flanagan’s comments are based on ideology. Despite my best efforts in this information-rich world of ours, I can find no objective evidence that mandatory minimum jail sentences provide better protection for society or more effective rehabilitation for offenders than more traditional methods of sentencing. I have found quite the opposite, in fact; some lawyers have pointed out that mandatory minimums are tantamount to the government backseat driving in the legal system by taking a lot of discretion out of the hands of judges who know the particulars of each unique case. I have also found evidence that mandatory minimums increase the incarcerated population and the expense of running the justice system. As for the incredibly negative response to Flanagan’s comments: Given that he was chastised for questioning the validity of Conservative policies that were undoubtedly based on ideology, his critics have, perhaps unwittingly in some cases, supported Conservative Party ideology.
Ideology has reared its ugly head in this matter in more ways than one. The response from Elizabeth Cannon, President of the University of Calgary, where Flanagan used to teach, is especially interesting. Cannon’s objection to the viewing of child pornography is based on the following sentence: “Viewing pictures serves to create more demand for these terrible images, which leads to further exploitation of defenseless children.” In saying this, Cannon invoked The Market5—one of the more fashionable gods of our time. She asserts that child molesters do what they do because of supply and demand. This is nonsense on the face of it. People don’t molest children because of supply and demand; they molest children because they’re sick and twisted. The implication is that someone viewing images in private in Iowa, for example, could somehow make a person in California molest more children. The hypothetical Californian, in any realistic scenario, could not even know that the Iowan was looking at the images in question, much less base his actions on that knowledge. I submit that what I just wrote is brutally obvious to any thinking person. Alas, ideologies teach their adherents, overtly or covertly, not to think for themselves. George Orwell hinted at this when he wrote: “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
By suggesting that viewing images inevitably causes physical harm to others, Cannon was attempting to rationalize an irrational position—using Market ideology, which relies on the absurd precept that virtually all human interaction can be distilled to simple supply and demand scenarios—and she came up short. Her real objection to Flanagan’s comments was probably closer to “Flanagan is currently unpopular in the media, and I don’t want the negative press to affect the University, so I’m going to search for a justification to officially chastise him and thereby distance the University from his comments.” To be clear, I am not suggesting that Cannon was wrong to criticize Flanagan. I am saying that the way she criticized him was idiotic. There are fair criticisms, and there are unfair criticisms; Flanagan received the latter.
This irrational application of Market ideology is not an isolated incident. The Market is one of the most fashionable ideologies of our day. “Free market,” “job creators,” “trickle-down effect,” “invisible hand,” “deregulation,” “private-sector efficiency,” “privatization,” “globalization”—these are incantations dedicated to worship of The Market, and we can hear them repeated, with great reverence, from most politicians and academics.
I use religious terms like “worship” and “incantation” on purpose. There are only superficial differences between a religion and an ideology. A particular line of irrational thought may be peddled from an altar or from the podium of a shareholders’ meeting. The peddler may wear a robe or a tailored suit. Sermons may focus on the metaphysics behind an all-powerful man in the sky or the metaphysics behind the “free-market” mechanisms that, we are told, will inevitably solve the world’s problems and lead us to Utopia (if we get rid of all those pesky laws and regulations that bar corporations from doing whatever they want, of course). These differences are just window dressing. What matters is that both religions and other ideologies require their acolytes to deny any evidence that doesn’t jibe with what they’re told to believe.
Employers often repress expressive rights.
We Canadians often speak—almost to the point of bragging—about our wonderful system that protects our freedom of speech. Fair enough. Generally speaking, our government cannot legally prosecute or persecute people for saying things that don’t incite violence.
Our system does very little, however, to protect people from retribution from employers. By and large, employers are allowed to do whatever they want. As I wrote above, Flanagan lost several jobs because he dared to ask questions about a controversial topic. This is far from an isolated incident. One who works for a fossil fuel company or for a subsidiary of a fossil fuel company, for instance, is liable to lose his6 job if he expresses skepticism about a new oil pipeline or shale gas extraction. This issue is prevalent in New Brunswick, where a large portion of the population is directly or indirectly employed by the Irving Empire, which has deep financial interests in the fossil fuel industry. Many people who would like to oppose shale gas extraction in this province stay at home during protests for fear of losing their livelihoods.
Can people who cower from speaking according to their consciences for fear of retribution truly be said to enjoy freedom of speech?
Conflicting loyalties lie at the heart of this issue. Today’s employers don’t just demand a certain amount of time and productivity from their workers; they demand, often quite unreasonably, that workers serve the corporation’s interests even outside of working hours. This corporate loyalty (or fealty, as many employers would prefer) can come into conflict with the loyalty that a citizen in a democracy should have to society at large. In order for a democracy to function, its citizens need to speak their minds and confront injustice when they encounter it. If they don’t do their parts because it might not serve the interests of their employers, then employers exert an inordinate amount of control over the society. If average citizens7 are not the primary drivers behind their society’s fate, then they don’t live in a democracy.
It is worth noting that the Canadian Association of University Teachers took issue with Cannon’s letter to Flanagan. They recognize the potential dangers of forced orthodoxy and the suppression of free academic inquiry.
We should be fair to everyone—especially our enemies.
Is Tom Flanagan a good, morally upstanding gentleman? No. In fact, I think that he and his ilk are rather despicable. But I still think it important to treat everyone fairly, on every issue, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them. Tom Flanagan did not deserve the amount of abuse that he received due to the aforementioned out-of-context comments about the relation between Conservative justice initiatives and viewers of child pornography. He deserved far more criticism for advocating the murder of a fellow human being on national television.
While I obviously have sympathy for Tom Flanagan in this matter, I have to admit that his fate reeks of poetic justice. More than anything, Flanagan is the victim of ideology—in this case, the mass, crazed ideology that anyone who dares to question the policies of the “Harper Government” on viewers of child pornography is a blasphemer who must be dealt with harshly. Flanagan has spent much of his life promoting the same kind of blind, unquestioning ideology that ultimately destroyed him. Frankenstein has killed its master. Sometimes, what goes around does indeed come around, and in most unexpected ways.
- ^ The Canadian Criminal Code indicates that anyone who stages such illegal dog fights (specifically, anyone who “keeps a common gaming house”) is guilty of an indictable offence, whereas anyone who merely places a bet in such an illegal gambling establishment is guilty of a summary offence, which is less serious. Likewise, those who produce child pornography commit a more serious crime than those who view it, so the analogy works. Of course, all analogies break down eventually; in this case, the analogy breaks down when you consider that one who runs a “common gaming house” in which dogs fight each other would likely be charged with animal cruelty on top of the gambling offence. There is no equivalent in the child pornography issue.
- ^ Note that I use the term “murdered” here instead of “assassinated.” I usually shy away from using the latter term because it requires one to consider the relative “importance” of different individuals. This exercise tends to distract from the main issue, which is that, in either case, we are discussing the deliberate, cold-blooded killing of a human, an act which ought to shock the conscience.
- ^ I put “free market” in quotes here because I use it in the loosest possible manner. The same people who advocate for a “free market” devoid of government interference also demand that government bail out large corporations when they fail. What these people really mean is that they want government not to interfere to protect the public interest when a corporation tries to do something harmful to the public for the sake of grossly inflated profit, but they do want the government to interfere to save corporations when their greed inevitably leads to their downfall. This is best exemplified by the 2008 world economic collapse and subsequent corporate bailouts.
- ^ It isn’t only the corporatists who stand to directly gain from the acceptance of “free market” ideology who peddle it, of course. In The Unconscious Civilization, John Ralston Saul describes a class of “courtiers” who do much the same even though they are not the primary benefactors. These courtiers are mostly politicians and economics professors and the like who scrounge for the crumbs that fall from the banquet tables of real power.
- ^ I capitalize The Market here for two reasons. First, I want to reinforce the fact that it really is treated as a god. Its believers often speak, in the most revenrential of terms, of the power, beauty, and benevolence of The Market, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Second, it is useful to distinguish The Market as an ideology from an actual market—such as a farmer’s market.
- ^ I often use a gender-neutral “his” or “he” to refer to “one.” Some prefer to use “his/her” or “he/she” in an attempt to be politically correct, but that construction is awkward to read and the mark of a poor writer. I have always taught my students that “he” can be either masculine or gender-neutral in English—indeed, if it could not be used either way, a lot of sentences would not make semantic sense.
- ^ When I refer to “citizens” in this context, I mean those who are not fantastically wealthy or powerful.