Can a cosmopolitan be a patriot? Don't ask Ignatieff

There's a good book to be written about the Ignatieff family. 'True Patriot Love' isn't it.

There has been far too much, I think, written about Michael Ignatieff’s book True Patriot Love. But I promised to say something less glib than what I wrote a week or so back, but I’ve found it hard to say anything remotely novel about a book that has so little content, and so little to recommend what content there is.

It’s an appalling book, by turns cloying, calculated, and insincere. Andrew Coyne has given us pretty much the definitive statement on the terrible policy initiatives that are introduced the last chapter, especially regarding the East-West energy programs that have NEP II written all over them.  How unsurprising that Ignatieff is actually hobbled by having missed out on thirty-odd years of political strife in this country; how disturbing that his advisors haven’t sat him down and set him straight on the main bones of contention.

Regarding his attempt to position himself as the fourth in a line of nation-building patriots, I think Robert Fulford got it pretty much right: It is pretty darn weird from an ultra-cosmopolitan and liberal internationalist like Michael Ignatieff to be trying to rewrite his intellectual and personal biography to fit the family pattern.

There’s actually a good book waiting to be written about the Ignatieff family, its friendships and relations, and their role in building mid-century Canada and the post-war international order. The key figures here only get the briefest of nods in TPL — men like Lester Pearson (who paid a visit to check on the shell-shocked George Parkin Grant in London) and Vincent Massey. What makes them important is that they were liberals, internationalists,  and nation-builders; men who saw no contradiction between being cosmopolitans and Canadian patriots.

That is the obvious book for Ignatieff to have written. It is the one that would have tied together his personal biography, his family history, and his intellectual obsessions since Blood and Belonging. It is also, as it happens, the subject of a large academic literature of the sort he would have engaged with at Harvard. One recent addition to that literature is Natan Sharansky’s Defending Identity, a serious book that tries — and largely succeeds —  at reconciling the local demands of cultural dentiity with the global imperatives of liberal freedom.

It is hard to escape the worry that Ignatieff didn’t write that book either because he didn’t trust himself to get it right, or he didn’t trust Canadians to understand it. Instead, he’s given us a condescending  family history bookended by a romantic theory of nationalism and an election platform from the 1970s.

It’s a shame. I was starting to warm to the guy.

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