When it comes to politicians, I am not what you would call a “stickler” for the absolute truth. I accept that in politics, as in much of life and all of my barroom pickup rituals, claims will be made that do not stand up to scrutiny.
But it is my steadfast belief that a basic truthfulness in public life must be respected. A line must be drawn. And Michael Ignatieff, the new Liberal leader, has crossed that line.
It happened during a recent speech to the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal convention in Gander. Ignatieff spoke of Conservative attack ads that portray him as arrogant, an elitist, a tourist in his own country. The Liberal leader assailed the campaign and declared to Stephen Harper, “If you mess with me, I will mess with you until I’m done.”
People of Canada, I ask you: is Michael Ignatieff—typist of books, enthusiast of yoga, trimmer of eyebrows—really a threat to “mess” with anyone? More important: is this what passes for tough-guy talk in academic circles? Mess with me and I’ll mess with you? Watch yourself, Harper, or I swear to God I will split my infinitives. I will leave snarky Post-its in the margins of your thesis. I will look better than you in an ascot. I AM A ONE-MAN WRECKING CREW!
A more astute purveyor of trash talk would have ended his ultimatum with a more graphic consequence—vowing to mess with you “until you run home crying to Momma” or, if he really wanted to unnerve the Prime Minister, “until you’re sympathetic to other viewpoints.” But no. Michael Ignatieff will mess with you right up to, but not beyond, the point at which he is done messing with you. And then he will stop. That’s the way they do it in the Ivy League, kids.
The following day, Ignatieff met with reporters and actually uttered the words, “I can take a punch.” This remark was dismayingly stale on a rhetorical level—and it didn’t exactly pass the test of plausibility, either. A noogie? Michael Ignatieff might be able to take a noogie. Perhaps even a wet willie. But a punch? Sir, you go too far.
“Mess with me and I’ll mess with you.” “I can take a punch.” It’s beginning to seem that Ignatieff considers his position as party leader less a job to do than a role to play. He behaves the way he thinks we expect politicians to behave. He makes the empty promise. He utters the empty threat. He’s so determined not to be defined as Prof. Tweedy McMonocle that he’s inadvertently becoming the next can’t-miss WWE villain: the Hyperbolist.
Michael Ignatieff knows that there are limits to what government can or should try to accomplish. But he’s been promising pretty much everything to pretty much everyone—because, hey, that’s what politicians do. He is capable of making thoughtful interventions, but he’s been resorting to prosaic colloquialism—because that’s what politicians do. You half-expect him to turn to the camera and say: “I’m not a two-dimensional caricature of a modern politician, but I play one on TV.”
For all the scorn we heap on our political leaders, we also tend to give them tremendous benefit of the doubt. Stephen Harper is reverentially referred to as an economist, despite the fact he a) never actually worked as one, and b) argued during the last election that we wouldn’t be having a recession because we hadn’t had a recession yet. (Alas, events conspired against Harper’s bold theory that economic downturns are never late for their appointments.)
Ignatieff is widely perceived as a deep and respected thinker. But if you actually listen to him these days, you’re likely to conclude that the problem isn’t that he left Canada for 34 years. The problem is that his intellect failed to clear customs on the journey home.
On the Liberal website, the leader stares into the camera and offers Platitude No. 326 from the Politicians’ Pantry of Empty Rhetoric. “We need a new kind of politics,” he says. Really? Again? Man, they sure don’t make kinds of politics like they used to.
Meanwhile, Ignatieff’s major addresses over the past couple of months read almost as parody—a long list of what a Liberal government would do followed by a comically incongruous reference to how governing is about making “hard choices.” When we’re together, everything will be great and perfect and also shiny. It’s not so much a vision of Canada as it is the chorus of every Céline Dion ballad.
The Conservatives seem vulnerable. They’re down in the polls—especially in Quebec, where they’re about as popular as certain forms of hepatitis. Perhaps Ignatieff senses the moment. He wants to take advantage. And he doesn’t want to risk blowing it by asking anything of us or making us, you know, think.
We get that Ignatieff is smart. But maybe he should consider that some of us might be, too.