No country for good men

There is no stronger indictment of Canada’s political class than the treatment of Michael Ignatieff

Perhaps the cliché has it right and all political careers end in failure. But few end as abruptly, and with as much a feeling of missed opportunity, as that of Michael Ignatieff.

There is no stronger indictment of Canada’s political class than the treatment of Michael Ignatieff during the years from 2005 to 2011. Never has such a torrent of abuse been poured on any Canadian figure; never have the small-town and the small-minded been so united as they were in their joint attack on the son of George Ignatieff, the best Governor General we never had.  His torment by the Tory gang of cynics and liars, egged on by party hangers-on and cheered, too often and by too many of us in the press, testifies to the ongoing suspicion Canadians have with leaders who exhibit a modicum of intelligence, accomplishment, and worldliness.

It is hard for me, now, to think myself back to the enthusiasm I initially felt at the prospect of his entry in Canadian politics. More than any one else, and for better or for worse, Michael Ignatieff is responsible for my career as someone trying to find a place somewhere between philosophy and politics, between academia and the journalism. Before I met Mark Kingwell, before I met Joe Heath, I was reading Ignatieff’s work. I was given a copy of Blood and Belonging in my last year of undergrad, and it struck me at the time as exactly the sort of writing I’d like to do. Ignatieff’s excellent 2000 Massey Lectures, The Rights Revolution, only cemented my belief that he was a smart man who had something to offer the world.

Yet while I admired his career path, I didn’t always love his ideas. Ignatieff’s writing was not always as coherent (or as “tightly argued”, as they like to say in philosophy departments) as it should have been. He tended to hem and haw, especially when it came to touchy subjects like torture and the war in Iraq, and his frequent inability to come out and say exactly what he thought and why ended up seeming less like journalistic even-handedness, more like intellectual indecision.

Funny story: When I was teaching at Trent University in the early 2000s, I had the luck to teach a course on the philosophy of law and rights, and I put Ignatieff’s new book, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, on the syllabus. It wasn’t a huge success, partly because the book’s argument has some serious flaws, but more because my students thought it was a species of right-wing American imperialist propaganda. Later that summer I was talking to a friend who had taught the same book to some students at a college in New York. He laughed and said that his students also hated the book, for the exact opposite reason: they dismissed it as mushy-headed Canadian left-liberalism.

I’ve tried, on occasion, to mine from that anecdote a parable that will help explain precisely why Ignatieff’s eventual return to Canada was greeted with such immediate suspicion, even both those who might have been expected to welcome him. But the moral, if there is one at all, is simply that Canada and the US are different countries with substantially different political cultures, and that jumping into the former after marinating for decades in the latter was always going to be far harder than anyone, not least of all Michael Ignatieff, might have anticipated.

And that isn’t taking into consideration just how poisonous our political culture is. In the summer of 2005, I wrote an essay for the National Post that tried to frame Ignatieff’s return to Canada against the Liberal Party’s desperate search for a saviour “philosopher king” in the Trudeau mold. The piece was over-thought and over-written in bunch of ways, but I did flag two problems I thought he would face. The first was what became known as his “pronoun problem” – his habit of saying “we” when talking to both Canadian and American audiences.

The story of Ignatieff’s failure to properly deal with this issue is one major piece of the puzzle of why he went to such jaw-dropping defeat this week. For two years, the Conservatives hammered the airwaves with attack ads accusing him of being not really Canadian, someone who was “just in it for himself.” Someday we might get an explanation from the Liberal camp about why they allowed those charges to go unanswered for so long, and why they were never able to come up with a decent counter-narrative, a positive story that would place Michael Ignatieff’s return to Canada within the broader frame of his earlier career as a self-pronounced cosmopolitan, a global traveler and thinker whose interests for so long seemed to lie anywhere but within his home country.

But this points to a second piece to the puzzle, and that is the fact that the Liberal Party of Canada is a complete disaster, and has been for some time. It was mid-way through Jean Chretien’s second term that people started to point out that the party had no real identity, no sense of purpose other than power for its own sake. And so Michael Ignatieff’s failure to tell a plausible story about his own candidacy for prime minister was the precise mirror of the party’s own existential conundrum: The Liberal Party of Canada has no idea why it exists, so it is hardly surprising that they settled on a leader who didn’t seem to have any idea why he was here.

What is so remarkable about Ignatieff’s tenure as Liberal leader, and with this past election campaign in particular, is how little he tried to take advantage of intellectual strengths and interests. Confronted with a cartoonishly small-minded prime minister acting as chief puppeteer over a caucus of frat boys, yes men, and idiocrats, surely there was an opportunity for a leader who would speak to those Canadians who see themselves as responsible citizens of the world. We spent much of the 2000s telling ourselves that “the world needs more Canada”, and if anyone embodied that slogan, it was Michael Ignatieff.

But instead, the Liberals spent Ignatieff’s leadership playing along with the Conservatives’ completely un-serious approach to foreign affairs. Here’s something a friend send me during the campaign:

It’s pretty weird: Here’s Ignatieff, whose life has been devoted to precisely the challenges and  “foreign policy” nuances that are front and centre in everything that’s happening of any consequence in the world today, in the so-called Muslim world. If he weren’t running for the prime minister’s job in Canada, he’d be one of the few go-to guys in the English speaking world on Egypt, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, the latest Hamas-Fatah deal. . . . and here we are in the middle of a Canadian federal election, with all these issues that make Ignatieff look totally world-class and massively relevant, and which make the Tories look stupid but make the NDP look infinitely worse, and we’re not supposed to notice that any of it is even happening. Like it’s an election for the Orillia school board.

Why did Michael Ignatieff – or more plausibly, the people helping devise his political brand and their electoral strategy – stay as far as possible from these issues? Probably because they believe that Stephen Harper actually has us pegged, that we are a nation of Tim Horton’s-addicted moral suburbanites for whom that “the world needs Canada” was always just a slogan for selling books and lattes to the elites downtown. But if the Liberals are afraid to speak to their natural constituency in their native tongue, and if their leader’s CV is largely a cause for quiet embarrassment, what does that say about the party, or the country?

Here are the closing paragraphs of my 2005 essay on Ignatieff:

In a profile published in these pages [National Post] back in April, Tony Keller suggested Ignatieff’s views could be “a bracing tonic for the Canadian body politic.” He would lead us out of our smug anti-Americanism and help us accept our global responsibilities.

This is doubtful. More likely, this sort of thinking will be rejected by the Canadian political immune system. Whether it is about health care, missile defence or the war on terror, Canadians are incapable of having an adult discussion, and woe to any politician who dares do anything so radical as obey reason. Our political discourse takes place in a dogma-addled environment that would swallow up an intellectual alien like Ignatieff, and it would be a shame to see him forced to mouth the banalities that are required for survival in Canadian federal politics.

Immanuel Kant was right when he opposed the notion of the philosopher king, on the grounds that “the possession of power is inevitably fatal to the free exercise of reason.” We should certainly be wary of any philosopher who would be king. But in the case of Michael Ignatieff, he should be wary of us.

Watching Michael Ignatieff resign yesterday, it was hard not to be moved by his parting hope that there might be someone watching, maybe a woman, who is looking at him and saying, “he didn’t make it, but I will.” But is there any chance of that? Having seen how Michael Ignatieff was treated, can any reasonably intelligent and ambitious person be ever expected to go into national politics?

As Michael Ignatieff’s uncle, George Grant, once wrote about John Diefenbaker: Nothing in his political career became him like the leaving of it.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.