Michael Ignatieff: Fire and Ashes

Don’t be naive about politics, Michael Ignatieff writes, but don’t be cynical either.

Thus the Canadian academic-turned-politician-turned academic closes Fire and Ashesa riveting account of the six years Ignatieff spent in the bull pit of Canada’s ruthless democracy.

Ignatieff, an acclaimed Harvard teacher and writer with political pedigree, was tempted back to Canada in 2005 by political operatives who, in an inspired but questionable judgement, believed Ignatieff could renew Canada’s tired Liberal Party.

Instead, after winning the party leadership four years later, he led the Liberals, who governed Canada for the best part of the twentieth century, into third-party status following their worst ever defeat in 2011. He lost his seat and returned to academia shortly afterwards.

The genius of Fire and Ashes lies in the profile of its author. As both a political actor and spectator, Ignatieff wrote the short book – barely 200 pages – which combines a insider’s frank re-telling of those years with the insights of a political theorist.

The best chapter is ‘Standing’ in which Ignatieff explains how he was ‘swift-boated’ by the ruthless and well-funded opposition. Having spent most of his adult life outside Canada, attack advertisements from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives characterised Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elitist who was ‘just visiting‘.

Ignatieff says that the ads denied him ‘standing’ in the eyes of Canadians. “Once you’ve denied people’s standing, you no longer have to rebut what they say,” he writes. “You only have to tarnish who they are.” The Conservatives were able to execute that feat months before the general election campaign, thus alienating voters from the party before they’d even considered its platform.

The ‘swift boat’ reference derives, of course, from the infamous advertisements, funded by the shady ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth‘ 527 group, that helped sink John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. Ignatieff appreciates why the attacks reduced Kerry to silence, he says, but it hurt him greatly as a result. “If you don’t defend yourself, people conclude either that you are guilty as charged or that you are too weak to stand and fight….This is how you lose standing with voters.”

In the spring of the 2008 campaign, by contrast, Barack Obama succeeded in turning his own campaign crisis, the Reverend Wright controversy, into a “teachable moment”. In his ‘A More Perfect Union‘ speech, Obama addressed the controversy and then pivoted, skilfully, into a discussion of race, that most anguished seam in the American story. “In doing so, he gave himself the standing to lead the American discussion on race and, in the process, gave himself the standing to become the president.”

Kerry failed to seize the Vietnam issue; but Ignatieff failed too, fighting in his speeches “for a generous, cosmopolitan ideas of citizenship against provincial small-mindedness”. A shortage of party funds and a media thrilled by the ‘just visiting’ narrative prevented the counter-attack cutting through. In that context the warning contained in the final chapter – “Don’t make the mistake of supposing you control your fate. That’s called hubris.” – makes sense. The book doesn’t shy away from the abstract or the cliched, but it roots them in an experience lived from the inside.

Another thought gleaned from that experience is a sort of revulsion or embarassment at the Canadian House of Commons functioned. In a critique that will be familiar to PMQ-watchers in the U.K., Ignatieff says that “Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other.” It risks undermining “one of democracy’s crucial functions: to keep adversaries from becoming enemies.”

It seems to me that Ignatieff over-estimates the degree to which partisanship corrodes democratic values and institutions. In fact I’m rather of Jed Bartlet‘s view: partisan politics stops electorates from becoming flaccid and disengaged.

And a final passage that I’ll include without much comment. It recounts an interview Ignatieff gave in which he controversially answered his interlocutor in the affirmative when asked if Quebec was a nation.

Suffice to say that the parallels between the place of Quebec, which narrowly rejected separation in 1995, in Canada and that of Scotland in the United Kingdom shouldn’t be difficult to see.

We were not a country founded on e pluribus unum – out of many, one – but instead a complex quilt of overlapping identities. We had created a country in which you could be Quebecker and Canadian in whatever order you chose. What I rejected about separatism was not the pride in nationhood but the insistence on a state, the belief that Quebeckers must make an existential choice between Quebec and Canada….It was a kind of moral tyranny on the part of separatists to force them to choose between parts of their own selves. After much travail, I said, we had understood that countries must be built on freedom of belonging. From this followed our system of federalism. We could not centralize power in this country, I said, because we could not centralize identity.

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