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College Quarterly
Winter 2014 - Volume 17 Number 1
Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age
Tom Flanagan
Toronto: Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2014
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

One of my closest friends is an American. He is a former US Army officer. His political sympathies lean toward the Republican Party. He regards Fox News as a credible source of information on current affairs. He teaches political science in a private university.

We agree on very little when it comes to political philosophy, American history and global affairs. We have different ideas about what counts as human virtue, defensible moral standards, the role of religion in society and how to run a widget factory or a health care system.

We were graduate students together in 1967. We taught at the same university in 2007. Why is he one of my closest and oldest friends? It’s partly his infectious laughter and full-throated sense of humour. It’s partly because, although contemptuous of “welfare entitlements,” he is personally generous to a fault. It’s partly because our almost half-century history of relentless argumentation has been carried on utterly without anger or incivility. Whatever the reasons, our relationship is proof that it’s possible to admire and respect someone whose opinions on matters of importance are almost diametrically (or is that dialectically?) opposite to our own.

I have never met Tom Flanagan. He certainly isn’t a friend of mine. His opinions are also diametrically opposed to mine and pretty similar to those of my American friend. If we were one day to meet, however, I doubt if we would get along. Even though I can’t help being attracted by his often sardonic and occasionally elfin sense of humour, I am more often put off by what seems like an underlying meanness of thought and spirit. I didn’t take well, for example, to his casual but apparently sincere comment that Julian Assange should be assassinated.

Perhaps it’s the company he keeps. Before he was unceremoniously “thrown under the bus” by the Prime Minister of Canada, Tom Flanagan had a successful political career as a top advisor to Stephen J. Harper. Some went so far as to call him “Harper’s brain” in the same way that Karl Rove was considered “Bush’s brain” in the days when he served at the pleasure of the forty-third president of the United States of America. More recently, Tom Flanagan took up with Danielle Smith and was a primary force behind the formation of the Wildrose Party, the official opposition in the Alberta provincial legislature lying to the right of the governing Conservative Party.

In any case, I can say that if my American friend were to run afoul of the authorities and stand accused of some violation of academic etiquette or some breach of “political correctness,” I would fight almost to the death for his right to speak as he wishes. I am admittedly a coward when it comes to life-and-death choices, but I am a principled coward, and would definitely do my best regardless of threat to my reputation, career or modest treasure. Free speech, as the ancient Cynics understood, is a foundational freedom, and academic freedom is the species of free speech that is most dear.

I would fight for Tom Flanagan too. After all, it is no chore to defend someone with whom we are in substantial agreement and it is also no burden to support an old, dear friend; but, to defend people with whom we passionately disagree and whom we find personally obnoxious and even loathsome is a true test of commitment to the principle that everyone should be permitted to express their view―subject, of course, to relentless interrogation and cross-examination. I did, for example, agree with the American Civil Liberties Union when it endorsed the right of American Nazis to parade through the predominantly Jewish village of Skokie IL, where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor. No one I know has intimated that Tom Flanagan’s views are close to those of the Nazis.

Tom Flanagan’s memoir isn’t only about what he calls “the incident,” but it is central to the narrative or, at least, to that part of the narrative which makes it most relevant to college teachers, whether or not they are interested in other aspects of Flanagan’s life―especially his “insider” view of the leadership of Stephen Harper and of the government that he led when Flanagan was arguably the closest person to him at least in his political life.

Here’s what happened. On February 27, 2013, Mr. Flanagan was at the University of Lethbridge in southern Alberta. He was there to talk about Canada’s Indian Act upon which he is a reputed authority―though, again, his views are far removed from mine. At the event, a member of the audience asked a question about child pornography, a topic that had little or nothing to do with the topics Flanagan had been asked to address. Ever the educator, however, Flanagan did not deflect the question as irrelevant to his talk; instead, he opined that there was a difference between making child pornography which was a punishable offence under the Criminal Code and viewing child pornography. There was, he suggested, a discernible difference between the harm caused by an action and the harm done by viewing the result of the action. He went on to say that current legal interpretations of child pornography might include more than photos or films and encompass drawings, paintings, cartoons, short stories or fantasies written in personal diaries or notebooks. He subsequently offered a modest defence of the proposition that these imaginative renderings of illicit sexual relations involving children were nothing more than thoughts and, he thought, such thoughts ought not to be criminalized. I think that Tom Flanagan was precisely right.

Teachers and students of Canadian government and politics will find much more in Persona Non Grata than Flanagan’s discussion of his treatment by his ideological companions as a result of the controversy arising out of the fuss in Lethbridge. His reminiscences and observations about life in the Harper era and, especially, in the tightly controlled inner circle with which Mr. Harper has kept himself and his own imagination have also caused a hullabaloo. After all, Flanagan has made what to some are “shocking” allegations concerning Mr. Harper’s mental acuity and emotional stability. The “dark side” both in terms of political methods and psychological depression is, of course, fiercely rejected by Mr. Harper’s employees in the Prime Minister’s Office, but the assessments/allegations/accusations levelled by Mr. Flanagan will surely give future historians and biographers of one of Canada’s most deeply divisive first ministers much to contemplate when writing the history of our age. Indeed, Mr. Flanagan’s views could lend much to studies of “leadership skills” which seem to be so eagerly embraced by college and university programs dedicated to the development of aspirant executives in the public, private and volunteer/civil society/NGO sectors.

Of more immediate importance, however, is the subtitle of Tom Flanagan’s book. There has been much talk over the past few years about the emerging relationship between democracy and social media. Twitter and Tweets, not yet a niche law firm, have been given credit for everything from President Obama’s election in 2008 to mass protests that brought the promise of democracy (albeit temporarily) to Egypt and have certainly invigorated public life elsewhere. Although, for example, it is still technically possible to shut down the Internet and block texts and tweets, the overall push of the social media from Facebook to ubiquitous blogs have certainly made it more difficult for oppressive regimes to cover up openly tyrannical actions. In 1989, we may recall, about the only way to spread the word about the Tiananmen massacre was by using Fax machines to send copies of European and North American newspaper reports to the “People’s Republic.” Now, the ease of access to various electronic information platforms has increased immeasurably and, although efforts are being made to suppress the social media through legislation and international treaties, the Internet remains free and powerful for now.

Healthy democracies, however, depend not only on opportunities for political participation, but also on an informed public that takes the time to reflect upon not only substantive issues, but also on procedural processes. From odious “rate-your-professor” sites to the potentially sinister “big data analytics,” contemporary technology makes it possible to imagine dystopias running from unprecedented authoritarianism to frenetic mob mentalities, all facilitated by “information technology” run amok.

The almost instantaneous response to Tom Flanagan’s spontaneous remarks on a singular February day had almost as immediate consequences for his career. They included hyperbolic condemnations from not only by his former boss in Ottawa, but also his more recent political allies, Danielle Smith and the members of the far-right Wildrose Party as well as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. All three cut ties with him.

Meanwhile, Flanagan has conceded that his words about child pornography were ill-chosen. He also apologized for his “glib and thoughtless” comment on Assange (about which a police complaint was filed regarding incitement to murder). At the same time, such matters give me pause to contemplate the consequences of glib, thoughtless, ill-chosen, ill-advised and ill-considered utterances.

We have already experienced phenomena such as the recruitment of students in the USA to covertly tape university classes in the hope of recording comments by professors and students that could be used to discipline academics up to and including dismissal (Horowitz, 2006). Some of us also know intimately the consequences of students recording classes and submitting their handiwork to college authorities with the intent of doing harm to teachers and, in the process, violating the rights of their fellow students who are likewise taped without their knowledge. Given the ubiquity of devices from Facebook to YouTube and the delight which some people feel when their clandestine words and images “go viral,” it is well past time to have a serious “conversation” about the rights and responsibilities of students, teachers, administrators and others regarding the now-connected issues of academic freedom and the right to privacy.

If nothing else, Tom Flanagan’s book provokes consideration of these issues. And, of course, there is a lot of fascinating commentary on what it is like to be part of (and to believe in) the ideology of neoliberalism as filtered through right-wing politics in Canada. The “take-away” for college educators must be a reflection on the adamant refusal of the managerial class even to discuss academic freedom and the intimations of its decline in the increasingly corporatized universities.


Horowitz, D. (2006). The professors: The 101 most dangerous academics in America. New York, NY: Regnery.

Howard A. Doughty teaches Political Economy and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at