Andrew Potter’s essay on Michael Ignatieff reminded me of the influence Ignatieff had on my own life, well before he entered politics.
In 2002 I faced something of a dilemma. The previous year I had begun my first real job in print journalism at the Ottawa Citizen. It hadn’t started well. No one ever tells aspiring writers that they’ll start their careers covering car accidents and asking distraught parents how they feel about children drowning in their backyard pools. But this is how it begins. I started thinking about a new line of work.
Then al-Qaeda flew jet planes into New York skyscrapers and murdered thousands. I begged my editor to send me to Afghanistan. He did. My career took off. By 2002 I had the sort of job I always wanted: covering foreign news for the National Post.
In the meantime, however, I had applied to study for a doctoral degree at the University of Oxford and was accepted. I saw a looming fork in the road. But in truth I wanted to do both: journalism and academia; the thrill of breaking news and the deeper satisfaction of digging into a topic for weeks or years, rather than hours.
Michael Igatieff, at the time, straddled both worlds. He was a rare academic who wrote lucid and important journalism. On a whim, I sent him an email at Harvard, where he was running the Kennedy School. His reply was long and thoughtful. Go to Oxford, he said. You’ll never be intellectually intimidated again. As for journalism, and especially freelance journalism, it’s a tough way to make a living, but you’ll be a free man. And that’s worth something.
I admired Ignatieff’s ideas then. He was an internationalist who believed there were times when Western nations must use force to stop slaughter and other human rights abuses in sovereign nations. When a country devours its children, I recall him telling a Radio Canada interviewer, the West has a duty to intervene. And few countries in the 20th century had devoured as many of its children as had Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Ignatieff’s defence of America’s invasion of that country was brave and principled. It owed more to a liberal tradition than to the neoconservative one he is too often tarred with. There was a time, in the 1930s, when the NDP’s forefathers in the CCF took a stand against fascism in Spain. That the NDP has abandoned its heritage and now seeks accommodation with those they once fought is its own shame. But the party’s current morally bankruptcy on foreign affairs doesn’t change the fact that the Left has a much nobler tradition.
Still, Ignatieff disappointed me as a politician. He spent decades making the moral case for humanitarian intervention, and then cast all this aside for a shot at power. His apology for supporting the Iraq war was self-abasing twaddle. He blames himself for being too moved, too influenced, by the passions of Iraqis who suffered genocide — as if such emotions are not understandable and good, as if solidarity with those who have suffered genocide shouldn’t play a role in our foreign policy. He once wrote that those we too quickly abandon in broken countries will have reason never to trust us again, and then he didn’t make the case for staying, and fighting, in Afghanistan for as long as it takes. He was no less resolute than Stephen Harper, but that’s not saying much.
Ignatieff jettisoned the best parts of himself when he ran for office. I’ve often wondered what he would have said to a student who asked him in 2010 whether he should go to Oxford. In my most cynical moments I suspect he would have suggested the student stay in Canada and study at Trent. But then what else could he say? The Conservatives made Ignatieff’s world experience a stain.
And yet the shallowness of Canadian politics didn’t strip Ignatieff of everything. He remains a thinker. He wasn’t a good politician, but he is a good man. He respected Canadians. He answered them. That Harper hid behind the braying cheers of his supporters when faced with difficult questions from reporters says a lot about the kind of person he is. Ignateiff wasn’t intellectually intimidated. He didn’t hide. Ignateiff said he’s leaving politics with his head held high, and he’s right. I voted for Harper in 2006, back when I thought he believed in something. I voted for Ignatieff on Monday. I’d do it again.