Michael Ignatieff’s purgatory

Saying provocative things as a public intellectual is, after all, the former Liberal leader’s forté


Paul Chiasson/CP Images

About that Michael Ignatieff interview on Scotland and Quebec:

The way to rise in the BBC, in the world of letters, and in the United States national-security establishment is to say provocative things that sound plausible about important events. It’s not easy, and Michael Ignatieff was better at it than almost anyone in the world. Then he went into politics.

Let’s break that down. Important events. In Canada we mostly focus on the other kind. Our journalism is often about, say, which reporter put too much faith in the polls in Alberta. Or who’s being mean on Twitter. Wars, famine, oppression and the breakdown of large political entities usually happen somewhere else. And there’s a lot of reason to ignore them. The names are unfamiliar, the circumstances hard to follow. Our readers are insulated from many of the effects of these far-off traumas. But Ignatieff did the opposite of ignoring such events. He spent much of his life travelling far to get to trouble spots and learn something about them. As for the case at hand, If the United Kingdom fell apart, that would indeed be an important event.

Things that sound plausible. Also not easy. Just look at Newt Gingrich. Your predictions have to fall within the range of what could reasonably happen. But again, it may well be that Scotland’s departure from the UK is written in the stars, and it may well be that Quebec is drifting away from the rest of Canada. Lord knows that’s been the thesis of a lot of Canadian journalism for, what, my entire lifetime and then some.

Provocative things. Really important. The BBC won’t ring you up and put you on TV, and it certainly won’t give you your own show, if you’re the kind of guy who says, “There’s a very real risk here that cooler heads will prevail and it’ll all blow over. Who wants lunch?” Let’s be honest. A journalist, a commentator, a public intellectual makes a living on the fine line between worst-case scenarios and outright lunacy.

Ignatieff built a nice career on that fine line. War in Iraq? You know what? Good idea. Torture? Let’s mull it over. (He rejects torture at the end of that piece, although I’ve never met anyone who actually made it that far.)  And so on. Then he went to Ottawa and tried his hand at politics, whose rules are almost diametrically opposed to the rules he grew up with. In Ottawa you’re supposed to want cooler heads to prevail. It’s a good thing when something blows over. No wonder he was confused.

His 2007 mea culpa for Iraq in the New York Times — the timing of the article reveals its agenda: it was part of a campaign to clean up the things that lost him the Liberal leadership in 2006 — actually has some interesting lines in it.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they can’t afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with.

I suppose it’s possible to read that and not think, Maybe this guy’s not cut out for politics, but… anyway, what’s done is done. (Incidentally, if you still haven’t read David Rees’ attack on Ignatieff’s NYT piece, you are denying yourself one of life’s pleasures.) Ignatieff entered a world where “entertaining ideas that are merely interesting” are banned.

And then, last May 2, he was escorted from that world by the electorates of Canada and his own riding. Spat out like a bad prune. Hasta la vista. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass. Na-na-na-na, hey-eyy, goodbye.

All righty then. Having given politics a valiant try, he reconstructs his old life. Sinecure at Massey College, sly comments on events on his Facebook page, the odd pundit gig. I don’t know who would wish him any other life post-politics. And then the BBC’s on the line and he says the things he’s used to saying — could Canada and the UK fall apart? Sure! Can it be stopped? Maybe not! — and suddenly it’s getting viewed through the lens of the political arena from which he was forcibly ejected, and not through the lens of the media-commentator life to which he’d like to return.

I don’t think what Ignatieff said in his interview made a lot of sense. But he’s no longer asking to run things. He shouldn’t be held to politics’ strictures if he will not be allowed to savour its pleasures.


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Michael Ignatieff’s purgatory

  1. I hate to feed the fires of “he’s just not Canadian enough!” but it kind of sounded like he has a tin ear about the issue, academics aside. It reminds me of a piece from a british newspaper mentioned here or linked to by a commenter here a few months back. It said that roboscam was getting more play in the East because they were more buttoned down and traditional while the wild west types out in Calgary didn’t mind that sort of thing too much. The kind of broad missed it by a mile statement that only a distant observer COULD make.

  2. Unfortunately, once you’re a recognizable prominent face in a political party, I don’t know if you can ever fully go back. There will always be people who will continue to attack you as a proxy for the party you used to represent, as long as people believe that some of such attacks will stick to the party.

  3. Thanks for the link. I just read it for the first time–right up there with chocolate and warm bubble baths.

    • My gawd – after reading that NYTs article…..unbelievable. And the Libs really thought he would make a great PM?

      No wonder the “just visiting” ads struck home so well. Those rolled up sleeves didn’t fool anyone, lol

      • An internationally recognized guy who spent a great deal of time outside of Canada and might think Quebec will ultimately separate was still the better choice over the guy who spent his entire life here and thinks its a northern socialist backwater and doesn’t care if it’s two countries or ten.

        • PW says it best:

          ” Let’s be honest. A journalist, a commentator, a public intellectual makes a living on the fine line between worst-case scenarios and outright lunacy.”

          • PW can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure he’s talking about a journalist’s writing topics and style. Absolutely Iggy would and could never say the contents of that article as Prime Minister of Canada. But if it gets him airtime on the BBC, well I’m not sure he exactly owes Canada anything anymore that should make him hold back.

          • Good point. He’s a free agent now. He might just want to lay off the great big picture stuff a bit though. I prefer: i haven’t a clue what it could all mean…but it could be bad, let’s prepare and hope for the best.

          • Ha! Remove the bit about Journalist and commentator and that could just about describe any number of opinions expressed and asserted by one S.J. Harper.
            When his comments are reviewed at leisure [ albeit with hindsight] far too many of his opinions on how our courts, constitution, economy,national unity and the prospects for world peace look like the scribblings of someone who didn’t get much beyond the crayon stage of his political development.
            Yeah but i know, the ads all say he’s a nice dad who’s a hockey nut/expert and spends most of his time rolling up the rim! Whatever!

  4. I wonder how many will willfully bypass the full import of your last sentence, which i read as being essentially sympathetic to MI’s plight?

    Curious just where you think he was nonsensical? This sort of summed it up for me – ” former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Michael Ignatieff, says everybody is watching the Scottish independence referendum ” – even though it wasn’t a direct quote of course. I’d need to listen a couple of more times to really form an opinion i trusted, but it seemd to me he spoke the essential truth about Quebec today[ at least as far as this western Anglo ever gets Quebec – mostlyl through the media’s lens of course].
    We have nothing left to say to each other; separate bedrooms, sorta joint bank accounts, no kids thank god! the whole nine yards. Quibbles over what was or has been tranferred i suppose, but should he be pilloried for calling it as he sees it? It’s his hyperpolic conclusions i have trouble with most of all…will the sky fall all over the world? Leave alone Quebec? I noticed he used “we” at least once in the interview – he’s certainly a universal man, odd since he values nationalism at the same time he shies away from it.
    One problem i always thought a huge handicap to MI, [perhaps most of all in Canada – not sure it would hurt him in much of Europe] is his amost habitual choice to appear vulnerable – say too much about his inner thought process – as in the ironic Berlin quote.
    He was often compared to Trudeau. That was always ridiculous, if only for that reason. Trudeau knew how to guard himself while still effectively expressing his thoughts/feelings; he wouldn’t have been caught dead identifying himself with that Berlin quote if he thought it described himself.
    MI always seemed to me to be oddly enough almost too innocent to compete effectively in Canadian politics – that and too unguarded. For a guy who talked and wrote so much himself in the first person he seemed to have little idea who he really was. Of course that’s only a sin in the political world.
    *Poor guy should have wriiten a novel instead. At least then the GG might have said yes, and given him a grant to write another.

    • What struck me most was when MI quoted the referendum question that the Scottish people will be asked in 2014: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Mr. Ignatieff pressed this point very effectively. This question is clear. The Scottish voters have more than two years to think about it, to discuss their political future among themselves and with other people. MI put the light on the major flaw of the 1980 and 1995 referendums, the lack of clarity and purpose in what was proposed by the PQ to the citizens of Quebec. Heck, it was a founder of the Parti Quebecois who contested in the tribunals the legality of the 1995 process. The response of our politicians to MI’s comments is the usual sound bite that fits well into a 30-second spot that the Canadian media is eager to sell to the political parties. It fits everybody’s script, just like which reporter put too much faith in the polls in Alberta.

    • A novel? Ignatieff’s been there, done that.

      His second one, Scar Tissue, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in the early ’90s.

      His third one, Charlie Johnson in the Flames, got pretty good reviews in 2005.


      My trouble with Ignatieff’s statements here is he gives the Labour Party advice on how to react to the referendum (radical decentralization), then later admits the logic of those actions will be eventual full independence.

      Not really advice worth giving to them, then, is it?

      • To be fair he did say it’s likely to wind up that way either way – which i find defeatist.
        I think MI take on the state of Quebec’s sense of alienation or disconnexion in project Canada has a ring of truth to it. However, i’m not fan of his fixes, recalling he gave Harper the idea for the Nation within a Nation resolution, which i felt wasn’t necessary. Nevertheless Harper wisely then consulted Dion rather than pay heed to MI’s views.

        • I was really annoyed with Ignatieff for bringing up the nation thing and putting us in that box in 2006, but it seems to have ended up being rather harmless.

          The 1980s “independent Quebec within a united Canada” quip-like formulation of “the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada” seems actually to have worked — fight nationalist fairy-dust with federalist fairy-dust.

          I’d be curious to find out who actually figured that one out — Harper, Dion, someone in the Quebec caucus of the CPC…

          Just as long as it stays in resolution territory and some wiseguy doesn’t try to put it in the constitution, that is…

          • Far as i know it was Dion who recommended NOT engaging in symbolic politics [ imagine things were frosty tween Michael and him for a while eh]and counselled using Quebecois – still Haper gets credit for dong it, only it was never necessary. That wasn’t the first time the bloc tried to slip one pase the Parliament, they could have ignored it – only Harper took the bait – got lucky imo…so far as you say. Maybe we dodged an unecessary bullet?

          • My understanding is, the Quebec caucus felt it had to vote for the resolution.

            That was what forced the issue.

          • Stephan had a choice, to paraphrase Brian.

  5. Agree with the article. But its point doesn’t excuse Ignatieff being factually wrong about relevant stuff where Quebec and Confederation and separation are concerned. And I was a little taken aback by how he depicted English Canada.

  6. The Rees blog was hilarious… thanks for that.

    • Agreed! Another very good deconstruction of MI can be found here.


      Beautifully wriiten too.[ obviously i’m a big fan of Graham’s work. Some interesting knocks on him in the comments though]

      “Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that he would make a better prime minister than Stephen Harper, a low bar indeed”

      RG’s pretty hard on him but it still rings true.

  7. Thanks for the link to the David Rees piece. It is truly great.

  8. Canadians aren’t supposed to muse or think about important things. We’re discouraged from working together across provincial or partisan lines, or from travelling or having lofty ambitions for our nation. Consider this example. They were discussing Scottish independence on the Beeb. Had devolution of power to Scotland encouraged Scots to remain in the UK or was this process doomed to ultimately empower separation? Same question for Quebec: Can you expect policies providing more provincial autonomy to result in anything else?

    Iggy wasn’t off base or off topic (whether he was right or wrong is a different question). I think if you asked people whether devolving more and more powers to Quebec, and cutting more and more ties to the so-called “rest of Canada”, has been a recipe for encouraging eventual separation, many would say yes. That doesn’t mean they advocate or approve of it — it’s just a fair analysis.

  9. This would be a great subject for a Coyne v. Wells video:

    AC: “Why, hello Paul.”

    PW: “Good morning, Andrew. So, it turns out now that Michael Ignatieff is no longer around to save the country, he might not be the only one who was just visiting–apparently he thinks that Quebec and Scotland are on the way out of their respective countries of association too.”

    AC: “Right, and what we see in the BBC piece you’re referring to is Ignatieff’s penchant for making provocative observations–possibly good qualities in a pundit, not so good if you aspire to lead a government.”

    PW: “Sure–what we saw when Ignaitieff the pundit/public intellectual morphed into ‘Ignatieff: Trudeau’s intellectual successor and saviour of the Liberal Party”–a position that’s still vacant by the way–was his gradual awareness that the roles of public intellectual and public politician are very different. I think in some way he’s enjoying the different hue of limelight now that he’s relieved of the burden of keeping the interesting opinions to himself.

    AC: “And what a sad commentary on the state of democracy today that [insert one of several standard Coynian reasons for the sad state of democracy here] ….”

    PW: [Insert witty Wellsian rejoinder, that expresses congeniality while damning Coyne with faint praise.]

    Can’t there be some kind of joint custody arrangment beween Macleans and the Post to revive these uber-awesome video exchanges?

  10. Terrific post, Wells. I have been a fan of yours for years, even tho I don’t often agree with you, because you obviously understand what your job is and how you should perform it. I wish you could convince more of your msm colleagues to think like you.

    I wonder if Iggy didn’t join the wrong party – it was my impression that he would have been more comfortable in Con caucus than he was in Libs. Libs are fairly left wing and I don’t believe Iggy is left wing at all.

    Iggy was aware of what problems he was facing but he wasn’t able to do anything about it. Canadians are ignorant and proud of it – we don’t have Sunday papers with long essays and ideas get tossed around, no monthly magazines like The Atlantic – and someone with firm opinions scares the yokels.

    Burn the witch!

  11. Dion was a joke…. Ignatieff was a clown …. and Rae is a Rat … a LibeRat.

  12. An old respected friend had this to say about the educational system in North America:
    Completing Public School means you are an idiot.
    Completing High School means you are a double idiot.
    Completing University or College means you are a triple idiot.
    Michael Ignatieff is living proof of my friend’s wisdom.

  13. God I love that David Rees’ takedown of Ignatieff. That has to be about the dozenth time I read it and its just as good as the first. So funny!

    Regarding the million dead Iraqis, the tens of thousands of wounded and the 4 million displaced refugees:

    I am still happy to have been right, even if it was for the wrong reason (reflexively opposing pointless wars of choice).

  14. I honestly didn’t realize this question was not kosher for politicians to discuss. Dion made a similar argument in his own academic work, which makes for a useful contrast. In “The Quebec Challenge to Canadian Unity”, Dion argues that support for secession is driven by fear (specifically the fear of the loss of language/culture), confidence (the belief that the creation of a new state will be easy) and rejection (eg. the response to Meech/Charlottetown in English Canada).

    Where Ignatieff sees decentralization as problematic because it severs ties, Dion sees it as potentially dangerous because it increases the confidence of the subnational region that it can govern effectively as a state. Ignatieff’s reasoning strikes me as being a bit lame.

    Indeed, for somebody that lived outside of Canada for so long, surely Ignatieff should have realized that the most important ties between groups of people have little to do with government. As somebody living abroad and auditioning for future Tory attack ads, my most important ties to Canada involve friends, family, ideas and experiences – the kinds of ties more often spread by having Ottawa get out of the way than having Ottawa get in the way.

    Dion’s framework, on the other hand, is more plausible, and more useful, because he suggests when decentralization might work and when it might not. Giving Quebec control over immigration and cultural issues probably won’t encourage nationalists that much. “We created Roch Voisine, so we can forge a nation” isn’t a very convincing slogan. At the same time, such measures can help assuage the fear of a moribund culture, and reduce the likelihood of Quebec-ROC tensions on issues likely to be touchy.

    What is telling is that even the PQ buys the idea that they need to run Quebec well before seceding – Bouchard made that point, and Marois is making it now. So in the battle of politically-challenged former Liberal leader-professors, I’ll go with the real deal, not the public intellectual.

  15. Once a politician always a politician…once you have lead national political party you will always wear the hat. He may be a bright articulate man, but he is lost to certain realities.

  16. silly boy he is; too bad the lib party started to self destruct after cretien, sic