The Wikileaks Quarrel: Erna and Tom

Erna Paris writes award-winning books on topics of global importance. About her most recent one, The Sun Climbs Slow: Justice in the Age of Imperial America (2008), a reviewer said: “Ms. Paris is one of the few Canadians I can think of who is internationally recognized as an authority on global affairs. Previous books, notably Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, established her preeminence in a narrow field that includes such names as Margaret Macmillan, Joe Schlesinger and Gwynne Dyer.” She’s been Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada and is an active member of PEN Canada, the organization dedicated to protecting free speech at home and abroad.

These days she’s very angry with Tom Flanagan, Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.

Here she is in the letters column of the current Literary Review of Canada: “According to article 464 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which makes counselling another to commit a criminal act an indictable offence, Tom Flanagan’s incitement to murder WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last December ought to have landed him in jail and led to his dismissal from the University of Calgary. The jury is still out on the police investigation, but the university has shamelessly refused to discipline the murder-by-proxy professor, who was breezy, but clearly not joking, when he made his self-described ‘manly’ suggestion.”

Flanagan’s remarks were made on public television; some viewers found him amusing. Googling “flanagan wikileaks,” I get more than 600, 000 entries.

Paris goes on: “Was Flanagan also joking when he bragged that his “Calgary School” is grooming Tea Party queen Sarah Palin to be the next U.S. President? What country does he live in? Do the more comic extremes of U.S. Republicanism now look to Alberta for Karl Rove-style ‘grooming’ advice from one of their ex-patriots?”

“What country does he live in?” That’s the give-away sentence. In Erna’s view, Tom’s not acting like a Canadian, a real Canadian. He embraces “extreme libertarianism and hostility to social democracy.” Canadians, in contrast, have a soft spot for social democracy and avoid extremes. Above all, Paris suggests, whether speaking in public or in the classroom, they do not sound like Americans.

Is Paris being intolerant? Yes. But to her credit she concludes with this advice: “Having received this notice of intent, Canadians who do not share [Flanagan’s] vision of Canada’s future need to make their voices heard before the next election.”

That’s the better view, Erna; that’s what we expect from a friend of free speech and a real Canadian.

12 Responses to “The Wikileaks Quarrel: Erna and Tom”

  1. 1 anonymous March 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    What’s ridiculous was that Tom was clearly joking but the left seem certain he wasn’t.

    The hypocrisy astounds me.

    Why weren’t people on the left upset at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty Protesters at a municipal council meeting in Toronto who were reported in the star as saying this:

    “After the two arrests, some of the 40-plus protesters present called police officers “pigs,” “rapists” and “Nazis.””–doug-ford-denies-get-a-job-quip-during-protest

    So the left is ticked off at Flanagan for making what was clearly a joke. Yet it’s perfectly acceptable to call police offers “pigs, rapists, and Nazis.” No wonder the left is doomed to forever be at the maegins.

  2. 2 David Lewis Stein March 18, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Calling for peopple to be killed is no more an exercise in free speech than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.
    I know that Flanagan may have thought he was being only flippant and he has sent an apology to the CBC but it doesn’t sound as though he understands what he should be apologizing for.
    His real offense was not possibly breaking a law but in coarsening and degrading the public discussion of an important isssue.
    As a former columnist and journalist who spent 40 years writing about politics in this country, I care deeply about maintaining civility in our public discourse.

  3. 3 Erna Paris March 18, 2011 at 10:05 am

    I’m surprised that a distinguished university professor of political philosophy seems not to know the difference between a legal prohibition and free speech. If Janet believes it ought to be lawful to publicly advocate the assassination of perceived opponents, she is free to mount a campaign to have this legislation removed from Canada’s criminal code. Good luck with that.

    While the law remains on the books, her free-speech argument is illogical – a diversionary red herring. Tom Flanagan’s act is, and remains, indefensible.

    • 4 Anonymous March 19, 2011 at 10:52 am

      I also think Erna needs to take an intro course to law.

      Specifically, she might want to look into the relationship between the criminal code, and sections 1 and 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Maybe then she can make an informed judgment about whether the act was “indefensible” or not.

      So Erna, are you also going to write publicly that OCAP members should be charged with libel and slander, and most importantly, hate speech? Isn’t it hate to call police officers, pigs, and Nazis? I think hate speech, which affects not only the discourse that Stein seems to hold so dear, but also affects a much larger segment of society than Flanagan’s flippant remark.

    • 5 Sam Ajzenstat March 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      Erna, a few things are worrisome about your reply to Janet and your original LRC letter.
      First, does criticising Section 464 of the Criminal Code (which you cite in LRC) really make me a person who thinks it should be legal to advocate assassination? If that were so there would surely be a case for locking me up along with Flanagan. But there are reasonable objections to 464 even for those who do not condone incitement. I’d argue that counselling an offence requires (1)that someone commits or tries to commit the offence, and (2) that that specific act can be directly traced to the influence of the supposed inciter. Intent also would need to be taken into account. On these grounds it would be a terrible injustice to charge Flanagan with anything.
      Even more disquieting is your view that in the absence of any criminal charge whatsoever, Flanagan ought to be disciplined by his university. Let’s say that in a political philosophy class I ask my students to consider that political assassination might sometimes be appropriate, as in the plot to kill Hitler or the Israeli operation against the Munich terrorists. And let’s go further and say that one of my students takes me seriously and tries to do it to Stephen Harper, whom he has been told is a fascist. If I’m a criminal, then almost all philosophers should be locked up. But, come to think of it, maybe they should (just kidding).
      Finally, you unfairly accuse Flanagan (LRC again) of having “hijacked the minds” of his students, presumably because he claims some success in recruiting them. But all you have to do is look at two of Flanagan’s texts, An Introduction to Government and Politics and Introductory Readings in Government and Politics, written with colleagues, to know that his way of recruiting is to present a balanced account of opposed views, as much as possible in the words of those that hold them, and trust his students, at least some of them, to find the conservative arguments more convincing. Of course those who think such a thing couldn’t possibly happen will have to put it down to brainwashing. All the more so because of a long-standing conviction on the left that working people don’t vote left because they’re too dumb to know what’s to their own advantage or else, as Marx put it, suffer from “false consciousness.”
      If you’re really worried about hijacking minds, the places to look are the units that “like-minded” professors set up outside the departmental structure so as not to have to worry about an even-handed approach. These include, peace studies, women’s studies, aboriginal studies etc. But I don’t see “disciplining” them as a viable approach either

  4. 6 Anonymous March 19, 2011 at 10:49 am

    “Calling for peopple to be killed is no more an exercise in free speech than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.”

    Sorry Stein, but you need to take a course in logic. Your analogy of yelling fire in a crowded theatre IS NOT akin to what Flanagan said on CBC. Does making a joke on national tv cause people to immediately stampede to exit their car or house in a panic? I think not.

    It’s amazing that such smart people don’t understand the importance of context. Instead, they read the words online or place ideological scripts on how they interpret “the enemy” and completely ignore the context and assume that Flanagan was clearly serious.

    As well, Stein, I’m surprised that a journalist is suggesting that Flanagan had degraded the discourse when it’s journalism itself that has been a main cause of the degrade in public discourse in North America. Have a read of Pippa Norris’s book, Public Sentinal, which one of dozens of books that examines the evolution of North American news media and its deleterious effect on the public discourse.

  5. 7 Oona Eisenstadt March 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Just wanted to second anonymous. Flanagan was joking. This was underlined for us down here in America because we all heard the comment first on the Colbert Report.

    It’s not the first time I’ve been astonished by people’s inability these days to hear irony, or to tolerate it when they hear it.

  6. 8 David Stern March 27, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    The remark about killing the Julian Assange is not worthy of Flanagan but he was not alone in believing that Wikileaks was treasonous, i.e. he should be executed! I think his remark about grooming Palin was him poking fun at the ‘over the top’ Canadian love affair with Obama during and after the U.S. election.

    • 9 Sam Ajzenstat March 28, 2011 at 4:16 pm


      You’re surely right about Flanagan on Palin. But I’d add that he’s also poking fun at the over-the-top tendency of the Canadian left to find sinister conspiracies in the Calgary school. The corresponding American thing is to see the extremely theoretical and difficult–and also very illuminating–writings of Leo Strauss as the source of a presumed neo-conservative conspiracy to take over the world.
      Maybe Flanagan is neglecting the all-important rule of political success, which is that you should never make a joke about anything in public. Too many people have no sense of humour Still I hope that your ability to get the joke will help to set Erna’s mind at rest about what will happen if we don’t lock Flanagan up.
      I also agree with you that we need to give serious attention to what you call in your previous message the coarsening and degrading of public discussion. It’s real and depressing. But what you say about Flanagan shows pretty clearly that he is a miniscule part of the problem if any part of it at all.
      Just turn to YouTube and see the obscene, murderous things people say about others because they disagree with their taste in music.
      In politics there’s an additional problem over and about sheer vulgarity. Our political system is based partly on the idea that you can get people to treat each other justly even if they don’t love each other and would just as soon act unjustly. You do so by showing them that it’s to their own advantage to observe rules of justice. I think this has worked pretty well to create a free and pretty prosperous society. But it’s also produced enormous anger from people who think of it as hypocrisy. And I think some of the coarsening of public life comes from that. The bargain that allows me to hate people inside my head while I am polite to them outwardly is torn apart both by those who want to get inside your head and make you as polite inwardly as you have to be publicly or those who demand the freedom to show their contempt for others outwardly as well as inwardly. Either way the essential public-private distinction is under attack. The “sincerity” we’re left with truly is the collapse of civility.
      What to do about it I don’t know, though it must have something to do with recapturing the importance of keeping a lot of what we think about others to ourselves.

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