Michael Ignatieff's home-ophobia
The pronoun thing I get. But those tortured protestations of Canadianness? That's weird
MARK STEYN | Oct 19, 2006
I have found myself paradoxically fascinated by Michael Ignatieff's return to Canada to claim the Liberal party crown. I say "paradoxically" because there was nothing in the least bit fascinating about that I-lay-out-my-exciting-vision-for-your-er-my-country Iggy manifesto we carried a few weeks back. It was vanilla boilerplate of almost parodic blandness, and yet the Grits appear to have fallen for it.
My colleague Paul Wells, meanwhile, is much exercised by what Daffy Duck, in a livelier context, called "pronoun trouble" -- Ignatieff's habit of writing "we" and "our" when writing about American policy in American newspapers. I'm more sympathetic on this point. In a long and undistinguished career, I've written for publications in many lands and from early days I've always been very careful about pronouns. Then I discovered that for the previous six months some malicious Fleet Street sub-editor at the Daily Telegraph, in my more contemptuously hectoring surveys of the London scene, had been taking out every dismissive "you British" and replacing it with "we." More recently, I began to get a flurry of emails from Canadians sneering at me as a wannabe Yank along with even more emails from aggrieved Americans huffing at my impertinence at claiming to speak on behalf of their country. It turned out some jackanapes of a whippersnapper at my publisher's had appended his own subtitle to a forthcoming book of mine and announced it on Amazon, thereby saddling me with Ignatieff Pronoun Syndrome and doubtless irreparably damaging my prospects of a pre-retirement sinecure as lieutenant-governor of Nunavut.
Having suffered the editing processes of the New York Times, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Ignatieff pronouns that so affronted Paul Wells hadn't been inserted by one of their many deputy associate assistant executive copy editors. But, even if they weren't, so what? If, like Ignatieff, you're living and working in America, writing about America for Americans, what's the big deal about the occasional expansive inclusive "we"? Far weirder are his tortured protestations of Canadianness, like his sort of pledge of a kind of allegiance in The Rights Revolution -- the book that "deepened my attachment to the place on earth that, if I needed one, I would call home."
Hmm. That strikes me as a lot more offensive than feeling British after 10 years in London, or American after five years at Harvard. It has the careless condescension of Bond telling Moneypenny that, if he ever gets tired of shagging hot panting double agents from every intelligence service on earth, he'll be sure to settle down with her. To put a less positive spin on it, let me cite the Ottawa Citizen's John Robson: "Forget jeering that he's too American. I'm worried that a man so postmodern he doesn't need a home wants to lead my country. Why? Is it quaint? An interesting sociological experiment?"
Indeed. I can understand Ignatieff buffing his copy for the New York Times a week after 9/11 and not spotting the telltale pronouns in his agonized prose about Americans not wanting to "dishonour our freedoms." I find it far more unnerving that he could write that sentence in The Rights Revolution at a time when he was positioning himself for a Canadian political career and not appreciate what a pretentious tosser(a useful British expression with which the old BBC telly host is assuredly familiar)he sounds. Try to imagine any other prime minister or president uttering such a formulation -- Bush, Blair, Chirac, John Howard. Stephen Harper.
This isn't entirely an abstract consideration. One of the biggest practical challenges facing Western leaders right now is the question of identity: in the last five years, I've had conversations with Dutch cabinet ministers fretting over how to inculcate a stronger sense of Dutchness in their second- and third-generation immigrants, British cabinet ministers worrying likewise over Britishness, Danish over Danishness, etc. Is it likely that a man with no apparent need of national identity himself will be the chap to address this challenge? Like a dyslexic Dorothy in a high school Wizard Of Oz, Ignatieff's heartwarming inversion -- "There's no home-like place!" -- is by far the most interesting line in The Rights Revolution, an otherwise insipid work that sees modern nationhood as no more than an accumulation of entitlement groups with the state as arbiter. But even if Canada is no more than(in Yann Martel's famous description)a great hotel, a Prime Minister Ignatieff would seem psychologically something of an absentee landlord.
The great man's home-ophobia is evidently regarded by Liberal leadership delegates as proof that he's the new Trudeau. I was thinking about this the other day when I opened an envelope and this week's Trudeau biography slid out and broke my toe. John English has called the first volume of his magnum opus Citizen of the World, and I couldn't for the life of me see why he'd do such a thing. It's a hard phrase to take seriously nowadays and, with the exception of Oliver Goldsmith's volume of letters from a Chinese philosopher in London, it's a catchpenny title whose biographical deployment is a sure sign of evasion: Adlai Stevenson, Citizen of The World -- i.e. unelectable pseudo-intellectual; Mary Robinson, Citizen of the World -- i.e. transnational shill; Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World -- i.e. Commie stooge. Trudeau's conscription to this grim pantheon seems terribly unjust: aside from a few modish jet-set touches -- dating Barbra Streisand, sucking up to Warsaw Pact blood-soaked thugs -- the Father of Our Country was a product of Quebec at its most parochial. The most striking phrase occurs after a brisk scene-setting of global developments in the fall of 1935: Mussolini, Abyssinia, League of Nations, Germany denounces the disarmament clause of the Versailles Treaty and introduces conscription. And at the end of this pileup of history in the making Mr. English writes: "Quebec turned inward as it confronted the new realities; so, for a while, did Pierre."
Lovely line. For all its charm, Quebec, when confronted with new realities, has always turned inward. And, in reconstructing Canada in his own image, Trudeau turned the country inward, too. The men who scrambled ashore at Juno Beach were more genuinely engaged with the world than their contemporary who chose not to join them. By the end of his life, a once outward-looking nation was content, like Trudeau, merely to have attitudes toward world affairs rather than a role in them.
What does it mean to be a "citizen of the world"? That you value our common humanity? Trudeau was unperturbed by the slave subjects of, say, his pal Ceauüsescu. Being "citizen of the world" meant that he got to fly around the planet dining with leaders who wouldn't let their citizens make unapproved trips to neighbouring towns. In one of his goofier initiatives after 9/11, George W. Bush announced that he wanted to encourage American schoolchildren and those in Muslim countries to become pen pals. This was at the height of the anthrax mail scare, and frankly the last thing the U.S. post office needed was a sudden influx of lumpy envelopes from the Sword of the Infidel Slayer grade school in Jalalabad. But, endearingly dotty as the proposal was, it testified to one of Bush's bedrock qualities: his determination to see the common humanity even when it's all but undetectable. He looks at a seven-year-old in Tikrit as no different from a seven-year-old in Crawford. He may be nuts to do so, but he's more of a genuine citizen of the world than Trudeau ever was.
The evidence of the last 15 years suggests Ignatieff is far closer to Bush than to Trudeau, or to Mary Robinson, Paul Robeson, Peter Ustinov or the various other apologists and do-nothings for whom "citizen of the world" has been the ultimate passport of convenience. In the Balkans and Iraq, Ignatieff saw the victims of terror and dictatorship and wanted the world to act. When he says "we" need to intervene, that it's necessary for "us" to take action, that's really all he means: "we" is "the civilized world"; "us" is "the good guys." Unfortunately, Canada has been an unreliable member of that grouping -- at least until Ignatieff's party fell from power at the beginning of this year. In Canberra a few weeks ago, I was surprised by the number of Aussie bigwigs who enquired about his chances. One of them mischievously suggested Ignatieff would have made a rather effective foreign minister in Stephen Harper's cabinet. My bet is that he'd have been happier in that job than where he's headed.
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