Friday, September 01, 2006

The Invention of Michael Ignatieff

I mean no disrespect to Michael Ignatieff, the person, in asserting that Michael Ignatieff, the political phenomenon, is an invention. He is a synthetic creation, a deus ex machina. With the demise of Paul Martin, and the decisions of Frank McKenna, Brian Tobin and others to take a pass on a leadership run, members of the Liberal Party establishment found themselves without a natural candidate. The Liberal Party was in danger of falling into the hands of those the establishment did not fully trust.

Attractive, articulate, only a little long in the tooth, and with a reputation the establishment could relate to---because it was garnered abroad--- Ignatieff, the outsider, was their solution. Best of all, he was reminiscent of Pierre Trudeau, at least on first glance. Soon the suave academic was being described in hushed tones as “the new Trudeau”, a phrase I have heard frequently during my summer travels to various parts of the country.

On closer examination, the conceit that the Liberal establishment has struck gold with a new Trudeau falls to pieces. Pierre Trudeau, like Michael Ignatieff, was recruited by the federal Liberal leadership at a time when the party had been wracked by scandals in Quebec. If the Liberals were to succeed in fighting off the new Quebec nationalism in the era of the Quiet Revolution, they needed new blood. Of the Three Wise Men imported to Ottawa by Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau quickly emerged as the star (the others were Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier). Not only did he outshine, Union Nationale Premier Daniel Johnson in a live encounter at a federal-provincial first ministers’ conference, he had written powerful, trenchant attacks on the doctrine of the new nationalists. Whatever one thinks about Trudeau’s articulate denunciation of the nationalists---I have my misgivings---the clarity of his thinking made him the ideal point man around whom to construct a defence of federalism at a critical time. In the encounter with Rene Levesque, Pierre Trudeau’s defence of federalism went far beyond a cost-benefit analysis to prove that Quebecers were better off in Canada. Trudeau articulated a vision of a great country that could encompass multiple identities without succumbing to the poison of the exclusive nationalism of any of them. The patriation of the constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms encapsulate that vision.

Trudeau was a Quebecer who could take on the nationalists on their home turf and win the allegiance of a sizeable proportion of francophones in so doing. In the great battles with Levesque, he emerged the victor.

Michael Ignatieff, on the other hand, is a liberal intellectual whose chief claim to fame is that he was swept off his feet in support of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He lent his reputation as a believer in human rights to a muscular crusade in the Muslim world in which the West would defeat the barbarians and save civilization. His pro-imperial musings in books, and in articles in prestigious publications such as the New York Times, won him fame as an oddity. What was a liberal like him doing in the ranks of neo-conservatives? He became notorious in the intellectual company of people like Christopher Hitchens, another liberal who was won over to the invasion of Iraq.

Once again the Liberal Party desperately needs to rebuild in Quebec, to establish legitimacy for itself in the aftermath of Jean Chretien’s reign, when baubles for insiders took the place of the brain power of the Trudeau era. If Michael Ignatieff is the new Trudeau, presumably he is the man to take on the job of reconstructing federalism and winning a new generation of Quebecers to the cause of Canada.

Ignatieff, though, is an Anglophone MP from Toronto. Not famous for his defence of a well reasoned federalism as Trudeau was, he is best known for espousing views that are highly offensive to many, if not most, Quebecers. For more than a century, Quebecers have developed a political culture which is overtly anti-militarist. Nothing appeals less to Quebecers than military crusades in the company of the great Anglo-Saxon powers on the far side of the world. Quebecers expressed their displeasure with such crusades during the South African War, the conscription crises of the first and second World Wars, and in their opposition to conscription during the Cold War. They played an outsize role in keeping Canada out of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The last kind of leader who will win a new hearing for federalism in Quebec is an English Canadian who wants to reinforce our ties with the crusaders in Washington and London.

If Ignatieff, when scrutinized, is not the man to renew the ties between Anglophone and Francophone Canada, how well suited would he be to the more mundane task of winning power for the Liberals in the next election?

Here, as well, he’s all wrong for the job. To win the votes to turn out Stephen Harper, the Liberals need to look left not right. They are not going to cut into Stephen Harper’s hold on the right-wing vote in Canada. The Conservative Party is the natural home of those who support the embattled empire of George W. Bush and his failing expeditions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Liberals need a leader who can appeal to social democrats, environmentalists and soft-nationalists in Quebec. The NDP, the Greens and the Bloc would take dead aim at the pro-imperial stance of a Liberal Party led by Ignatieff and they would be very effective.

As we enter the critical autumn months that lead to the Liberal convention in Montreal, the establishment is continuing its effort to convince Liberals that Ignatieff is the man for our time. Clearly, the people who run Maclean’s Magazine and the Globe and Mail would rather see the author of Empire Lite as leader of the Grits than one of the more progressive candidates like Gerard Kennedy, Bob Rae or Stephane Dion. The Maclean’s cover story and the seven page extravaganza in last weekend’s Globe speak for themselves. (I am a huge admirer of Michael Valpy, whose story on Ignatieff was far from being a puff piece. This is a case, however, where the medium was the message. The spread was so huge, and so unbalanced in terms of the prospect of any such similar treatment for the other candidates, that the point was made by the firepower of so many column inches. Who else but a very great man could merit so much?)

The little episode in which Michael Ignatieff told the Toronto Star that he might not run for parliament in the next election if he does not win the leadership did a lot to prick the balloon of the monster coverage in Maclean’s and the Globe. Revealed for us was the real man, not the invention. What we saw was a rather fastidious fellow who might be happier going back to Harvard if he can’t get the top job in our sub Arctic homeland.

To some extent, all political leaders are inventions, creations of their handlers. The Ignatieff case has taken this to the point of absurdity. One almost expects a George Bernard Shaw to conjure up a Professor Higgins who can transform the fussy academic into a man of the people, in a reverse Pygmalion.

It won’t work. The real question is whether the synthetic Ignatieff will be rejected by Liberal delegates, or by Canadians in a general election.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. Superbly laid out.

Just a question of time before the sharks arrive.

Ti-Guy said...

Excellent post.

Cerberus said...

"Who else but a very great man could merit so much?"

I agree with that. And therein lies the weakness of your argument.

Tell me you think he's not qualified because of years abroad. Tell my you think he wouldn't make a good PM because he's never been a politician.

But an "invention"? Most famous for supporting Bush?

Most famous to you perhaps.

I think that is what bugs Iggy supporters like myself so much is the need to take down everything about his many many accomplishments because you don't want him as PM. The man is a Great Canadian. The campaign didn't invent his Governor General's Award. The campaign didn't invent his shortlist for the Booker. The campaign didn't appoint him to represent Canada at the UN commission on peacekeeping, he was chosen by Chretien because he was a world reknown expert with incredible intelligence and a gift for analysing problems and coming up with solutions. The campaign didn't invent the appointment to be in charge of the Carr Intitute at Harvard. The campaign didn't invent the Masse Lectures so he could give a brilliant talk on human rights.

Take issue with the guy all you want. But why the need to take him down all the way for political gain?

After Valpy's piece in the Globe, someone asked me if anyone could even write that much about any other candidate. You make a similar comment as well. I think that is going a bit far: there are a lot of great candidates out there. Certainly, Rae at least has as many accomplishments on his resume. But in the online discussion forum Valpy held after he had this very poignant thing to say about Michael:

"What I like about Michael Ignatieff is his intelligence and knowledge and his intentionality. He's accomplished an awful lot with the instrument of himself. Most people, myself among them, drift through life. He hasn't. Do those attributes "best qualify" him for leadership of his party? I don't know. I do feel comfortable saying that Canada is fortunate having people of his accomplishments wanting to enter public life."

That, at the very very least, is very true.

If anything is true about this man and his biography, nothing of it is invented.


bigcitylib said...


Iggy just told a Quebec audience that:

1) The federal government would impose a referendum question on the Parti Quebecois.

2) They might not acknowledge a simple majority win for the seperatists.

3) He's doing it because stupid people in Quebec/ROC might stumble into a civil war otherwise.

Come a general election, how many votes do you think talk like that will win in Quebec?

There's no use saying, well the good thing about the guy is that he isn't a politician. Would you hire someone to fix your sink who wasn't a plumber?

I am beginning to think the guy should just withdraw. If he wants to be in this game he needs to learn how to play it.

Anonymous said...

"The last kind of leader who will win a new hearing for federalism in Quebec is an English Canadian who wants to reinforce our ties with the crusaders in Washington and London."

I'll admit we can use historical precendence as some kind of judge, but Ignatieff hasn't stated what he would do were he PM vis a vis George Bush and his foreign polciy.

There's certainly no guarantee ties would be reinforced and given the bloodbath that is Iraq, and Ignatieff's criticism of Bush in bringing Iraq to that point, he's more likely to shy away from Bush's chronic and never ending incompetence.

We simply don;t know WHERE Ignatieff sits on the idea of America/Bush and nation building now.

My guess is Ignatieff would do what all sensible people would do on something like a new American/neo-con endeavour into, say, Iran, and that is, stay the hell away.

Any ways, given the neo con project is a dead letter now, this conversation is a little moot, which or course does away again with your idea of Ignatieff strengthing ties to American 'crusaders'.

Stop using words like that too please. 'Crusaders'. It's not right. Plain and simple.

bigcitylib said...

He has stated that he would renew the Afghanistan mission past 2009, I believe.

Stephen said...

OK Cerberus, here goes:

The campaign didn't appoint him to represent Canada at the UN commission on peacekeeping

There was no such appointment. Surely you're thinking of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, whose mandate and conclusions Ignatieff has misrepresented to Canadians, I should add.

Most famous for supporting Bush?

Perhaps Laxer was off-base here. Certainly, he was off-base in implying Ignatieff's pro-war stance made him an 'oddity.'

There was nothing really odd about Ignatieff's support for the Iraq war. Ignatieff had been solidly in the camp of the 'cruise-missile liberals' for quite a while before he started encouraging his readership to acquiesce to Bush's commission of the Supreme International Crime of aggression. So his stance was quite predictable, really; not odd at all.

If anything is true about this man and his biography, nothing of it is invented.

Actually, I think part of it may be invented, or at least exaggerated. Specifically, I'm speaking of the claim he's taken to making that his experience with the Kurds was decisive for his support of the Iraq war.

So far, I haven't seen much evidence from the period leading up to the war to support this claim. For example, his Jan 2003 piece "The Burden" mentions the Kurds only in passing, while his defensive March 2003 essay in The Guardian mentions them not at all.

How is it that this experience with the Kurds did not figure more prominently in two of his best-known written defenses of the war he supported?

(And which illegal war, I may add, has resulted in the deaths of at least 40,000 innocent civilians?)

BTW Cerberus, I'm still doing bibliographical searches of Ignatieff's writings between 1997-1999 to see where he spoke out strongly against Turkey's brutal repression of the Kurds in this period. I'm not finished yet, but so far I haven't found anything significant from him, though I have found plenty of contemporary material from others on the Turkish Kurds in that period; and from Ignatieff on 'worthy victims' in the Balkans at the same time.

I'll let you know what else I turn up, if you're interested. If you, on the other hand, can point me to a relevant source on Ignatieff's pre-war support for invasion; or on his defence of the Turkish Kurds against their oppressors in the late 90s, I'd be grateful.


Anonymous said...

"Most famous for supporting Bush?"
"Perhaps Laxer was off-base here."

A good two years after the invasion of Iraq, Ignatieff writes:

"Until George W. Bush, no American president -- not even Franklin Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson -- actually risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right. But this gambler from Texas has bet his place in history on the proposition, as he stated in a speech in March, that decades of American presidents' ''excusing and accommodating tyranny, in the pursuit of stability'' in the Middle East inflamed the hatred of the fanatics who piloted the planes into the twin towers on Sept. 11.

If democracy plants itself in Iraq and spreads throughout the Middle East, Bush will be remembered as a plain-speaking visionary."

Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread? June 26, 2005

A critque of this article:
Exporting Democracy, Revising Torture: The Complex Missions of Michael Ignatieff

Stephen said...

Nothing confirms Ignatieff's committment to historical amnesia and intentional ignorance like that 2005 piece.

It's simply sad that he's considered a serious thinker on international affairs by so many people who ought to know better.

John Murney said...

James, excellent column. You have put to words all of my concerns about Ignatieff. In the spirit of removing the Reformatories from power sooner rather than later, I hope for Ignatieff to lose the leadership race.

Anonymous said...

Dear James,

To deepen your critique, you should read David McNally's devastating analysis of Ignatieff in Colin Mooer, ed., "The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire" (Oneworld Publications, 2006). This essay is the best dissection of Ignatieff's racism, narcissism, and ignorance.

James Laxer said...

Thanks. I'll get it.

Anonymous said...

Just time for Dominic LeBlanc

somenos said...

Has a rational bicycle any chance of winning the race against a red, white, & blue Hummer?
Is geo bush, or the corporatocracy ( you know what I have been reading ) financing or at least contributing to the campaign of Michael Ignatieff?
Trudeau presented to Canada the image of the mouse sleeping next to the elephant; is MI planning to demonstrate how it works?

Jonathan Hopkins said...

This post should appear in every newspaper across the country. Ignatieff has jeopardized his record with his jingoistic support for the Bush, and he is not near as shrewd as Trudeau on the question of Canadian nationalism. However, the Bloc's last show of strength was pretty lame. If Ignatieff is elected leader of the Grits the Bloc bounce back; I highly doubt Quebec will put up with the Tories much longer.

Scrubs & Shines said...

Word in the Edmonton Journal today is that Liberal leader hopeful Micheal Ignatief would support the Bush Administration with its illegal war in Iraq. I would hope this is a joke or the media is attempting to confuse the public again. Canadians want a Prime Minister to have the courage to stand up to the criminal Bush Administration rather than jumping into bed with the ongoing campaign of terror against the Iraqi people. The Bush Administration should be brought up to answer for war crimes against humanity. The Canadian Government should be committed to our American friends and neighbours by calling upon the United Nations to open an inquiry into the 911 conspiracy cover-up by the Bush Administration. Prime Minister of Canada should be prepared to protect democracy and our freedoms that are threatened by The Bush Administration and thier barbaric fascism.

NBman said...

Michael Ignatieff "The most Hitler-like candidate for the Liberal Party leadership of our time"

Anti-semetic AND he wants Quebec to become it's own nation! Next he'll send the armies into New Brunswick and north eastern Ontario to set up borders around any form of French communities. Oh, and as a resident of New Brunswick, I'd like to say now that I won't be very pleased when the atlantic provinces are forced to join the USA after the new nation of Quebec cuts us off from the mainland.

It's looking more and more like the Liberal party is playing a big game of Russian roulette and they just keep shooting themselves in the foot just enough so that people don't quite notice the bleeding from time to time.

Anonymous said...

A very well written letter. Imagine MacLeans asking us if we're good enough for Michael Ignatieff. I hope to God Michael Ignatieff goes away and stays away!

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