Flanagan wises up to his choice of words

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It's a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Lethbridge to Calgary, plenty of time, as it turns out, to ruin a reputation forged over more than four decades.

Tom Flanagan knows.

It's been 14 months since a morning-after reaction to the night before like this country has never seen.

While Flanagan was blissfully cruising down the highway, enjoying his solitude and listening to Sue Grafton's V is for Vengeance on his CD player, he was condemned by Stephen Harper's office, the premier of Alberta, provincial opposition leader Danielle Smith, the libertarian whose campaign he had managed months earlier, and virtually every media outlet in the country.

He was dropped by the CBC, his employer, the University of Calgary, implied he was being pushed into retirement, and his old pal Preston Manning uninvited him from a major Conservative conference in the national capital.

The night before, the former Harper adviser and Conservative strategist had walked into what he now knows was a trap at a speaking event at the University of Lethbridge where he was to discuss the future of the Indian Act, something that had put him at odds with First Nations.

At this event were two men Flanagan identifies as Idle No More sympathizers armed with a cellphone and some comments Flanagan had made in 2009 regarding child pornography.

In his new book, persona non grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, Flanagan concedes his career has been littered with errors. Plunge ahead now, clean up later, he writes.

"But this is one mistake I shouldn't have made - and wouldn't have made if I had been thinking politically rather than academically."

He took the plunge and answered the question on child pornography, finally blurting out that "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 ... " before being shouted down and giving up.

His tormenter, Arnell Tailfeathers, recorded the answer, posted it to YouTube with the tag line "Tom Flanagan OK with child pornography." Flanagan, at least initially, was given no opportunity to defend, explain himself or provide any context for comments while the bus of public opinion was bearing down on him at warp speed.

He uses his book to describe how one can die by Twitter. He calls his experience a virtual mobbing; a "mainstream media massacre."

"I now found myself shouted down by the ideologues of the right, who proved to be just as intolerant of other opinions of the ideologues of the left."

He also laments, quite rightly, the lack of academic free speech he was afforded, something he had cherished during 45 years in academia, where discussions can be sparked by humour, deliberately outrageous statements or words meant to provoke. He also writes about Canadian child pornography laws, concluding that in a laudable bid to protect children, laws go too far in trying to regulate personal conduct, do not distinguish between natural adolescent sexuality and pathological desires and impose overly harsh penalties on offenders whose "only offences take place only in the mind."

Many will disagree with Flanagan, but that's the point. He has made his argument and has every right to do so.

He also dishes a little payback.

Harper communications director Andrew McDougall tweeted that Flanagan's comments were ignorant.

"Being called ëignorant' by a PR flack was a new experience for me, but about par for what Stephen Harper's PMO has become," Flanagan writes.

A Smith operative called him with the old "good news, bad news" line. "The good news is that you're going to have lots more spare time,'' he said. "The bad news is that your career is over."

To this day, Smith has never spoken to him about the incident, Flanagan says.

But Flanagan also steps over his own message with comments about his former boss, Harper, comments he now calls peripheral to the book.

He refers to the prime minister's well-known "despondent moods" and the "dark, almost Nixonian side" to Harper.

"He believes in playing politics right up to the edge of the rules, which inevitably means some team members will step across some ethical or legal lines in their desire to win for the boss," Flanagan writes.

"He 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.''

Harper's office has called Flanagan's comments "ridiculous."

Late last week, the 70-year-old Flanagan called Harper "very complicated'' with obvious positive qualities.

"The dark side is there and sometimes gets in the way, but that's not the whole person,'' he says and, this time at least, Flanagan is choosing his words very carefully.


Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.





Organizations: CBC, University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge First Nations

Geographic location: Alberta

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