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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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