As the recently installed leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and a likely future prime minister of the country, Michael Ignatieff continues to provoke questions about who he is, where he stands or even how he defines his own nationality. They are not easily answered. The self-described cosmopolitan seems to change identities and political positions to suit whatever the needs of the moment may require.
For instance, during Ignatieff’s long sojourn as a rising academic star in Great Britain, he clearly identified himself as British. Writing in the New Republic in May 1992, for example, Ignatieff used the “we” form to talk about Britain’s general election that spring: “It is a moment when we learn the truth – sometimes bitter – about who we are,” he wrote, probably not imagining how personally relevant that statement might be.
Unfortunately, it was not a moment when we learned the truth about who Ignatieff imagines himself to be.
A decade later, after a move across the Atlantic to a prestigious post as director of Harvard University’s Carr Center of Human Rights Policy, he shape-shifted into a new identity, this time into a pugnacious cheerleader for the Bush administration’s military imperialism. But in so doing, did he now imagine himself to actually be an American?
An article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine on May 2, 2004, again it concerned an election, participation in which is the most telling barometer of national inclusion. Ignatieff was imagining the effect on American democracy in the event of another terrorist attack. Now, however, Ignatieff was referring to himself as an American: “We can confidently expect that terrorists will attempt to tamper with our election in November,” he wrote.
It might be churlish to ask, but I am terribly curious: Did Ignatieff vote in Britain’s general election of 1992? Or, a dozen years later, did he cast a ballot for either John Kerry or George W. Bush in “our” presidential contest of 2004? Doing so would imply easy and frequent citizenship changes for the Canadian-born and -raised academic-turned-politician.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in that, even if it were true. But the last example was barely a year before he returned to Canada to accept the Liberal offer of a safe Toronto seat in Parliament and his subsequent candidacy to replace Paul Martin as Liberal leader. Ignatieff now aspires to lead a nation that he has more than once camouflaged his membership in as a citizen. I think that detail is offensive, and revealing of his very casual relationship with truth.
Ignatieff made his reputation by analyzing and writing about national identity. This fact should be central to how he views and works through vital national issues; something to consider when it comes time to assess whether he should be trusted with the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.
In his seminal and influential book of the early 1990s, Blood and Belonging, Ignatieff bemoaned the rise of ethnic nationalism and the apparent failure of the secular, democratic nation state. In it, he devoted a section to Quebec separatism and the competing struggle of the Cree for national identity and control over territory and resources.
But the political lessons he drew from the effort have not stood the test of time. In his first, unsuccessful, quest for the Liberal leadership, Ignatieff performed a political pirouette by proposing constitutional recognition for the Quebec nation, a concept he had scathingly rejected when he didn’t need the votes of Quebec leadership delegates.
His partisans might dismiss all this as parsing of texts. We know that there are teams of tiny Tories poring over anything and everything the incredibly productive public intellectual has published in a fevered search for material that may now prove politically embarrassing. On a political level, though, it’s fair game; the Liberals rightly conducted the same exercise against Stephen Harper, who once flirted with Alberta separatism.
People are allowed to change positions, especially as times and facts evolve. Where Ignatieff is concerned, however, one can never really find his solid, bedrock principles. There’s no “there” there.
His decision to deep-six the political coalition that former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion negotiated with the NDP in order to deliver Canada from the erratic and vindictive Conservative regime was quite obviously a political calculation. But that meant supporting a Tory budget that was intentionally offensive to a long list of supposedly solid Liberal policy positions, from the Charter right to freedom of association to keeping political or religious prejudice from influencing how or if we fund vital scientific research.
And on the most important issues of the day: pre-emptive war, the invasion of Iraq, state-sanctioned torture, climate change, or, closer to home, Quebec nationalism, Ignatieff will not stand still. Any possibly problematic position he once maintained is easily jettisoned or morphed into a shapeless form of politically acceptable but meaningless pap.
And so, we (meaning Canadians, by the way) have the right to ask: where does the shape-shifting end and the real Michael Ignatieff begin?