Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.
Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013.
Tom Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age.
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 2014.
Michael Ignatieff (PhD history, Harvard), and Tom Flanagan (PhD political science, Duke) are intellectuals who entered the Canadian political arena, paid the price, and lived to tell the tale – in the form of these two books. Writing books is what intellectuals do, and they know what they are getting into, but as evidenced by these books they can be unprepared for what awaits them in – or after leaving – the political arena. As a PhD who also dabbled in (Quebec) politics, these books have a particular resonance for me.
Clearly Flanagan’s and Ignatieff’s experiences are not comparable. Tom Flanagan was apparently quite satisfied with the job he had done when in 2005, after five years, he left the Stephen Harper team, having served as chief of staff among other top positions. (He returned briefly to work in the party’s war room during the 2005–06 campaign.) He explains the prevailing attitude at the time: “When the Liberals seemed to be in power forever, Conservatives concluded that part of their secret of success was ruthlessness … We concluded that we would have to beat them at their own game, and we did. Harper led the way.”
He was nevertheless unprepared, seven years later, for the reactions of his erstwhile colleagues to “the incident” (see box). Back at the University of Calgary, and despite acting at the time as unpaid adviser to Alberta’s Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith, Flanagan the public intellectual complains bitterly that, in effect, he was treated as a politician and not the academic he now was. It is from this standpoint that he uses his own experience to expand on what he sees as a wider phenomenon, one that threatens academic freedom. Much of his discussion of the threat to academic freedom is quite persuasive, though its academic tone makes it less than compelling reading for a wider public.
This cannot be said about Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes. Its author is a fine writer. Ignatieff too reflects on his experience, but this is not a dispassionate analysis. Rather, it is the expression of the still raw feelings of a modern Icarus who fell abruptly to earth after flying too close to the sun of political power. A public intellectual who had never been a politician, a Canadian who hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years, Ignatieff let himself be convinced that he could be prime minister. He attributes his failure to his being unprepared for the reality of contemporary Canadian politics, in part because it had moved to the right during his absence, but mainly because it had sunk, under Harper, to a level of nasty partisanship that he was unequipped to play.
In aspiring to the Liberal leadership, he took as his model Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the last successful intellectual in Canadian politics, for whom he had volunteered as a student before leaving for Britain and the United States. But one sometimes feels that his model Liberal leader is the flower-power Trudeau of 1968, not the cynical bait-and-switch politician on wage and price controls that Trudeau had become by the mid-1970s – let alone his successor Jean Chrétien.
The book is almost entirely about Ignatieff’s five-year political career: his arrival in 2006 (just as Tom Flanagan was leaving Ottawa), winning nomination and then election as a Toronto-area MP, being chosen party leader in 2008 and, finally, ignominious defeat (third place) in the 2011 election. It reads well: even though some passages are clearly warmed over political speeches, they fit this essentially political book. His final message is to aspiring (Liberal) political activists: his failure doesn’t mean the Conservatives cannot be successfully opposed. It takes someone tougher and, clearly, more experienced than he was. One wonders, if he were to write about Canada again, whether he would entertain the possibility that Tom Mulcair, rather the Justin Trudeau, might be such a person.
Flanagan’s Persona Non Grata begins by describing and analyzing “the incident” in depth from different angles, and then contemplates its wider implications. There is a long and quite academic chapter on the child pornography debate and another, citing Machiavelli and Aristotle, on how academic freedom is essential for postsecondary teaching. Ignatieff, for his part, explicitly draws on the stories of great intellectuals who were failed politicians: Machiavelli, Mill, Tocqueville and Weber.
The crucial aspect that Flanagan gets right concerns how political correctness in the public sphere, on the right as well as on the left, combined with the internet-based 24-hour news cycle threatens public discourse and even academic freedom. His dissection of the absence of genuine discussion about policy on child porn is telling.
When it comes to the underside of politics, for which he was clearly unprepared, Ignatieff is the more compelling. Perhaps he expected that Stephen Harper would treat him as the gentlemanly Robert Stanfield treated Pierre Trudeau. If so, he was seriously misguided. With Harper there was no question of fair play. From the day he arrived, Ignatieff was targeted by the Tories. “Just Visiting” was the label they stuck on him. The effect was, as he put it, that he never gained “standing,” and looking back, he admits that the enterprise was doomed from the outset.
The book describes the sad state of the Liberal Party, still weighed down by the sponsorship scandal, upon his arrival. It takes us from the end of the Martin era through the brief Dion period – with the backroom “men in black” all the while preparing Ignatieff for his role as saviour. There are a few highs among the lows. There is his winning the nomination in his Toronto riding, despite his gaffes due to his not understanding that the very words chosen on seemingly distant matters of foreign policy – his area of expertise – could easily offend a local ethnic group.
There is the short, happy period when he wins the leadership over his old and now former friend Bob Rae. But such interludes are short-lived. Ignatieff recounts his frustrations as Leader of the Opposition facing a Conservative minority determined to use any tactics that would undermine his credibility, and then the disastrous 2011 campaign, in which the Liberals suffered a terrible defeat, losing more than half their seats including his own. He reflects on this disaster with little self-pity, acknowledging that what he ended up doing was preaching to the converted. He mistook the reception from the crowds that turned out to hear him as an indication that his message was being heard. In fact, the people he needed to reach had stopped listening long before.
Ignatieff does a good job of explaining why partisanship is an indispensable element of democratic politics, and why ordinary citizens see it as poisonous. He concludes with a call for civility, complaining that his opponents treated him not as an adversary but as the enemy. While he does describe how partisanship made it necessary to compromise his principles, he ignores the wider question of whether an intellectual is suited for partisan politics in the first place.
Both Ignatieff and Flanagan are public intellectuals. This means, first, that they are trained academics who are willing to address issues of the day beyond the walls of the academy. But as intellectuals they assume a willingness – indeed an insistence – on uncovering and disseminating the truth however unpopular it might be. In other words it means being ready, able and willing to be “politically incorrect.” I am not here criticizing Ignatieff or Flanagan the politician, since politicians – as politicians – are not obliged to risk politically incorrect stands, though I would add that this is what makes intellectuals turned politicians like Ignatieff – or his predecessor Dion – less credible, and less effective, when uttering the required partisan pronouncements.
But Ignatieff is no longer a politician. Like Flanagan, he has returned to being an intellectual, and his book must ultimately be judged on this basis. Both had taken “politically incorrect” stances in their previous writings. In Persona non Grata Flanagan continues to take the critical intellectual route. But not Ignatieff. The problem is not so much his writing as a Liberal. Taking a partisan stand is not in itself incompatible with being an intellectual. It is the blind spot in his mea culpa that reveals him for the (failed) politician that he is.
Ignatieff the intellectual had learned that as a politician he had to censor himself for fear of offending various groups. And he continues to do this in Fire and Ashes when writing about the largest group of all: the Canadian voters, of whom we get a remarkably rosy portrait. Even though they were taken in by the dirty tricks of the Harperites, they are presented as invariably open, fair-minded and caring deeply about political issues. There is no hint of the electorate’s limited political knowledge or interest, and no suggestion that the process of appealing for their support was anything but uplifting.
In reality, intellectuals are uncomfortable with the oversimplification, the banality, of door-to-door campaigning. I can understand Ignatieff wanting to cast his meetings with voters and constituents as an antidote to the poison of parliamentary and party infighting, away from the constant pressure from the media. I can also understand his not wishing to encourage cynicism toward politics among his readers. But it’s hard not to blush at his serial romanticization of an electorate of which only 61 per cent even bothered to turn out to vote.
Flanagan, the political scientist, is clearly writing as an intellectual, having been ostracized, apparently only temporarily, from the public part of the role. In a sense he goes too far in that direction. The book delves deeply, indeed philosophically, into the various arguments surrounding relevant policy issues, especially child pornography, but does not devote sufficient attention to the political game itself. The political class is condemned or, in a few cases, commended for how it treated him during those difficult days. But insufficient time is spent dissecting their actions on the basis of his insider’s political knowledge and experience, beyond his admission in passing that he was himself insensitive to much of this when he was in his political role.
The contrast is stark. If Ignatieff had not really embarked on the transition back from politician to intellectual when writing Fire and Ashes, Flanagan faces the opposite problem in Persona Non Grata. Flanagan starts from the assumption that since he was back as a full-fledged intellectual, everyone else should have treated him as such. He does not ask whether the earlier Flanagan, the political animal, would have done the same if confronted with a similar situation. Since he justifies the tactics of the Harperites as beating the Chrétien Liberals at their own game, one can imagine that he would have condomed such treatment on the basis of political expediency. Though we can sympathize with his bitterness at the way he was treated by the political class, we would be more sympathetic if he had questioned his own role in establishing a climate among the Harper Conservatives in which adversaries are enemies and all is fair.
Like Ignatieff, Flanagan is highly critical of the media. It was in reaction to media reports of his taken-out-of-context statement about child pornography as a matter of taste that his erstwhile political colleagues acted. Faced with the immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle and social networks, which leave little room for fact-checking, they did not treat him as an academic. The issue was respect for academic freedom. But his reaction is also personal: he is especially hurt by his condemnation by Danielle Smith, refusing to accept the political necessity of her disassociating her party from him at that moment.
There is also a personal element in Flanagan’s lumping together a series of quite dissimilar incidents as reflecting the same tendency. While there is a good case for treating academic intellectuals differently from politicians, in his last chapter Flanagan extends his argument to Quebec politicians criticizing two news items. One was a Maclean’s cover story characterizing Quebec as the most corrupt province in Canada. The other was a 2006 Globe and Mail column that hypothesized that the murders of the 14 women at the École Polytechnique and the shootings at Dawson College and Concordia University were expressions of “alienation” from those not in the “pure laine” Quebec culture. I suspect that it is his own distaste for Quebec nationalism that leads Flanagan to undermine his own case by comparing respect for academic freedom with politicians taking issue with media reports. Surely he must have learned during his years as an insider that it is in the nature of politicians to criticize unflattering media portraits of their constituents – however accurate they may be.
Both these books are well worth reading, but both have their strong and weak points. There is still room for a more comprehensive analysis of what happens when intellectuals get involved in politics in Canada. Perhaps Stéphane Dion will one day take up the challenge.