Iggy .. ave atque vale .. (or how the Martian outsider returned to his home planet at last)

May 6th, 2011 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Michael Ignatieff himself may have the best explanation of why he failed to connect with voters in the Canadian federal election of 2011. In the preface to his CBC Massey lectures on The Rights Revolution in Canada, written in September 2000, he worried that “I am writing about the rights talk of a country of which I am a citizen, but in which I have not resided since 1969.”

He went on: “In some sense, these lectures are my attempt to catch up with the turbulent history of my country in the very years I was abroad. So it may read oddly to those who lived these years in Canada, who fought or watched the battles described in these pages. To them this book may seem like a report by a visitor from a distant planet. I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider. Martians can never hope to grasp the tacit knowledge of real human beings. On the other hand, they sometimes see things real human beings fail to notice.”

As apt as this last claim may or may not be, does a Martian outsider also make sense as a Prime Minister of Canada?  In what other modern democratic country of the world today would a person in his or her mid 60s, who had spent most of the past 40 years living in other countries, be considered a strong candidate for the top political job? Though Irshad Manji would not agree, in a less fantasy-driven real world it may actually be a sign of increasing political maturity among Canadians that Iggy did as badly as he did on May 2.

With some added appalling bile and parochial paranoia, this is of course just what the Conservative “He didn’t come back for you” attack ads were all about. And the saddest thing about them, no doubt, was that they worked so well — because they were rooted in such an undeniable grain of elemental truth. Ms. Manji might be right in some ways. Canada would be a more impressive place if it could somehow have transcended all this elemental truth, and embraced Iggy with open arms — as a post-national nation where global villagers can be instantly at home. But, again, what other country in the real world today is actually like this?

* * * *

In the end I agree with Iggy’s own Martian self-critique. And there are other of his various points of view with which I feel altogether at odds myself. (When he also writes, in The Rights Revolution, that: “We are British North Americans, a colonial people in refuge from the republican experiment to south,” he sounds to me much more like his Red Tory uncle George Grant, than anyone in the Canadian Liberal tradition of Laurier, Mackenzie King, Pearson, and Trudeau. When he tells me that the Liberal Party of Canada is not a left-wing party, I suddenly feel I’ve been making a great mistake voting for it as often as I have over the past several decades. And what about the Incredible Canadian Mackenzie King who called the Progressive ancestors of today’s New Democrats just “Liberals in a hurry”? Or the Trudeau-era Liberal cabinet minister Gerard Pelletier, who said the same thing about the NDP itself?)

And yet, and yet … and yet again … Now that the Liberal massacre Warren Kinsella and others warned against has finally happened, and the disgraced Iggy himself has retreated to Massey College at the University of Toronto (and not Harvard or Cambridge or any place like that!), I find that I want to tip my hat to him. In spite of everything when push came to shove on May 2 I found myself voting again for the Liberal Party of Canada, even under Martian leadership. And that was because, while he was certainly not popular among the voters at large (who, like a good democrat, I do respect as the ultimate fount of all relevant political wisdom), Michael Ignatieff was as close as the Canadian federal election campaign of 2011 got to a class act. During those brief fleeting moments when it seemed a possibility — if hardly likely or anything like that — Iggy finally had me convinced that a few years with a Martian as prime minister might actually do Canada some palpable good.

At the very least I still think it wouldn’t have been any worse than four more years of Stephen Harper. And this is of course what we now actually have instead of the Iggy who didn’t come back for us — even though it is still true that 60% of the Canadian people who voted on May 2 did not vote for Mr. Harper’s party.

With his new job at Massey College, apparently, Mr. Ignatieff’s professional political career has come to an end. But he impressed even the conservative likes of John Ibbitson during the election campaign that has just ended with such civilized quips as  “If my aunt had a lower voice, would she be my uncle?” (And how much more amusing this is than the kinds of things Mr. Harper or even Mr. Layton or anyone else said — for those of us who like such things at least!) Michael Ignatieff remains the biographer of the great Anglo-Russian liberal political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Whatever else, he has re-engaged with his home and native land over the past number of years. I hope he will continue to contribute to the ongoing public debate about our many problems in Canada. Because, despite so much of the inanity that has passed for serious democratic combat over the past five weeks (“he didn’t come back for you” etc), we still do have a lot of problems in this country. And if we are going to survive the 21st century, we are going to have to at least start trying to do something about some of them soon.

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