Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age by Tom Flanagan, Signal, 256 pages, $29.95
Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet by Linda Herrera, Verso, 192 pages, $32
In the digital age, every person will have 15 seconds of notoriety. Tom Flanagan the well-known Calgary political scientist, pundit, and former Harper aide had his in February, 2013. At a University of Lethbridge talk on the Indian Act, an activist from the Idle No More movement inquired about offhand comments Flanagan had made years earlier on child porn. The question clearly caught him off guard, and the resulting YouTube video, entitled Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography, captures his rambling response.
If you watch the video, youll see that Flanagan never claimed to be okay with anything. He only questioned the expedience of jailing porn users for low-level possession offences, but the nuances got lost in the ensuing media frenzy. Within hours of the videos release, hed been denounced, condemned, ostracized, disinvited to speaking engagements, relieved from his advisory position with the Wildrose Party of Alberta, and fired from the CBC show Power and Politics, on which he was a regular commentator.
In his new memoir, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, Flanagan tells his side of the story. Its a settling of scores, a polemic about intellectual freedom, and a firsthand account from the pyre at a public burning. As a work of personal journalism, the book is compelling, even terrifying, but as a critical argument about Internet culture, its far too self-involved.
In an attempt to explain what went wrong, Flanagan argues that 1) he had enemies, and 2) his enemies had a new weapon thanks to digital technology with which to attack his character. As the author of First Nations? Second Thoughts and the co-author of Beyond the Indian Act, Flanagan holds divisive ideas about the rights of Indigenous people in Canada. His positions are complicated, but they skew toward assimilation, privatization, and the removal of special legal protections. Hes used to making people angry. You cant have opinions like his and expect to be universally loved.
Still, Flanagan contends that his opponents went after him in the worst possible way: they bated him on a controversial topic, filmed his response without permission, and posted the video to YouTube under a misleading, incendiary headline. This probably wouldnt have amounted to much had it not been for other actors, whom Flanagan singles out as accessories after the fact. He lambastes the mainstream media for painting him as a radical child-porn advocate without seeking his input or considering his arguments. He also skewers academic colleagues for believing the hype and University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon for denouncing him, when she of all people should have defended his intellectual freedom.
Flanagan argues that were entering a new era of self-censorship: colleagues from across the country have e-mailed me saying theyve seen what happened to me and are resolved to be more cautious in the classroom in the future. Going forward, he says, academics will keep in mind that Big Brother is always watching. For Flanagan, though, Big Brother doesnt mean the state. In an the era of smart phones and social media, Big Brother is all of us.
This is spooky stuff. Even readers who oppose Flanagans politics will be frightened by the swiftness with which he was taken down. Flanagan implies, however, that his experiences represent digital culture as a whole. To be fair, he briefly mentions other people Jan Wong, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson who have been targeted by similar sound-bite-driven campaigns, but he clearly selected these stories for their similarities with his own.
This would all be fine if Flanagan were merely seeking to document an unsettling trend, but instead, he presents a sweeping argument in the books title, no less about how social media is killing free speech. Thats a bold position, and it should be based on more than just personal grievances.
See more here:
The public burning: Is free speech waning in the digital age?