Intellectual colossus Michael Ignatieff downsizes himself to Liberal talking points
It’s like a classical pianist at the burlesque
Intellectual colossus Michael Ignatieff downsizes himself to Liberal talking points
“We need troops, warriors and chieftains,” Michael Ignatieff, parliamentary candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, told a Liberal fundraiser the other day. Don’t worry, he doesn’t mean real troops, with guns and uniforms and so forth, like Scary Stephen wants to introduce to our cities, according to one of the wackier Grit attack ads. Professor Ignatieff was speaking metaphorically, as Liberals usually turn out to be when they get a whiff of cordite in their rhetoric. He only wants metaphorical troops on the streets of Quebec—to save federalism, yet again—though why he added “warriors and chieftains” is a puzzle. It makes the province sound like Afghanistan: “U.S. troops today brokered a tentative ceasefire between Uzbek warriors and Pushtun chieftains.”
But perhaps that’s the point. As his NDP rival in Etobicoke likes to point out, Professor Ignatieff has been out of the country for 27 years and he’s “out of touch” with Canada. He’s not up to speed, if that’s the expression. When you’ve been wrestling with the Balkans and Iraq across the lecture halls at Harvard and the talk-show sofas of the BBC for two decades, it can’t be easy bringing yourself down to speed for an election about federal daycare. Ignatieff’s been doing his best this election campaign but it’s like watching a classical pianist accompany the clowns in a burlesque house.
Three years ago, the great man was all over the (international) TV networks and papers arguing in favour of war with Iraq. He framed it in small-1 liberal terms: Imagine one day being able to go to Baghdad and sit in a café drinking coffee with Iraqi poets and intellectuals freely discussing the affairs of the world. Well, then, how to make it happen? In his 2001 book Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, he spells it out bluntly: “There
are no peaceful diplomatic remedies when we are dealing with a Hitler, a Stalin, a Saddam, or a Pol Pot.”
Actually, he doesn’t spell it out that bluntly. Almost any Ignatieff tome spends most of its time swathing an issue in philosophical objections and recoiling from its own logic before eventually, belatedly coming to the right conclusion. Thus, his 2004 book argues that Western democracies “must not shrink from the use of violence,” but the very title captures the self-torture required to reach his position—The Lesser Evil—and, by the time he’s justified the use of violence, he sounds
Shrinking from violence is one thing, shrinking to complacent Trudeaupian preening is quite another
too exhausted to get up to any. Nonetheless, the fact remains that, if he’d come home to join the Conservative party, the Liberals would be running their current Harper attack ads against him: “Michael Ignatieff would have sent Canadian troops to Iraq!”
Well, American and British troops.
Nonetheless, as agonized as his liberal warmongering is, it’s livelier than anything we’re likely to hear from him if he’s elected as MP for Etobicoke and starts working on his leadership campaign: shrinking from violence is one thing, shrinking to complacent Trudeaupian preening is quite another. The clarify-
ing act of Ignatieff’s adult life was the Bosnian war. He spent the eighties chugging through affable chit-chat on the BBC discussing the issues of the age as grand abstractions. But then Yugoslavia collapsed and it wasn’t so abstract anymore: the European Union, with pretensions to “moral” superpower status, did nothing as tens of thousands of corpses piled up on its borders. If he disliked the EU policy on the Balkans—hold committee meetings until everyone’s dead—he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the Clinton approach, either. “War ceases to be just when it becomes a turkey shoot,” he wrote of Kosovo in Virtual War. “America and its NATO allies fought a virtual war because they were neither ready nor willing to fight a real one.”
That’s a fair point. Yet it’s the case that Ignatieff was most gung-ho on Iraq when it was a “turkey shoot” and, like most of the left’s moulting hawks, began back-pedalling once it became a “real one,” with men dying in hard, bloody, messy, ugly ways in Ramadi and Fallujah. As an armchair warrior, I’d be reluctant to share an armchair foxhole with Ignatieff and Co. after the last couple of years. The war he’s become so tentative and equivocal on is exactly the kind he spent most of the nineties arguing the moral purpose of.
In that sense, of all the many volumes Bosnia brought forth from Ignatieff-B/ooi/ and Belongi?tg: Journeys into the New Nationalism; The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience; Empire Lite: Nation-
Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and a few others I may have forgotten—of all that vast groaning righteous bookshelf, the most revealing is the slender novel CharlieJohnson in the Flames (2003). The eponymous Charlie is a jaded American hack in the Balkans, the eponymous flames are on a young woman in an unimportant village:
“She was screaming at the commander, fists raised, when the gasoline arced over her and the lighter touched her hem. She went up with her house, an orange-black spinnaker of flame catching the wind ...She was running along the road towards them, while the commander watched her go, and stayed the mercy of an executioner’s bullet. Then he climbed into the half-track, reversing hard...”
In a quarter century on the war beat, Charlie Johnson’s seen it all but he hasn’t seen that. And, after burning himself trying to get the woman to hospital, he gets back to London and goes through the raw footage frame by frame:
“ ‘Look at this.’ He handed Shandler the picture: a man of about forty, dark hair, trim and tight inside his uniform, one hand outstretched, with the lighter at the end of it.
“ T want to find him.’ ”
What a crackerjack opening for a revenge thriller, eh? The hitherto passive observer of the world’s pathologies plunges into the thick of it, pulls the old Count of Monte Cristo routine and hunts down the Serb colonel with the lighter.
Except, of course, that with an anguished progressive’s revenge thriller nothing’s quite that straightforward. Ignatieff has a wonderful journalistic eye for the startling detail, the telling banality, and he understands what it means. The BBC’s foreign affairs editor, John Simpson, described Charlie Johnson as “the best contemporary account of what it is really like to be faced with the intense moral dilemmas of modern conflict.” But, of course, a monster who lights up a young woman doesn’t pose a “moral dilemma” so much as a practical one: Is feeble so-
cial-democratic transnational passivism capable of rousing itself to act, as the EU so conspicuously failed to do in the Balkans? Ignatieff’s novel certainly has “a compressed cinematic brilliance” (The Sunday Telegraph) but by the time the protagonist brings himself to take action it’s too late, too poorly thought out and is in the end a gesture of pointless moral narcissism. The novelist may have captured the practical uselessness of the liberal “conscience” better than he suspected. As The Scotsman’s Alan Taylor once wrote, “Michael Ignatieff wailed like the intellectual banshee he is.”
I’ve met him just once, a decade or so back, at a dinner party in London for Canadian expats. He left early, telling me he found all this talk of Canada frankly rather parochial. I wonder how he feels after two months on the
It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the world, but for EtobicokeLakeshore?
campaign trail. For all his banshee wailing, he at least spent the last decade trying to persuade the dessicated Western left to confront the realities of our time. He won’t be doing much of that as our Trudeau-in-waiting. It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the world, but for Etobicoke-Lakeshore and a mid-level cabinet post?
Until this last month, when the intellectual colossus downsized himself to Liberal talking points, the Ignatieff low point was widely agreed to be his performance in the wake of the Princess of Wales’ death. “Twenty-four hours ago I couldn’t imagine I would say this,” he choked up to British TV viewers. “A light has left the world.” That’s how I feel about Ignatieff: a light has left the world to flicker instead over a party that explicitly rejects the moral doctrine he’s formulated and, indeed, regards morality as no more than self-congratulation: feeling good about feeling bad. Goodbye, England’s rose. Hello, Ottawa’s narcissi. M
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