Until three weeks ago, I was a conservative political candidate running for a seat in the provincial legislature in Alberta, Canada.
My inner-city constituency of Calgary-Mountain View is a notoriously difficult seat for conservatives to win. It didn’t help that I was running against the leader of the provincial Liberal party, along with the justice minister for the ruling democratic socialist party (the NDP).
But I had spent nearly nine months campaigning, winning a contested nomination and meeting thousands of voters. My campaign brochures referenced the need for intellectual humility, a sense of gratitude, a commitment to truth, and the importance of nuanced and thoughtful dialogue across partisan lines. It was a bit unconventional, but the message resonated with voters who were exhausted by divisive partisan rhetoric. With the election less than a month away, our internal polling showed a clear path to victory. We had a phenomenal campaign team, motivated volunteers, and we had out-fundraised the other parties by massive margins.
Then, less than 24 hours before the formal 28-day campaign period began, the NDP-affiliated organization PressProgress published an article accusing me of sympathizing with white supremacist terrorism.
The charge was based on a few lines of private, academic conversations I had years earlier, in which I discussed radicalization, immigration, and identity. The full conversation went on for several months and ran into the thousands of words, but the public was shown only a few, ambiguous sentences. Statements were torn out of context, edited, placed into a new context, and then reinterpreted in the worst possible light to impute to me motives and beliefs that I do not hold.
For example, I had implied that we should try to understand how and why terrorists are radicalized. I further suggested that this effort is not helped by casually conflating support for national borders or orderly immigration with white supremacy. This became a headline I “complained white supremacist terrorists are treated unfairly.”
“After 50 Muslims were gunned down in New Zealand during peaceful prayer, does [the conservative party] really want a candidate who says white supremacists are misunderstood?” Read the article. “[The party] needs to disqualify her immediately.”
One hour after the article was published — before I had a chance to respond — the NDP issued a press release demanding that I be removed from the ballot. Soon the mainstream news outlets were calling to ask whether I would be dropped as a candidate.
PressProgress obtained screenshots of these conversations from an individual named Karim Jivraj (not to be confused with the Calgary judge who shares the same name). For a brief time in 2017, Jivraj and I were friends. We met at a conservative party event, and I initially found him to be well read, charismatic, and gifted in debate and rhetoric. We had lengthy philosophical discussions, including on immigration, culture, and civic nationalism. And then things got weird.
PressProgress described Jivraj as a whistleblower with “deep ties” to the provincial conservative party. They didn’t mention that he was sanctioned by the party last fall due to a disturbing, protracted campaign of harassment against me (see Part III of this essay).
PressProgress took short excerpts conversations supplied by Jivraj, edited them, and willfully misinterpreted them. They misappropriated the recent tragedy in New Zealand to frame my statements in the most hurtful and inflammatory way possible — in a way that I believe was calculated to cause people pain. In a fantastically mendacious article, they primed readers to interpret my condemnations of white supremacy (I called it “odious” and “perverse”) as endorsements of white supremacy. They used guilt-by-association tactics to mislead readers into thinking I hold anti-Islamic sentiments. This is not the work of whistleblowers hoping to heal divisions in society: this is fomenting mistrust, contempt, and division for political gain.
But how does a person respond to these accusations? In an ideal world, maybe I could have explained what I actually think and believe, making clear that I don’t hold the hateful views that were attributed to me.
But doing that takes time, and it works only if there is a presumption of good faith from the media. I had neither of these things on my side, and I knew it. Within hours, my campaign was over.
At around 11pm on the evening of March 18, after writing a statement of resignation, I opened the document on my computer called “When the Mob Comes for You.” It contains a dialogue between Socrates and his friend Crito, after Socrates has been sentenced to die:
Socrates Why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.
Crito But do you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion?
Socrates I only wish, Crito, that they could; for then they could also do the greatest good, and that would be well. But the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.
I took comfort in the idea that people who know me and know my character would see the truth. As one friend put it, there is “a certain preposterousness” to the charge that I am a white supremacist: for my entire adult life I’ve worked closely with diaspora communities to advocate for the rights of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities abroad. I had testified before U.S. Congress about the suppression of religious minorities in China, funded tools to help dissidents bypass Internet censorship and surveillance, and advanced legislation to combat the international trafficking in human organs. I have advocated on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, served as an expert witness in asylum proceedings, and made an award-winning documentary about abuses in China’s forced labour camp system. I spent years learning (and forgetting, and relearning) Mandarin. My home is full of volumes on Asian history, language, art, literature, and philosophy. I practice a form of Chinese Buddhism.
Some twitter users, thinking themselves clever, responded to my predicament with lines like “if the jackboot fits…”. Well, it doesn’t.
People who have never met me, and who know nothing of my values or what I actually believe, seemed to take pleasure in hurling incendiary epithets at me on the Internet. I was labelled a racist white supremacist, a “crypto fascist,” and denounced by the mayor in my city of 1.2 million.
The media has been worse, but only because it’s their job to know better. Reputable news outlets uncritically adopted a narrative set by a partisan political organization, claiming that I said white supremacists are “treated unfairly” (I said no such thing). They wrote that I had made hateful social media postings (I didn’t). One prominent national newspaper columnist demanded to know when I would renounce my statements on “white genocide.” I have never made such statements, nor would I. Genocide was the topic of my Masters dissertation at Oxford University. I know what it is and what it isn’t.
So what, I thought. Why should I care what strangers think of me? People of discernment — the people whose judgement and good opinion I actually care about — will see these things are they really are.
And so for a couple weeks I went to ground, tried to stay off the internet, and focused on enjoying the last two months of my maternity leave. In that time I’ve had a chance to reflect on how these events unfolded, and what it might say about our political and media climate.
We benefit from a public sphere in which ideas can been freely discussed and debated in good faith; where differences of opinion are not just tolerated, but valued as a necessary prerequisite to developing sound policy. Yet it’s becoming clear that to some radical ideologues, politics is total war: their purpose is not to persuade or to seek truth through dialogue, but to humiliate and intimidate enemies, and to destroy the possibility of dissent or disagreement.
About a week and a half after resigning from the campaign, I appeared on a popular local radio talk show to offer my side of the story. It was the first and only interview I conducted with a local media outlet. I reiterated my position that white supremacy is a pernicious ideology, and warned about the corrosive effects of outrage culture on our political discourse. I then made a call to honour truth, to practice intellectual discernment, and to treat people with dignity and respect.
Progress Alberta, another NDP-affiliated organization, responded to the radio interview by launching an online petition demanding that “action” be taken against the show’s host. “If you normalize white supremacy there must be consequences,” they blared. The implication was that a person who has been accused of white supremacy must not have a forum to defend herself: the mere accusation is proof of the crime, and anyone who gives the accused a fair hearing is also complicit.
The radio station pulled the interview off the internet, sending it down the memory hole.
Here’s a thought experiment, for those activists on the left: if evidence emerged that I am not a racist or a bigot or any other terrible thing—if I was actually a kind and decent person—would you feel relieved? Or would you cling to your original assessment and try to discredit the new evidence?
Surely we should all want the world to have more good people and fewer bad ones. But this isn’t how human beings generally operate: once we become invested in a given position, our minds work very hard to find evidence that will support our views and disregard that which doesn’t.
It can also be tempting to imagine that your opponents are as bad as possible. The NDP’s election strategy involves portraying conservatives as cruel, intolerant, bigoted, and racist. And maybe it isn’t just an election strategy: this seems to reflect the genuine beliefs of many progressive activists. By imagining that they are fighting against fascists and white supremacists, their own lives are imbued with grandiose moral purpose. And if their opponents are fascists, then any means are justified to destroy them.
“In order to do evil, a person must believe that what they are doing is good” — so wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his literary memoirs of the Soviet Union’s Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn understood that people seldom act in self-consciously evil ways: even the architects of the Soviet Gulags or the SS officers overseeing concentration camps could rationalize that they were acting in service of a noble cause.
It’s a sobering reminder, and one that bears constant repetition. Any time we find ourselves consumed with intoxicating feelings of moral superiority, or when we convince ourselves that our enemies are evil, and that the world would be a better if only they ceased to exist — those are the moment when we are most at risk of losing our souls.
II. What was said — and what wasn’t.
The PressProgress article, and subsequent media coverage, has caused some people to feel real pain and anguish and confusion—particularly some members of religious and ethnic minorities. If I can allay those feelings I would like to. For most of my life, I have worked closely with members of marginalized and persecuted minorities. I know what it feels like to be told that you are hated for your ethnicity or religion, and to wonder if your colleagues and neighbours harbour hidden suspicion or contempt towards you. Misleading people into thinking they are hated is not empowering, and it’s not vindicating for the victims. To the contrary, it contributes to a feeling of being unwelcome and under siege. No one should have to feel this way.
In the following section, I intend to address the substance of the remarks that were published by PressProgress, and attempt to put them into context. Not everyone will agree with the content of this essay, but it at least provides a starting point for greater understanding and constructive dialogue (it may also allow my detractors to stop arguing against straw men — but only if they choose to). As always, I welcome rapprochement. If the ideas expressed here are wrong, I would very much like to understand why — we all have blind spots, and I like to know mine.
I met Karim Jivraj at a conservative party function in Toronto in February 2017. He friended me on Facebook, and for the next six months or so we had regular discussions on a range of social, political, and philosophical issues.
One recurring theme in these discussions was immigration, and especially immigration in the European context. Jivraj drove these conversations and had a strong personal interest in the subject: he had spent several years in France attending the Sorbonne, and was disturbed by what he saw as the decline of French culture. He attributed this to a loss of confidence, a nihilistic embrace of cultural relativism, and a failure to successfully integrate immigrants. As anyone who knows his politics could confirm, Jivraj is an admirer of intellectuals like Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut. He was often highly critical of Islam, and was disappointed that I did not share those views. More than once he insisted that I read Houellebecq’s “Soumission” — a novel that imagines an Islamic party taking over the French government and imposing a soft Islamic theocracy — along with Douglas Murray’s “The Strange Death of Europe” and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.”
In one of these conversations, shortly after a neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville, I was reported to have written the following (note that I don’t have the records of these conversations myself):
“When the perpetrator [of a terrorist attack] is an Islamist, the denunciations are intermingled with breathless assurances that they do not represent Islam, that Islam is a religion of peace, etc. And there’s a great deal of soul-searching — we ask ourselves in earnest what radicalized these people, how they can be directed toward more healthy paths within their faith, etc.
“When the terrorists are white supremacists, that kind of soul-searching or attempts to understand the sources of their radicalization or their perverse moral reasoning is beyond the pale. And anyone who shares even some of their views (e.g. wanting strong borders and immigration control), while rejecting the more odious aspects, is painted with the same brush. All are white supremacists, all should be extricated and denounced and marginalized. You just don’t have the same attempts to separate the violent terrorists from the wider community of belief [as happens with Islamist terrorism].”
It was on the basis of these remarks that PressProgress said I “complained that white supremacist terrorists are treated unfairly.” I did not say this. How any literate person could reach this conclusion is beyond me. (In future, perhaps the philistines at PressProgress should avoid speculating on the meaning of private comments that they don’t understand).
My recollection of this conversation is that I was discussing ways to reduce the risk of radicalization. The basic observation here is not a controversial one: when terrorist attacks are perpetrated by Islamists, efforts are made by the media and by public figures to stress that their actions do not and cannot represent an entire faith community. I think this is the right approach.
By contrast, people who have reservations about the impacts of mass immigration, or who believe in the legitimacy of national borders, sometimes are depicted as white supremacists and extremists for just these reasons—even though these sentiments are shared by a solid majority of voters across the developed world. This is an ineffective strategy: calling people racists and bigots does not reduce racial bias or lead to the adoption of more open attitudes. Numerous studies have shown that attempting to shame people for their beliefs does not make them more tolerant, but it can lead to resentment and a hardening of positions.
This comment is reasonable and defensible, even with the surrounding context removed. Several hundred people have contacted me asking how anything I wrote could be construed as offensive.
Another out-of-context, redacted statement referred to “demographic replacement” in Europe:
“[Redacted by PressProgress] I am somehow saddened by the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands—more in Europe than in America—partly because it’s clear that it will not be a peaceful transition, and partly because the loss of demographic diversity in the human race is sad.”
Different people will read this differently, and how a person responds probably depends on the biases and associations they bring to bear in their interpretations. Again, several people have asked me why this statement was controversial: they observe that some European nations are experiencing demographic transformation, and it seems obvious that this has the potential to be destabilizing, if it’s not already.
People more attuned to the rhetoric of the far right may see it differently. They draw parallels to the type of language used by ethno-nationalist demagogues who speak of a “great replacement,” or who promote the ahistorical idea of a pan-European “white” identity. These perceived similarities caused some people to conclude that I was parroting the talking points of white nationalists. They fixated on the specific words used, rather than the meanings. And, given that they could not know what priors had already been established in the course of this conversation, or what the precise context was, or the motives of the speaker, they filled in the blanks themselves.
I admit that don’t like this language either. When I read this passage in PressProgress I had difficulty believing that these were my words. Was I responding to a particular prompt, or trying to inhabit some different perspective? I don’t know. And as it turned out, PressProgress redacted the preface to this comment, where I expressed disagreement with at least one of the terms being used in the conversation.
(An interesting question arises here: can words like “demographic replacement” or “homeland” be used in a value-neutral, purely descriptive way? I assume the answer was yes, and that the moral content of an argument is found in the speaker’s motives and in value judgements they make. But some people, whose opinions I respect, have argued that this is not true: that these words can never be divorced from their usage by white nationalists or other extremists, and so the words themselves are infused with moral judgements. This seems to be the crux of the matter, and I’m still thinking about it. Why and when we should cede language to extremists is an essay for another time.)
Bearing in mind these caveats, what was I attempting to convey?
European nations are undergoing a significant demographic transformation, driven by large-scale international migration, an ageing population, and birthrates that fall well below replacement levels. If these trends continue, the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious profile of many European nations will look quite different by the middle of this century — albeit in ways that are difficult to predict. Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing is entirely subjective. But it is a thing, and this is what I was asked to comment on.
Change is inevitable, and from it something new and good can be created. But change also necessarily entails some form of loss. My assumption—and maybe I’m wrong about this—is that the transformations currently underway probably portend the loss of some local customs, traditions, and rooted ways of life. Migration and declining birthrates are certainly not the only threats to cultural diversity and local particularisms: accelerating technological, economic, and environmental changes are alternating older patterns of life all over the world. Our global consumer culture severs communities from important sources of meaning and identity and history, leaving a sense of anomie and aimlessness — even while producing some great benefits. Missing from the excerpts published by PressProgress were statements where I expressed a sense of sadness at the loss of indigenous customs and languages, at assimilationist policies in Xinjiang and the Tibetan plateau, and the slow disappearance of other global cultures.
Seismic societal transformations can be pretty destabilizing, as we’re seeing in Europe already. Even in democracies, citizens exercise little control over the great economic, technological, and social forces that intercede in their lives and shape their societies. Borrowing from the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin, this can lead to “an extreme state of forlornness in the turmoil of the world, of intellectual disorientation, of material and spiritual insecurity. The loss of meaning that results from the breakdown of institutions, civilizations, and ethnic cohesion evokes attempts to regain an understanding of the meaning of human existence in the given conditions of the world.”
And in their grasping to regain control—or in the search for a scapegoat to explain their sense of unease in the world—people often come up with bad solutions. I would contend that white nationalism is one of them, but it cannot be addressed by simply ignoring political and social realities.
At this point, I would ask the reader to try not to infer meanings in my words that are not there. Most of the people who have expressed disagreement with my statements published by PressProgress have done this to some degree or other: they see the words “demographic replacement” and infer (wrongly) that I believe in “white genocide” conspiracy theories. They see hate where there is none. They accused me of mourning the loss of racial homogeneity. They concluded that I oppose immigration and do not like minorities. They interpret a sad lament at the prospect of violence and internecine strife as an endorsement of violence. None of these things are true.
Some journalists have written that, by commenting on immigration and demographic change in Europe, I was “echoing white supremacist rhetoric” (these journalists ignore the fact that I referred to white supremacy as an odious and perverse ideology). This is wrong, and it assumes a level of insight into my motives and beliefs that these journalists do not possess. The term “echoing” implies a certain causal or sequential relationship: a person hears something, internalizes it, and then repeats it. I was not echoing white nationalist rhetoric. Similar words, uttered by different people and in different settings, can mean different things. As an example: I worry about the deleterious impacts of global consumer culture on the social fabric. A person who doesn’t know me may read the preceding sentence and assume that I am “echoing communist rhetoric.” A person with a modicum of insight would recognize me as a classical conservative.
Returning to the topic: Mass immigration will likely be one of the defining issues of the 21st century in Europe, and it is placing destabilizing pressures on a number of European nations. It is a matter of legitimate public concern, and policy-makers cannot avoid discussing the challenges, the risks, and the opportunities associated with migration.
Jivraj’s proposed solution to these challenges is multi-racial, mono-cultural civic nationalism. In his view, immigrants should completely cast off ties to their ancestral homelands, including their religion, language, dress, history, and cuisine, and assimilate fully into the host culture (leaving their “cultural baggage at the airport,” as he once wrote). He had no objection to immigration, provided it does not change the cultural character of the receiving country in any way. In this view, high levels of international migration could continue, but the receiving countries need to rediscover an assertive cultural confidence to successfully integrate newcomers. The communities of Europe would be bound together not by a shared history, religion, ethnicity, or local cultures, but by a shared commitment to certain institutions and a veneration of European values and high culture. (The distinction between high culture and local, particular cultures is important here: the former is more universal, while the latter is more strongly tied to specific places and people).
Jivraj applied this theory to immigration in Canada as well, which I found somewhat perplexing: which culture should newcomers venerate, I would ask? His answer was that new immigrants to Canada should revere Canada’s founding French and English cultures, and forget their own.
Taken to the extreme, Jivraj’s theory posits that there is no inherent connection between culture and people: culture is imagined to be something like a piece of clothing, which can be taken off at will and exchanged for a new one. We would sometimes debate the limits of his proposed approach to civic nationalism. Hence our theoretical discussion of whether Western cultures would endure without Western peoples: would Ireland be recognizable as Ireland without Irish people? Or, taking it out of the European context, would Japan retain its cultural character without Japanese people? Some countries have had success enacting the kind of civic nationalism Jivraj referred to, but is it reasonable to expect all immigrants to sever ties to their own ancestral homes, as well as their customs and religions and cultural practices? Are there not unintended consequences that would arise from such a process of deracination? Can mass immigration occur without changing the receiving country — for better or worse? Is allegiance to a set of abstract values, principles and institutions sufficient to tie diverse peoples together? Can human beings’ deeply engrained in-group biases and tribalism be overcome?
These are not questions for which I have definitive answers or fixed opinions. Sometimes I took what may appear to be contradictory positions. For instance, I would argue against the feasibility and desirability of complete assimilation, recognizing that for many people ancestral ties and connections matter a great deal. In WEIRD countries (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), the autonomous individual is supreme. But most societies place greater value on connection and community, and this has definite benefits. For a quasi-communitarian conservative like me, it seems like a valuable hedge against radical individualism. Separately, I expressed the belief that identity politics (of the left or the right — and this includes white nationalism) is a destabilizing force in pluralistic democracies, particularly if different identity groups begin to view society as a zero-sum competition for resources and power.
These are difficult topics: they’re not easily reconciled, and not reducible to soundbites. The value of private, intellectual conversations is that they provide a safe forum to discover truth. To test a hypothesis, to ask questions of someone who brings a different perspective, to see whether a given position can withstand scrutiny, to discover fallacies and gaps in your own — or your opponent’s — reasoning. And then, when and if you are in a position of taking a public position on a topic, you’ll have actually thought it through. And hopefully you’ll use more considered and careful language, given the ease with which any position on these matters can be misinterpreted.
But difficult as this kind of topic may be, people must be able to have conversations. The emerging call-out culture threatens our ability to do this in an honest or respectful way. Quoting the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, discourse is increasingly “dominated not by efforts to persuade or debate anything on the merits, but by attempts to cast, locate, or portray the target of one’s opprobrium as out of bounds.” But civil discourse is essential, and good policy relies on our ability to seek truth through dialogue and to actually understand different points of view. Social cohesion, trust, and tolerance are not enhanced by shutting down discussions on matters of legitimate public interest, or by painting our opponents as evil, disordered, or cruel. Attempts to halt such important discussion based on the logic of guilt-by-association is liable to produce more civil strife, not less.
III. Karim Jivraj
This is the part of the story that I dread.
In some ways this essay should be the easiest one to write. There’s no lengthy exegesis here, no deep meanings to ponder. It’s just a timeline of events, backed by paper trails and witnesses for anyone who wants to delve further. But it’s a story that I never wanted to tell — not least because it makes me look like a complete naïf.
In February 2017, I was invited to a Lunar New Year banquet in Toronto sponsored by the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) party. I was starting to consider running for public office, and it seemed like a good opportunity to network and learn about the grassroots political process. It was the first political event I ever attended.
That’s where I met Karim Jivraj. He wasn’t interested in me at first — not until he heard that I’d gone to grad school at Oxford and GWU. He attended the Sorbonne and Cornell, I learned. Jivraj ran for a seat in parliament during the 2015 federal election, and he was planning to run for office again. We talked about our respective political orientations: I explained that my conservative outlook was grounded in ideas about truth, gratitude and humility. He talked about France, immigration, and the poison of cultural relativism.
Jivraj was one of the more engaging and charismatic people I’d met in some time. He was conversant in political philosophy and seemed interested in the life of the mind. And he presented himself as a seasoned political veteran who knew the ins and outs of grassroots politics and campaigning.
Soon after that first meeting, Jivraj invited me to an event he was organizing in downtown Toronto. That’s where he pulled me aside and offered to take me under his wing. He told me he had plans to win a seat in parliament, and had dreams of becoming Prime Minister. “Stick with me,” he said, offering me a job on a then non-existing political campaign. I declined — I didn’t need a job, and I certainly didn’t need to be patronized. Fine, but he still needed me: “You can be my conscience,” he told me.
Man, he had my number. If you want to flatter me, don’t tell me that I’m pretty or smart or funny. Tell me that I’m good. Tell me that I’m capable of redeeming a lost soul and pointing them to a path of virtue. That’s how you get me.
Soon we were having regular conversations on a range of philosophical, social, and political topics. He had been a high school debate champion and was a good intellectual sparring partner: someone with whom you could play devil’s advocate and challenge your thinking. We talked about everything: education, culture, identity, gender, critiques of market fundamentalism — you name it. There was something genuinely fun and interesting about these conversations.
Sometimes our talks veered into deeper questions about how to live. These were the conversations that really interested me. Jivraj’s fundamental approach to life was a source of profound fascination in that it was completely the opposite of my own.
We once traded notes on how childhood experiences of being bullied or ostracized influenced us. For me, being bullied made me a more serious and empathetic person: having experienced that kind of pain, I resolved to never knowingly inflict it on another person. Jivraj thought this was weak. He maintained that the way to respond to a bully is to get vengeance — or, better yet, to get them before they can get you. To illustrate his point he told a story from his childhood in Ontario. A boy was picking on him during a canoe trip at summer camp. Jivraj said his solution was to sneak into the boy’s tent one night and bash him in the face with a Maglite as he slept. He was proud of this story — the kids stopped picking on him.
I tried to persuade him that this was wrong: a person does damage to their own soul when they do harm to another. I maintained that we inhabit a just universe, and that all of us ultimately have to pay for all the good and the bad that we do. Thus, there is no need to make our own justice, or to be on guard against other people. I urged him to read Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, and compared him to the character of Callicles—the unapologetic defender of realpolitik who believed that temperance and magnanimity are signs of weakness, and that justice is where the strong exercise advantage over the weak. Jivraj took that as a compliment.
It wasn’t long before I started to witness him behaving vindictively toward people who had supposedly slighted him. One night in late February 2017 he invited me to attend a local PC party board meeting. This is where the real grassroots political process can be observed. A beautiful and talented young Muslim woman was running to be the new president of the board of directors. For reasons I could not discern, Jivraj was determined to disrupt her bid. Hours before the meeting, he used a pseudonymous email address to send a message to the board of directors viciously disparaging the young woman. She lost the presidency. I expressed my disapproval to Jivraj, calling him out for being needlessly and unjustifiably cruel. I should have done more.
Soon thereafter, Jivraj offered me $500 for background research on a PC party nomination candidate with suspected ties to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. I contracted the work to a friend with excellent Chinese language research skills and deep knowledge of the UFWD, and he assembled a dossier that showed the candidate was a probable agent of influence for the Chinese government. When presented with the dossier and invoiced for the research, Jivraj simply refused to pay. He said it wasn’t what he wanted, so I paid the $500 out of pocket. Instead of using the information to alert the PC Party, Jivraj helped that person win their nomination. He is now a sitting member of provincial parliament in the Toronto region.
In March 2017, Jivraj told me over the phone that he previously operated a New York-based corporation called Weston Ivy Consulting. The company was something like an academic essay mill that specialized in creating letters of recommendation and admission essays for European applicants to elite U.S. law schools. According to complaints I found online, students paid thousands of Euros up-front for services that were never delivered. The company listed a Manhattan address as its headquarters, and Jivraj ran this corporation using generic, WASP-y pseudonyms. There is almost no paper trail linking Jivraj to this corporation, though US tax filings or corporate registration records would presumably list his name. I also found an internet registrar that showed him as the owner of the German version of the Weston Ivy website, but little else. Bearing in mind that Jivraj is prone to hyperbole, he intimated to me that this scam netted him in excess of $800K.
After he told me about Weston Ivy, he panicked. It was not a secret he intended to divulge, and he seemed nervous that if his link to the company was discovered he could face civil or perhaps criminal charges. Jivraj started accusing me of being a traitor who would use this information to undermine him. “I always do this — I lay my heart on the line and open up to people, and they betray me” — that was the gist of it. He demanded that I prove my friendship and loyalty by telling him something incriminating about myself. Other than an embarrassing punk rock phase in my youth and some run-ins with a foreign, authoritarian government, I’m a pretty straight arrow. This was clearly disappointing to Jivraj: he said he wanted “dirt.”
I ended the call with Jivraj, and immediately got in touch a psychiatrist friend to ask if his behaviour sounded like that of a psychopath. She described the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, and added that if I was asking the question, he was probably someone I should steer clear of. She was right.
But after a few days, I started to rationalize that Jivraj might be just below the threshold for true psychopathy (a non-professional opinion that I have since revised). I like to believe that all people have agency: we are not passive victims of fate, and each of us makes decisions about how we want to live. Maybe he could choose to be better. Soon we were back to corresponding regularly.
In May of 2017, Jivraj was discovered as the voice behind an anonymous Twitter account, @TeamBlue2018. For many months he had used the account to defame conservative political candidates he didn’t like (e.g. by alleging that female candidates were having romantic affairs with party brass. This was a favourite trope he used to discredit women). After he was found out, he realized he would never have a political career in Ontario.
Jivraj called me asking for advice — specifically, advice on how he could lie his way out of the situation. I told him to own his mistakes, use it as an opportunity for self-reflection, and start living simply and honestly. He agreed with me — or said he did — but he needed to get out of town and start fresh. He knew that I was planning to move back to Western Canada with my family, and he decided to move there as well. When he struggled to find housing or employment in Calgary, I used my connections to line up a job interview at a reputable law firm and arranged for him to sublet a room from an old friend.
Before he left Ontario, Jivraj bought me one of his favourite books, La Défaite de la Pensée. I gave him a copy of the Analects of Confucius, inscribed with a message that he should focus on the improvement of his soul. We parted as friends.
Sometime in August 2017, I resolved to distance myself from Jivraj — slowly and amicably, if possible. There was no real catalyst, but my work was picking up, and realized that I felt better when I wasn’t talking to him.
We remained friendly even as our correspondences became less frequent. But I started to notice that there was a strange quality to many of our conversations: he would ask leading, non-sequitur questions, as though trying to bait me into saying who knows what. Sometimes he would tell me that such-and-such influential person hated me, and ask me to respond. Questions about whether I’d ever committed marital infidelity, or ever broken the law. Separately, he confessed to me that he had a habit of recording his phone calls.
In the fall of 2017, I began seriously explore the possibility of running for provincial office. I had purchased a home in Calgary and was in the process of moving back to Alberta, so I decided to reach out to the leader of the provincial conservative party, Jason Kenney. Kenney was then actively trying to recruit qualified women to run for United Conservative Party (UCP) nominations, and I was among the people who he encouraged to run.
Jivraj was initially supportive: In September 2017 he emailed Jason Kenney to give a laudatory recommendation for me. But as things progressed, he grew increasingly unsettled.
Jivraj always regarded me as a political neophyte (I was), and saw himself as a savvy veteran who was destined for greatness. But just as my political career was starting, his own fortunes were declining. He had burned bridges in Ontario, and was acquiring a bad reputation in Calgary as well.
In January 2018, Jivraj wrote to tell me that he was finding this difficult to bear. He confessed to feeling jealous and resentful, and suggested we could no longer be friends. Very well, I thought.
In March 2018, I saw Jivraj at a United Conservative Party fundraiser in southwest Calgary, and he introduced me to Philip Schuman. Schuman was running for the UCP nomination in Calgary-Glenmore, and we had a pleasant conversation about hitchhiking. I thought he seemed nice.
A week later, Schuman nervously asked me to meet him for coffee. Jivraj told Schuman that I had accused him of making inappropriate sexual advances. This was at the height of the #MeToo movement, and Schuman was understandably concerned that such an allegation could destroy his career. He had been phoning around to his contacts in the party asking for advice, effectively spreading the rumour that I was making unfounded accusations of sexual impropriety.
Alas, I wasn’t. Schuman had nothing to worry about. But I did: if word got around that I make false accusations of sexual harassment, my own nascent political career would be over. No man would meet with me, lest I accuse them of something similar. I think Jivraj understood this.
I eventually confronted Jivraj. He first denied starting the rumour, but later admitted to it. He attributed his behaviour to a combination of alcoholism and jealousy, and promised to stop with his bizarre machinations. I wished him well in getting the help he needed, but also made clear that I did not want him in my life.
Over the next few days he sent me dozens of rude and unsolicited messages accusing me of being a disloyal traitor. I blocked his number.
The next time I saw Jivraj was on April 28, 2018, at a campaign launch for a federal Conservative nomination candidate. He acted friendly towards me, and repeatedly urged me to leave with him to get drinks and “clear the air” (I was nine months pregnant). I repeatedly refused. He grew increasingly belligerent and insistent, not letting me leave the venue, and nearly coming to blows with two men who tried to intervene on my behalf. After he made a lewd comment about my “tits,” I told him he was being inappropriate and left.
A couple days later, Jivraj bought the domain name caylanford.ca.
In July, Jivraj formally launched his campaign to seek the federal conservative party nomination in Calgary-Centre. He emailed to ask me to attend his campaign launch. “I’ve been an asshole to you,” he said. “You’ve been one of the few kind people in my life, and I would very much like for you to be a part of this evening.” I politely declined.
A week later, Jivraj showed up at the Annual General Meeting for the Calgary-Mountain View UCP board. I was a registered candidate for the UCP nomination in Mountain View, and Jivraj decided to run for president of the Mountain View board. During the meeting, Jivraj walked around the room asking attendees if he could add his name to their ballots. One attendee later told me that Jivraj not only wrote his name on ballots, but also voted for himself without permission. He became president of the board.
A person close to Jivraj told me at that time that his purpose in taking over the board was to “gain leverage” over me. Soon, I was hearing from voters in the constituency that Jivraj was claiming I was ineligible to stand as a candidate, and that I should be disqualified from the nomination race.
I was becoming increasingly unnerved by Jivraj’s apparent fixation on me. One evening in September, I sent a message to a mutual acquaintance asking if I had any reason to be worried that Jivraj might have figured out my home address, and whether I should upgrade my security system or get a large dog.
Soon thereafter, there was attempted break & enter at my home when my two children were present. To be clear: I have no idea who was responsible, and this type of physical confrontation does not seem like Jivraj’s style. Still, when police arrived to file a police report, I informed them that I felt threatened by him.
In October, Jivraj convinced several members of the Mountain View board that I had committed “residency fraud” and did not meet the eligibility criteria to run for the UCP nomination (neither is true). He drafted a sensational, accusatory letter to UCP President Janice Harrington asking for an investigation into my eligibility. Jivraj persuaded nine members of the Mountain View board to sign the letter, but left his own name off. Then it was sent to the media.
I received calls from CBC and the Calgary Herald, both of which realized there was no story: the allegations in the letter were easily refuted. PressProgress, lacking an interest in truth, ran the story. They crafted a narrative that I was a parachute candidate from Ontario, that I moved from Ottawa to Calgary at the urging of Jason Kenney, and that I was now being rejected by the party’s grassroots for committing fraud. None of this was true.
(As an aside, I never bothered to publicly respond to PressProgress’ invented narrative about my life, so I’ll do that here. I am from Calgary. I lived in Calgary for 21 years before leaving for grad school. I purchased my home in Calgary with the intention of moving back months before I ever met Jason Kenney. He did not recruit me from Ontario. I was not “parachuted” into Calgary-Mountain View; I chose to run there because I have ties to the area, and I was running in a competitive nomination).
Members of the Mountain View board were understandably upset that the letter was leaked to the press. But when they confronted Jivraj, he feigned ignorance: he claimed to have no knowledge of the letter, and chastised the other directors to uphold their fiduciary duties and avoid bringing the board into disrepute.
Realizing they had been duped, the board began a process to remove Jivraj, and by November he was suspended and removed as a director and president of the board.
Someone then purchased Google ads for searches on my name. The ads labelled me a fraud, a liar, and an “Ottawa bureaucrat,” and directed people to the PressProgress article. One ad contained a fabricated quotation that was wrongly attributed to me. Anyone in Mountain View who searched for my name on Google at the time would have seen these ads at the top of their search results. It is likely that whoever purchased these ads did so in violation of the Alberta Elections Finances and Contributions Disclosures Act and the Elections Act.
As president of the Mountain View board, Jivraj had been given access to a list of all 1400 UCP members in the constituency (only party members can vote in nominations to choose the individual who will represent their party). As the date of my nomination vote drew closer, he created an anonymous email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and abused confidential membership data by sending an email to every party member urging them not to vote for me. The email was replete with fabrications, including more invented quotations, accusations of fraud, and attacks on my character and integrity.
On December 6, 2018, I won my nomination with 57% of the vote and over 900 ballots cast.
I should mention something thing here: while Jivraj was doing all this, I never initiated contact with him except to recover the domain name that he purchased. All I wanted — all I have wanted for the past year — was for Jivraj to leave me alone.
By this time, Jivraj was still publicly claiming to be a federal nomination candidate in Calgary Centre. One of his former campaign volunteers estimated that he raised in excess of $40,000 in campaign donations. In the course of his campaign, he routinely misrepresented himself as an international lawyer. He told me and others that he had received a commission as a captain in the Canadian Armed Forces.
It was all lies. He is not in the armed forces. Although he did attend law school abroad, he is not admitted to practice law in any jurisdiction, including Alberta. He wasn’t even a registered nomination candidate.
The CPC nomination vote for Calgary-Centre was called for early 2019, and Jivraj’s name would not be on the ballot. The ruse was finally up, and he turned his attention back to me.
In January 2019, he mined our two-year-old text conversations for material that could be taken out of context and used to derail my election. He used the Christchurch massacre as a cover to pursue a personal vendetta against me, and PressProgress enabled him.
I realized that Jivraj’s campaign of harassment would continue to escalate, and that no one else would stand up to stop him. That was part of the reason I withdrew from the election: I was done just sitting around and waiting to see what he did next.
It is nothing short of astonishing that Jivraj has gone so far in his life harming so many people, and yet never faced public accountability.
I’m sure part of the reason is that Jivraj is remarkably litigious — or pretends to be. He routinely threatens legal action against anyone who might expose him (these are bluffs, but they can be effective). When Jivraj learned that I was talking to a journalist about this story, he began making veiled threats against my family. This is a person who goes through life trying to accumulate “dirt” on people — even his friends and people who wish him well — as an insurance policy so that they can never come after him.
But I suspect the main reason is that most people just have better things to do than hold him accountable. They have jobs and families and friends, and don’t want to get into the mud to deal with a character like Jivraj. That was certainly my reasoning for a long time: it is undignified to do what I am doing now, and I wanted to avoid it.
And then there’s the question about the nature of justice. This was the great meta-argument that animated our entire relationship.
In one of my few email exchanges with Jivraj last summer, I assured him that I had not told anyone about the many outrages that he’d perpetrated, explaining that “I have no desire to be the kind of person who does injury to others.”
By writing this essay and telling the truth about Jivraj, am I not betraying that ethic? I might feel vindicated, and I might warn others so they are not victimized in the future. But have I lost the argument? These are the questions that I’ve been grappling with. I am not sure that I have the answers.
IV. The world we want
Perhaps the lesson is that we should trust no one, not even our friends. We should never discuss anything — or never think about anything — if there is a risk that in doing so we might run afoul of ever-changing progressive orthodoxies.
Some public figures have pointed to me as an example of failed candidate vetting. They say the conservative party should have known, somehow, that I harbour offensive views that I don’t actually hold, and barred me from running.
I wonder how these people think we should vet political candidates. No one has claimed that anything in my public record is disqualifying. Perhaps we should develop a network of informants to eavesdrop on private conversations and report back to the state. Or mine people’s subconscious minds? China is now experimenting with the use of artificial intelligence to monitor facial expressions and punish anyone who emotes incorrectly. Maybe that’s the solution to discovering hidden thought crimes.
I do not want to live in a world where people cannot privately discuss ideas without fear that they might be talking to an informant. It would be a world where everyone is the enemy of everyone else, where there can be no trust or tenderness among friends, and no room for forgiveness or good faith among strangers. It’s a world where people cannot disinterestedly pursue truth, because someone might decide to misinterpret their words to destroy their careers and reputations.
But in reporting on my story as they did, the mainstream press has brought us one step closer to this reality. Even after I resigned as a candidate and became a private citizen again, the national broadcaster CBC continued to publish new (and similarly misunderstood) excerpts of my private conversations. What could possibly justify this?
A suggestion: if you’re a journalist and a source comes to you wanting to selectively leak private conversations for the purpose of harming another person, what should you do? Perhaps you should consider whether you would want this done to you, and what kind of world you want to inhabit, and govern yourself accordingly.
Some will say that people who seek public office deserve heightened scrutiny. They willingly stepped into the public sphere, after all. Sure. But then who will be left to run for public office? Who would want to? If your entire history can be mined for evidence of thought crimes — real or imagined — and then used to castigate you and destroy all that you’ve worked for, who will be left? If we can no longer discuss difficult issues because the risk of misunderstanding is too high, what will the impact be on our democracy? Does any of this improve our discourse? Will better people run for office?
I’ll wager the answer is no. More likely, if these trends continue the only people willing to run for office are the cunning and the unscrupulous.
And what kind of media environment do we want? By parroting a misleading narrative created by PressProgress, mainstream journalists cheapened their own profession while legitimizing a partisan attack website. There is a real risk that other parties will come away from this election concluding that propagandistic attack websites like PressProgress work, and will adopt this model in future elections. Is this what we want?
Do we want to live in a world where people are judged not for the real good they have done in real life, but by whether they are seen to perform the correct opinions on social media? Here’s the real tragedy: by attempting to destroy my reputation, social justice activists have made it difficult for me to continue my human rights research and advocacy on behalf of victims of torture (including, ironically, Uyghur Muslims). Rather than being seen as an asset to groups and causes that desperately need an advocate, I am now a liability to anyone I publicly associate with. Is that what they want?
I wanted to enter politics because I am concerned about the coarsening of our political culture: the ascendency of soundbite politics, the narrowing window for nuanced and thoughtful dialogue across partisan lines, the loss of good faith, the culture of contempt, the hatred of the other. We live in a free, open, secure, pluralistic, and tolerant society, but this is a historical aberration bought with much sacrifice and suffering. It is sustained only through bonds of trust and human-heartedness, and by a recognition that we are in this together. If we lose these things, what will we have left?
To that end, I wrote the following reminders to myself last summer — a guide for how to conduct myself in an age of rising partisan rage:
1. Stay humble. Anyone who espouses unflinching moral certitude is almost certainly wrong. Not because there are no moral truths, but because human knowledge and wisdom is always finite, and our ignorance infinite. There will always be perspectives you have not considered.
2. Venerate truth. This requires, on the one hand, a cultivated capacity for moral and intellectual discernment, and on the other, the courage to give expression to your thoughts. Never bow to social pressures or official mandates that require you to deny what is plainly evident, or to say things you do not believe. To quote the great British essayist Anthony Daniels, “when people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.”
3. Remember that ends never justify means.
4. Embrace compassion, respecting the inherent dignity and worth of all people. This human dimension must always remain at the centre of our world and our politics.
5. Recall that those who disagree with you are operating on the basis of some system of moral reasoning which you should endeavour to understand. Learn to articulate your opponents’ views dispassionately and without reductionism, in terms they themselves would recognize. Only then are you qualified to mount an opposition.
6. Never reduce a person to their race, creed, nationality, sex, class, or political affiliations, or measure their worth on the basis of these categories. Recall the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
7. If given a choice between doing evil or having evil done to you, always choose the latter.
8. Never join a mob, and never acquiesce to one.
It all seems like pretty good advice now.