What we've learned from Michael Ignatieff's political interlude

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Now that he's headed back to Harvard full time, it's too easy to say Michael Ignatieff really was "just visiting," although he was. There must be something more to learn from that weird political interlude in his life and ours. Let's consider the denouement: the time since his party's 2011 defeat.

  • Indecent haste. It took about a day after his loss as Liberal leader in 2011 to "land on his feet," at U of T. He made a call to the well-connected Rob Prichard, who made some calls and Bob (not Rae)'s your uncle. Even if he had the teaching gig sewn up and needed reassurance, he could've postponed the announcement. It's not like the country was winced up worrying about his future, though he could've expended some worry on them. He voiced no concern for the 60 per cent of Canadians who voted against the Tory agenda they got, though he said sorry to some Liberal MPs who got blown away.
  • The inevitable book. I don't understand the haste here either. Fire and Ashes was published just over a year after the defeat. Shouldn't you take time to absorb and process something worth writing a book on? It's not enough to have been there, you have to have really been there.

He says "defeat invalidated me as a politician but also as a writer . . . " Then wouldn't you consider not leaping back into print immediately? Painter Gary Indiana recently wrote that William Burroughs was "among the last American novelists to have lived an entire, real life before becoming a writer." There's something to be said for experience that wasn't always already material. Compare another Liberal leader: Kathleen Wynne. She had a ton of real life experience coming out, while trying to hold together relations with her kids and her ex. That was all before she got into politics and she still hasn't done the book or, perhaps, even considered it.

  • Premature resolution. Ignatieff tells us he realizes it was all a mistake and he's guilty of "hubris." But he offers no exploration of that and much evidence of ongoing hubris. Why not make a career change, at least for awhile? Take time off and do some pondering. I'm a lifelong Robert Frost reader but the criticism that sticks most to him is that he resolved some of his deepest pain a bit too easily in some of the poems. I'm also a big fan of pop songs that have "all right" in them: Randy Newman's "It's all right now, never thought I'd make it, but I always do somehow"; Dylan's "Don't think twice it's all right"; Bob Marley's "Every little thing's gonna be all right"; Barenaked Ladies' "The odds are that we will probably be all right." Those already have credibility because they don't overclaim: they're all right, not great. Be wary of too easily overcoming.
  • Intellectual mastery. At Harvard, Ignatieff will teach Responsibility and Representation: Meeting the Demands of Political Life. Hm. Sounds like, not having done, you teach -- a phrase I loathe. But it makes you think about intellectuals, especially the professor versions.

Most academics put on their pants one leg at a time like the rest of us, and after listing their credentials or the "model" they're employing, they basically tell you what they think the way your uncle Harry or your cabdriver does, with about as much chance of being right. They do have degrees but you can get those from the Wizard, if you make it to Oz. There are certainly people of deep wisdom and insight in the academy, as anyone who's taken a great course knows. But others talk for the same reason the guy on the stool in the sports bar does: to master reality, conquer fear, win respect, make it through the night -- it's often just a matter of what tactic you use; in the universities, it's verbal and mental.

I've been writing on Ignatieff for almost 20 years, since well before this latest phase. Maybe some of it springs from identification, including the Russian background, though my great-grandparents kept a saloon in Vitebsk, they weren't of the white nobility. I sincerely hope this is the last time but, honestly, I doubt it.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star

Photo: flickr/Dave Chan

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