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Ignatieff - December 13, 2008 - davidwarrenonline.com

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December 13, 2008


Did Michael Ignatieff enter Canadian politics to vindicate his books? Or more precisely, to force people to praise them? There is a whispering suggestion of this, part way through Michael Valpy's remarkable profile of the new Liberal leader in last Saturday's Globe and Mail. He is a character whom we must try to see whole, and I think there may be some truth in this suggestion.

I do not doubt that Mr. Ignatieff is in earnest, in his pursuit of the office of prime minister. But he was a fluffy "public intellectual" -- as opposed to a hard thinker -- and if he can achieve success as a politician, his books will look much heavier in retrospect.

Many years ago, as editor of something called the Idler magazine, I commissioned a review of Ignatieff's career-enhancing book, The Needs of Strangers (1984). Our noteworthy Canadian was making a mark among the "young fogeys" in London, and from its title the book promised to be interesting. We had every reason to cheer him on. But, on closer examination, there was no "there" there. The book was pretending to a depth and insight it could not deliver. It gathered what strength it had only from its topic.

I have had the same impression wherever I have dipped into his later non-fiction books -- journalism with some mildly academic conceits, pretending to be deep. Into the novels I never bothered to dip: I find his "sensitive man" style rather false and grating. I was not surprised when he took to television. I was a little surprised when he did not flourish in that medium.

Mild left, and aloof from "ideology" -- or rather, from any burning desire to carry observation towards conclusion, or build a consistent "worldview" -- I am describing the least harmful sort of modern "liberal." Little feints towards conviction, to tease the reader along. Mr. Ignatieff's one daring public policy stance was to support the invasion of Iraq. He crossed this Rubicon in a boat slightly behind such harder leftists as Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie.

My own political and diplomatic "worldview" was not shattered on Sept. 11, 2001, but rather, considerably de-sentimentalized. It will be seen I took the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to be more or less inevitable, from about 9 a.m. that morning, when I learned of the attacks. I also strongly and consistently supported both, and in retrospect, still do.

My only regrets are that the Americans did not strike upon the "surge" strategy earlier in Iraq; have still not found a way to adapt this to the Pashtoon country of Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan (and may have left it too late, so that by now al-Qaeda have killed off all potential tribal allies); and that President Bush's openly confrontational approach to Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not extended to the ayatollahs of Iran and their proxies, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria.

Mr. Ignatieff came meekly to the war party in 2003, and all but abandoned it last year. It was his one tough position, so far as I could see. This caution makes him a plausible politician, but a failed intellectual. His excuse has been the desire to avoid ideology; but a "public intellectual" should pursue the truth, ruthlessly.

The "ruthless" side of Mr. Ignatieff -- he has long had a fascination with that word -- has been manifested instead in his private life, as Michael Valpy and others have documented. His dealings with friends and family have often been unsentimental, and his manoeuvrings for the Liberal leadership have tended to confirm that he lacks nothing in that aspect of political efficiency.

Politics is a blood sport, figuratively when not literally, so let us not be sentimental ourselves, and paraphrase Alison Ignatieff n?e Grant, the politician's late mother, who said, "Life is not for sissies." She would have meant that in a way we could mistake today -- it was, I should think, not a cynical remark, but a condemnation of whining.

Still, in the cynical sense, contemporary politics is not for sissies, in this country and every other of which I'm aware. Decency is not merely at a premium, it is a guarantee of failure. The people at the top today -- the Stephen Harpers and Barack Obamas -- are cold manipulators, or "realists" as they perhaps think of themselves. I should think Michael Ignatieff is in his element as a politician, and will serve Liberal party interests well. 

David Warren

Ottawa Citizen

For an archive of David Warren's newspaper columns, see:


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