The Ignatieffalump in the room

Did you know a vote for the Liberal Party of Canada is also a vote for the leader of that party? It’s true! I learned it from this helpful 30-second informational video.


I don’t mind that this commercial looks like a sketch-comedy parody of negative ads, but it’s a little annoying that it looks specifically like a parody from the 1990s. It’s embarrassing for our country, surely, that even the most impressive of its election war rooms is still full of creatives telling each other, “Hey, this game isn’t difficult. Distorted black-and-white photo of the opponent, ominous brown note on the synthesizer—bam, you’ve got your ad.” Negative ads are always criticized for their negativity, as if running for office didn’t mean, inherently, that you think you belong there and the other individuals on the ballot don’t. Yes, I’m negative toward negativity toward negative ads! But I dislike unimaginative, tacky, lazy content in any medium, from the phone book to the opera.

What really struck me about this commercial, so sterile and clumsy it could literally have been produced by a computer algorithm, is the part where it calls Michael Ignatieff an OPPORTUNIST “who only came back to be prime minister”. This echoes the Tories’ earlier “He Didn’t Come Back For You” spot—an ad similar in form, but subtler and more intelligent. There is no good answer to the point that ad makes, and on the appeal-to-the-subconscious level, its blending of a slightly East European-sounding piano melody with a deep red Stars & Stripes is clearly the work of an inspired maniac.

Either way, these charming little vignettes do what they were made to do: they force us to analyze our reactions to Ignatieff’s biography. And when I did that I found myself thinking how odd the commercials really are. On being confronted with the accusation that Ignatieff’s an opportunist, inveigled back to Canada by a cabal of desperate Liberals, I think “But is that incompatible with him being a good Prime Minister?” The answer is “Obviously not.” Why, after all, couldn’t the same accusation be hurled at Stephen Harper? He left electoral politics at one point, and, like Ignatieff, he was recruited by a desperate opposition party because he was thought to possess intellectual virtues desirable to the cause. Really, now: Mr. Unite The Right is going to brand somebody else an opportunist?

The Conservative attacks actually leap beyond the real problem with Ignatieff’s history: it’s not the manner of his coming back, it’s the quarter-century of Canadian history he sat out. Liberals don’t like it mentioned that Ignatieff had virtually no experience of post-Charter Canada until he was dragged back over the border; when it is mentioned, their reaction is a childlike feigned shock. It’s as if it has never occurred to them that Ignatieff’s long wanderings might be regarded as a problem. And if this is so, surely we non-Liberals must take part of the blame.

You tell me: aren’t most Liberal responses to the Ignatieff truancy problem dumber than a bucket of rotten beans? “Do you think he loves Canada any less just because he spent his whole adult life elsewhere?” Yeah, I do think that: ever heard of “revealed preference”? “Are you questioning his patriotism?” If saying that his “patriotism” has self-evidently taken second place to his career means “questioning” it, then you’d be a fool not to. “What’s wrong with going abroad, gaining experience of the world, succeeding on wider stages, broadening one’s horizon?” Nothing’s wrong with any of that, and please stop acting like we’re talking about a post-doc at Johns Hopkins or a vacation time-share in Oahu. The man left the country before Joe Clark was Prime Minister and came back after Chrétien. He took a seat pretty goddamn far into this movie.

And yes, it’s a problem. I am tempted to wonder if the people who deny this are actually those who travel even less often than I do: when I go to London for a week, as I did at the end of February, it takes me an agonizingly long time to re-enter the flow of Canadian news. That’s the whole reason travel is thought to be good for the character, to be broadening. This will sound suspiciously like a tautology, but being elsewhere is being elsewhere.

Even in the era of the internet, you just don’t wake up in Knightsbridge every day, turn on your Canadian radio, grab your Canadian paper, listen to Canadians talking about Canada on the subway, and have those little “So did you see where…” conversations about Canadian news with your Canadian colleagues and cronies. You don’t have a Canadian environment flooding your sensorium when you walk out the front door; you aren’t aware of the million little obstacles and infelicities and moods that characterize a place, the tiny political eddies that blow citizens about. Inevitably, if you live someplace, you must devote at least some of your attention to the debates and events that affect your gas bill, your commute, and your paycheque.

And, yeah, maybe this could be dismissed as idle nonsense if the quarter-century in question had been a quiet one when it came to constitutional matters—if the prodigal son had missed out mostly on clean, abstract policy arguments, as opposed to claws-and-fangs pit-brawling over the nature of the federation. To me, it’s bizarre to imagine that one could understand Canada well enough to govern it after experiencing 1978-2004 as a series of newspaper op-eds. It’s even more bizarre that the Conservatives are essentially accepting this premise by turning the motives behind Ignatieff’s return into the central issue into a personal attack. Sorry, but I’d have significant trouble voting for the Mid-Atlantic Man even if he did come back for me.

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