Here’s my problem with Michael Ignatieff, who’s had a spot of bother parachuting into a Toronto riding as the Liberal candidate. He has the kind of profile — public intellectual, academic, author — that’s supposed to “speak truth to power,” a stirring phrase that began among Quakers. I find that he more often tends to speak power to truth. Here’s what I mean.

It’s not so much calling himself an American (lots of “we” and “us” in articles) though he grew up here and lived as an adult in the United Kingdom. And it can get odd: “Between 1917 and 1920, we [i.e., Americans] did ourselves plenty of harm” — at a time he wasn’t born and his dad was a Russian émigré of noble family who fled to Canada. It’s more that he flatters the U.S. self-image instead of confronting it. So he asks if “in becoming an empire it [the U.S.] risks losing its soul as a republic.” I don’t think Americans need encouragement in self-dramatization and taking themselves seriously.

He tends to accept U.S. claims at face value. George W. Bush “risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right” about spreading democracy around the world. And “the promotion of democracy by the United States has proved to be a dependably good idea.” Look, every empire says its motives are noble (the British “white man’s burden,” the French mission civilisatrice). It must be checked against the facts. Maybe Afghanistan and Iraq are cases of democratic advance, but think of others where the Americans helped overthrow democracy: Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, Haiti twice in the past 10 years.

I’m not America-bashing. I’m saying the record shows that the United States follows its national interest, full stop, in imposing or demolishing democratic regimes. But taking that evidence and suppressing or bending it to reflect the agenda of those in power is what I mean by speaking power to the truth of the facts.

Michael Ignatieff says “the U.S. cannot rebuild each failed state.” But it was intervention by the U.S. (and Soviets) that caused Afghanistan to descend into so failed a state. They weren’t innocent, well-meaning bystanders. This, too, is speaking power to truth — by overriding facts that make up the truth of the situation. He tends to accept the main premises of U.S. policy and propaganda, then quibble over details. That’s not speaking truth to power, it’s whispering mild disagreement in the corridors while never really challenging.

So he endorses “preventive war” as part of the “war on terror,” then supports invading Iraq in that context. Yet he never asks whether a literal war makes sense in response to a problem like terror. It’s the way adults present troublesome kids with two choices, making sure they obey at least one. Similarly, he assumes that democracy means what U.S. policy says it means: elections, free markets etc. So the matter of whether it is stupid nonsense to “impose” a democracy at all doesn’t arise.

Of course, you need massive power to even bother your head with elegant dilemmas of whether you should inflict freedom on others. Haiti wouldn’t fuss about whether to spread democracy to the U.S., even if it felt elections there were as badly flawed as the Americans claim they are in Haiti. Our candidate says, “America has power and should use it,” responsibly, one assumes, like Spider-Man. Yet he sounds to me a bit delighted by power and its proximity. Intellectuals can do that, too: speak power as truth.

He also tells us “interventions are popular” in the U.S. without explaining why. But they have been made popular, often, by the propagandists of the time. “You provide the pictures,” William Randolph Hearst told his artist reporter in Cuba in 1897, “and I’ll provide the war.” Pictures, lectures, whatever.

I think the moment a person enters politics, the realm of power proper, is an apt time to examine his attitudes to power. Michael Ignatieff has often presented himself as a gadfly and a leftist (I do have trouble with leftists who need to keep reminding you how left they are). Yet here he’s managed to emerge on the right of a party that is famously, cravenly centrist. A neat party trick, you could say.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.