Tom Flanagan is on the circuit to promote his new book, Persona Non Grata. It’s grabbing lots of attention because it discusses the “scandal” around his comments on child pornography.
Flanagan, of course, never supported child porn and the public shunning he received was based on little more than hysteria. Still, there is a story yet to be told here—except it’s about politics, not child porn.
First, the facts: Flanagan was set up by some political enemies, who elicited a misleading quote from him at a conference. They captured it on video, and then posted it on YouTube under the title “Tom Flanagan OK with child pornography.”
Within hours of the posting, Flanagan had been politically disowned by everyone from the CBC to the Wild Rose Party. In a telling interview with CBC’s Evan Solomon this week, Flanagan discusses what happened.
His big mistake, he says, was to try to answer the question honestly (he says he was in “academic mode”) when he should have recognized that someone was trying to trap him and found a way not to answer it at all (he should have gone into “political mode”).
Solomon challenges this view, noting that Flanagan was a key member of a political team that wouldn’t have blinked before bringing down an opponent who made the same mistake. Shouldn’t he expect the same treatment?
Flanagan’s response is telling. He becomes visibly uncomfortable, looks away from the camera and, ultimately, avoids the question (goes into political mode?). So Solomon moves onto another one: How should the CBC have responded, he asks?
Regaining his composure, Flanagan replies that whether it was the CBC, Danielle Smith of the Wild Rose Party, or his old boss, Stephen Harper, he should have been given a chance to explain himself.
Now, while this sounds reasonable enough, let’s take a moment to revisit Solomon’s first question. It deserves an answer.
What would Flanagan say to someone who insists that he forfeited the right to be treated with respect when as a political operative he refused to grant it to others? If he has lived by the sword, shouldn’t he now die by the sword?
Flanagan might say that if this kind of bushwhacking had occurred while he was still in politics, he would have accepted it—much as a soldier accepts the possibility of death on the battlefield.
But most soldiers become civilians again and expect to be welcomed back into their communities and allowed to walk the streets in safety.
Similarly, when the video was posted, Flanagan had already left politics and was acting as an academic. He should have been treated like one, rather than a political figure.
But let’s push the metaphor a little further. In war, a soldier must risk his/her life and be ready to kill the enemy in battle. Because the rules of war are so different from normal life, we try to keep these two worlds separate.
Indeed, we don’t want them to intersect. So when a war is over, we not only allow soldiers to leave behind the things they have done on the battlefield, we encourage them to do so. Is there a parallel with politics?
Flanagan seems to think so. Academia and politics, he tells us, are very different worlds. While the former aims mainly at finding truth, politics is about building a coalition of voters—and truth “has very little to do with it.”
I find this both striking and revealing. Basically, Flanagan is saying that in his experience politics is all about winning and that truth is little more than an afterthought.
If so, then politics really is a different world that operates by different rules. Indeed, if the only thing that matters is winning, there are no rules: the end justifies the means.
This would also explain why he avoids Solomon’s question. He is like the soldier who falls silent when asked to describe his experience of war. “We had to do things over there I’d rather forget,” he might say.
The difference is, however, that soldiers have no choice. Their duty is to take life and follow orders. While we often use the metaphor of war in politics, we should never lose sight of the fact that it is just a metaphor.
Politics is about choices. Perhaps none is more important than how you play the game. To engage as though the law of the jungle reigns—that truth barely matters—is to make such a choice. And I would argue the wrong one.
I think this points to the real story behind the Flanagan affair.
Once politics has been divorced from truth, it is no longer a contest over ideas but a lawless struggle for power. This, in turn, radicalizes people to a point where, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, politics becomes war by other means.
And that is exactly what happened here. The people who set the trap for Flanagan were drawn into this escalating war, and he was seen as an arch-enemy.
So when he left politics, they followed him across the bridge, marched into the academic world, took over his conference and tried to destroy him.
This is a powerful statement of the difference between political figures and soldiers. While a soldier can leave the events of the battlefield behind, political figures cannot because the political “battlefield” is all around us. Flanagan has brought the war home with him.
And what of all those people and institutions that shunned him? Should they have taken the time to listen to his side of the story?
Of course they should have, but not because he is now an academic and has left politics behind. Rather, because they have an obligation to find the truth—whoever this involves. Instead, they did what they thought would give them a win.
What is the old saying? You reap what you sow.
Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan