Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Vic Toews, the Sleazemongers, and the Zealots

I thought I'd begin this column by noting that on several occasions over the past week I wanted to puke on my shoes. My editor demurred. It's too crude, he said. "We have standards."

I should respect that. It's increasingly rare.

"He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers," a Liberal MP was told on the floor of the House of Commons by Vic Toews.

That's Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. Member of Her Majesty's Privy Council Vic Toews. The Honourable Vic Toews.

It shouldn't have been as shocking as it was, I suppose. Toews has said much the same several times. And it was Toews who repeatedly claimed critics of the government's justice policies - including the Canadian Bar Association - are "pro-crime."

And there's nothing unusual about a minister savaging the good faith of those who disagree with the government. Quite the contrary. It's the standard operating procedure of Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Don't agree with the government on Afghanistan? You support the Taliban. Question military purchases? You hate the troops. Have doubts about crime legislation?

You're a thug-hugger who doesn't care about children. Say something critical in a foreign capital? Treacherous swine.

Stephen Harper himself stood in the House of Commons a few years ago to suggest that the opposition was critical of certain emergency terrorism provisions because a family member of one MP was involved with terrorists.

And the day after Vic Toews made his latest loathsome comment, who was it who said in the House of Commons "With respect to child pornography, our party is very much against it, and I encourage the NDP to join us in taking that stand"?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, that is.

In the British parliamentary tradition, the official opposition is known as "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" in recognition of the fact that to oppose the government is not discreditable. In fact, to oppose the government is to render the Queen loyal service. Opposition is healthy and necessary. It should be respected.

But the Conservatives' respect for Canada's British heritage is limited to the Red Ensign and portraits of the Queen: Stephen Harper has never had honourable opponents with whom he disagrees, only despicable enemies he wants to crush, and so it follows that for the last six years Canadians have been told that they can either praise Dear Leader and cheer lustily for the good works of his fine and noble government or reveal themselves to be baby-eating traitors.

And for six years most Canadians shrugged. A disturbing number even agreed.

But somehow, finally, Vic Toews went too far. He didn't just make me want to puke on my shoes. He sickened millions of Canadians and there was widespread revulsion. At last.

If only it had ended there. But along came some person or persons calling themselves "vikileaks30."

Said person or persons found Vic Toews' divorce records and broadcast them, verbatim, on Twitter. This was simply wrong. Not illegal. But wrong.

It was not, as many claimed, a legitimate protest against Toews' Bill C-30, which would create a system of warrantless Internet surveillance. Protesting an invasion of privacy by invading privacy is like protesting violence in the NHL by beating up Gary Bettman. It's wrong. And stupid.

And it was indeed an invasion of privacy. Toews' divorce records may be public documents in the sense that a determined person can lawfully find them and read them but there's a vast amount of private and potentially humiliating information available in public documents, as every private detective and opposition researcher knows. Imagine your divorce records - or statements of claim, or bankruptcy records, or mortgage records, or property registrations - being passed around the Internet like a YouTube video. And tell me your privacy hasn't been violated.

Of course there is a grey zone between what's private and public and drawing a line is often difficult. I don't doubt there are people who have thought carefully about these issues, who hold a consistent standard, and concluded that Toews' divorce is a legitimate public concern. I don't agree. But I can respect that view.

What I can't respect - what again made me want to puke - were the many cheap and transparent rationalizations of people who despise the minister and his government and were thrilled that the low-blow gang was hit with a very low blow. I understand the temptation. But sleazy is sleazy. And this is not where we want public discourse to go. As Nietzsche warned, "he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster."

Which brings me to the vainglorious fools who call themselves "Anonymous."

Threatening to release humiliating information if the government doesn't withdraw C-30 is not activism. It is not sticking it to The Man. It is not an homage to V For Vendetta.

It is the crime of extortion. And a particularly severe instance of it.

Remember the election? People voted. The Conservatives won, like it or not. They formed a legitimate government with a democratic mandate to govern, like it or not.

Maybe you think the Conservatives are governing badly. (I do.) Maybe you think C-30 is a horrible bill. (Me, too.) Doesn't matter. The government remains legitimate and democratically mandated: When people use a tactic like extortion to force the government to change course they are subverting democracy.

And to do that while posing as defenders of freedom against tyranny? Nauseating.

If only we could put Vic Toews, the sleazemongers, and the Internet zealots together on an ice floe. They deserve each other.