Barbarians at the Gates Again

I’m no fan of Tom Flanagan. I think the recent attention he’s received is ….

What are you expecting?

“Richly deserved?” “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy?”


“Chilling?” “A fundamental attack on academic freedom?”

Well, as some of my facebook friends already know, I’m a little bit of both minds. But mostly, I’m just kind of wowed by the contents of most of the public condemnations (and defenses) which include, as is always the case in this new day and age, the stream of face-in-the-crowd commentary attached at the end of online news outlets’ stories about the matter. In any case, from my perch in the Ivory Tower* the only response I think needs to reach all those non-university writers is, ‘get the fuck off my lawn.”

I’ve no intention of either reviewing the career of TF, or reiterating the whole of the controversial events. Let this much serve instead and as introduction to the rest of my commentary.

Tom Flanagan:

  • University of Calgary Political Science Professor; theoretically conservative and thus confrere of Professor Barry Cooper et al. (and so perhaps also others I’m familiar with like Janet Ajzenstat and Francis Widdowson); critic of Aboriginal policy in Canada;
  • And, Reform, Conservative and Wildrose ideological engineer and campaign foreman;
  • AND, public intellectual, sometimes columnist and regular on CBC’s Power & Politics with Evan Solomon on which he once wore a gianormous Bison hide coat (reminded me of Fred MacMurray in that Flubber movie) and suggested that the US government assassinate Julian Assange.

And, as the British say, the present conTROVersy:

  • In the Q&A after a talk about the Indian Act at University of Lethbridge he said something or other to the effect that viewing kiddie porn was victimless and therefore shouldn’t be criminal, a recap of similar remarks he’d made years earlier elsewhere;
  • Parenthetically, he was on NAMBLA’s mailing list for a couple of years, a long story;
  • The remarks are news, not merely because they were heard, but they were recorded by a member of the UofL audience;
  • He’s Tom Flanagan.

It’s an easy road for those who’d argue that TF couldn’t be more wrong. It’s hardly worth outlining: Vic Toews (cabinet minister of the Federal Conservatives – you know, that party that TF used to play rainmaker for) once said, ‘you’re on our side or the side of child pornographers’. So I won’t even bother. But since the condemnation of the statements has been pretty much nonpartisan, I off this bit of documentary evidence:

What’s hard, and where I certainly fear to tread, and where few of his defenders chose to boldly go:

  • What’s child pornography?
  • What’s an image of child pornography?
  • What’s an image?
  • What does an encounter with an image, an image of child pornography, or child pornography mean or entail?
  • In the internet age, am I responsible (morally, or especially criminally) for everything I call up on my computer, like from a Google search?

Requisite disclaimer, I’m not advancing answers. I’m just – Glenn Beckesquely – asking questions, umkay?

And shit, I don’t even have to offer such an interrogative defense of TF, do I? He and I are wrapped in the intellectual chain mail of Academic Freedom, um-eye-rite? I know the answer. My momma didn’t raise no fools (ok, she actually did, but I’m not stupid). Tilting against every taboo is neither worthwhile, nor necessary. But the principle remains in my world that those with the courage to do so are entitled to a vigorous defense by our caste.

There, in a nutshell, is the highest ideal. And again, I must document those who’ve publically weighed in on that score:

Now, they defended TF’s rights, not so much his substance. Who could ask for anything more? (See above, I kinda did. But, I’d certainly not go to the press with the elements of such a positive defense. ‘Cause I know I couldn’t be guaranteed fair reportage, and I’m just not that brave. So I can’t fault TF’s defenders for not going down such a road.)

Nonetheless, I reckon that TF went down a wrong road, one in which such argumentation, especially off the cuff, entailed abandoning his privileges with respect to academic freedom: he became a political operative, but more importantly, he became a public intellectual. Good on him, ‘cause I’m sure I don’t have the ready wit to do it (though I’d love the money). But then, your every word is offered up for general scrutiny. So, you piss off the larger audience – regardless of the free speech conventions (nevermind academic freedom) that people accept at least in principle – and you’ll be pilloried via the very free speech principle that lets every jamoke with internet access share his wisdom on a newspaper website.

(And let’s face it, TF, if you do cutting edge standup, on a current affairs show or in a public talk, and they don’t get your gag, odds are good it’s going to bite you in the ass. But that’s the price for honing your performance.)

Still, there is one condemnation I consider deadly serious, and it’s been recognized as such only by Flanagan’s colleagues and a handful of commenters. UofC President Elizabeth Cannon issued this public statement:

Comments made by Tom Flanagan in Lethbridge yesterday absolutely do not represent the views of the University of Calgary. In the university’s view, child pornography is not a victimless crime. All aspects of this horrific crime involve the exploitation of children. Viewing pictures serves to create more demand for these terrible images, which leads to further exploitation of defenseless children.

She then goes on to report that Flanagan will be retiring, as if it was related to this kerfuffle.

I don’t recall the last time I read so complete a repudiation of the nature of the university and its values. And this from a university’s chief administrator. Views, the university may have (though I don’t think they do or should) but these are beside the point; the university exists to defend the freedom of its faculty to speak and to write, and that sometimes includes words defending the indefensible. It’s not the admin’s job to engage in such a conversation; it’s precisely that kind of engagement on the part of university administrations that led to the 1915 Declaration of Principles by the AAUP.

And what contrast to the response of Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to public objections to a panel discussion at the college consisting of supporters of the BDS movement: “Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views.” That’s the only position an admin can have.

Knopff and Eaton are indeed correct: UofC owes Tom Flanagan a big fucking apology.

Anyway, to conclude. Let’s get real. Condemnations, defenses, and the rest, their authors all want to report that TF’s career has gone in the toilet. And Canadians love a comeuppance. Please. Maybe a point has come where TF sits at home and bemoans some careless words and the fact that his life as a public commentator and mover and/or shaker within political organizations is baked, but the fact remains his life will go on without much harm done to it.

None of this has stopped the manufacture of a bunch of misinformation. See Brian Singh: Tom Flanagan was crushed beneath the conservative edifice he built.

  • He wasn’t driven out of the UofC; he’d already done the paperwork to indicate that he’d be retiring at the end of this academic year (when his sabbatical ends – suck on that, wage earners and salaried grunts!). Brian, rewrite your first paragraph.
  • You’re suggesting his career is destroyed? Seriously? Well, I guess if he’s so vain as to define it and himself according to his power within conservative party politics in Alberta and federally, and as a television personality, then sure, WTH not? Who you work for, Brian, The Globe and Mail or Gawker?

OMG, it’s gunna be so sad when I find TF after the dust settles and he’s living in a one-room suite, drunk, in nothing but his underwear, nattering ceaselessly about how it all went wrong.

Not fucking likely. A whole career teaching at UofC, walking away from there with a big fat pension. Bitter and obsessed with the past he may become, but he’ll be it in comfort. At the same time, he’s been a hardworking scholar. Does anyone honestly think that he won’t continue to produce and won’t get published? And won’t find himself back on the teevee soon enough? And maybe even welcome again in conservative circles?

Only in fucking Canada. I used to think it funny how prone we were as a nationality to enjoy the downfalls of the famous. Now I simply distain my fellow citizens who work to invent such downfalls. But I start to panic when the rubes are aided and abetted by the very institution meant to inoculate us from the wielders of torches and pitchforks.

*I’ve always hated that expression. I understand it’s a figure of speech, but the material facts of my place in the university are that I spend my school hours in building built in the era of post-sec expansion in Canada, a crumbling edifice hiding tonnes of asbestos, teaching in worn dirty classrooms, before mostly incurious faux-adults w/o the capacity for or interest in tackling any difficult ideas. Privileged? Sure, but if all those students and all those parents out there imagine I ought to be grateful, and more importantly, imagine that there are real limits to what I might say in order to shake their moral comfort at taxpayers expense, then they have a far greater sense of entitlement than I do.


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