As always with Michael Ignatieff, there are the contradictions. Awaiting his coronation at next week’s party convention, the Liberal leader is everywhere, in interviews about and excerpts from his new book, True Patriot Love. And the more he speaks, the more the contradictions mount.
The Ignatieff who once declared in The Russian Album that “I do not believe in roots” now dwells on them at length, emphasizing his four-generation heritage of attachment to Canada. The ambitious intellectual who once believed that “life was elsewhere” now wants to be known as someone who is “anchored in the country.” The British television personality who publicly despaired, after the 1995 referendum, that he was “very hard put to see what kind of future we have” now burbles that “the country is not done. The story has only just begun.”
Well, fine. People grow and change. It’s entirely plausible that the cosmopolitan writer, home at last after his 30-year sojourn abroad, is as happily converted to domesticity as he seems—that it was indeed, as he says, the growing sense that he would never really be home anywhere else, and not the chance to take a flutter on high-level politics, that impelled him to return.
But then there are those internal contradictions—not between the younger and older Ignatieff, but between, as it were, the left side of his brain and the right. Much of True Patriot Love, a meditation on Canadian nationalism told as a history of his forebears (on his mother’s side) the Grants, is given over to an efficient dismantling of the nationalism of his uncle, George Grant. There is a contradiction even here, though it is one I share: it is quite possible to “disagree with every page” of Grant’s Lament for a Nation, a hysterical piece of warmed-over Straussianism with John Diefenbaker as its romantic hero, and yet also to believe it is “the greatest 90 pages ever written about our country.” It is great in the way that all the great operas are—because of its insanity.
But how do we reconcile these two thoughts—on the one hand, Ignatieff’s rejection of Grant’s statism, his nostalgic anti-capitalism, his “worn-out clichés of dependency,” and on the other, Ignatieff’s own dizzyingly statist agenda: a massive national public works program, highways and hydro grids and (God save us) high-speed rail, all in the name of resisting the same north-south pull of efficiency and “technique” that so enraged his uncle. Railway nationalism, in other words. Talk about worn-out clichés.
For someone who has been at such pains to declare the National Energy Program a mistake, Ignatieff sounds an awful lot like Marc Lalonde, circa 1980. Why, he asks, does “so much of the oil and gas we produce [flow] south without even being processed”? Why do “we ship oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the American states while importing large quantities from Venezuela and the Middle East” to Eastern Canada? Why have we “never created a petroleum reserve to protect our citizens against fluctuations in supply from foreign countries?”
Well, he knows the answer: because the implied alternatives—capping oil exports, diverting western oil to Eastern Canada, shutting in production—make no earthly economic sense, not to say contravene several NAFTA articles. But that’s just “the logic of money,” he says. What he wants to know is, “what exactly is being Canadian worth to us, in dollars and cents?” I guess we’ll find out.
Still, it’s hard not to like his ambitious vision of Canada’s place in the world—an inheritance, he says, of his parents’ postwar optimism. I was impressed by his stern definition of patriotism, as “the sentiment that makes people demand reform, change and improvement in their country,” rather than the back-patting complacency that so often parades about in its guise. Successful societies, he writes, “struggle with their deficiencies and overcome them through collective efforts of will and sacrifice . . . It is this sentiment that makes us want to be one people.”
Got it: Will. Sacrifice. One people. So how do we square this with his enthusiasm for recognizing Quebec as a “nation,” complete with his suggested catechism “le Québec est ma nation, le Canada est mon pays.” Could there be a more explicit statement that we are not one people? Or what do we make of this statement, from last month’s Liberal party conference in Laval? “We offer you the freedom of belonging to Canada and to Quebec, in the order you prefer.” You’re a Quebecer first, and a Canadian second? Fine. He’s down with that. Your primary allegiance is to B.C., or Nova Scotia, or Newfoundland? Whatever. Just as long as we all “find in our hearts a place for Canada.”
A more abject statement of national self-negation could scarcely be imagined. It’s not that what he’s saying is particularly new: it’s the sort of fatuous phrase our political class long ago learned to mumble, to rationalize its own utter collapse of nerve. But it leaves precious little room for concepts like “will” or “sacrifice.” People only make sacrifices for one another when they are willing to put each other first. When they put each other second, they are expressly asserting an unwillingness to make such sacrifices. Given a choice between their own narrow interests and Canada’s, they would not choose Canada. Whatever that is, it’s not patriotism.
But that’s the thing about Ignatieff. Whatever you’re for, he’s for it too. Name any issue, and he’ll agree with you on it. Even if he has to turn himself inside out to do so.