Saturday, June 20, 2009

Michael Ignatieff - The Pragmatic Scholar

Back on December 10th 2008 I wrote a short biographical piece on Michael Ignatieff under the title: Will Canadians Get Jiggy With Iggy. In that entry I offered up some basic background information on the new Liberal leader, and drew the conclusion that he would provide a much stiffer challenge to the Harper Conservatives. I also expressed the opinion that the new opposition leader had a pragmatic bent, saying:

My overall take on Michael Ignatieff is that he’s something of a pragmatist, which leads to inevitable contradictions.

If you've been following the goings on in Ottawa recently you have no doubt heard Mr. Ignatieff refer to himself using precisely that same term. Although I noted it early, this pragmatic approach, it is something I find curious for a scholar. When it comes to intellectuals with a central focus on social issues and politics, in my experience dogmatic views are far more common. In the political arena however being pragmatic can be both an asset and a curse.

What some call pragmatic, others call flip flopping. Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and even Stephen Harper could all lay claim to being pragmatic.

Trudeau ridiculed wage and price controls, then implemented them. Mulroney dismissed the notion of a free trade agreement with the United States before going ahead and negotiating one. Jean Chretien lambasted the GST during his first campaign as Liberal leader, then left it be after being elected, as Paul Martin used the revenues generated to slay the deficit beast. And finally Harper was adamant about leaving the tax status of income trusts alone, then gained power and made them subject to income tax.

In all of those cases it can easily be argued that pragmatism was the reason for changing course. Typically it all comes down to a matter of political allegiance. When a leader you favour says one thing and then does another, its because of shifting realities and a need to be realistic. If on the other hand it is a leader you dislike, then the change of course means that no promise is sacred, that no commitment can be trusted and relied upon.

So Iggy is pragmatic, but then so is Harper...and a slew of other successful politicians. It does give him a convenient out however, as in the most recent case of the ultimatum that wasn't. Michael wasn't caving on his threat to vote down the government, he was merely being pragmatic.

Which takes us to Mr. Ignatieff's careers in academia and journalism, his writing and broadcasting. I feel very secure in asserting that Canada has never had a politician with a C.V. as impressive as the Liberal leader's. With teaching posts at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard we are obviously looking at an individual who seeks the mountain tops in his chosen endeavours. Thus it should come as little surprise, that upon entering the political arena, he sought out the leadership of the Liberal party.

His scholarship led to an acclaimed career in journalism, and now he aspires to the pinnacle of Canadian political life, the keys to 24 Sussex. In a biographical piece published in the Globe and Mail it is reported that the final four words beside his graduation photo in the yearbook are: "Intention: journalism or politics." Intention has become reality.

But the reality of a politician is much harsher than the reality of a journalist or a professor. A writer can put down his or her thoughts, and back them up with ample research and footnotes. If someone disagrees they're welcome to publish competing ideas, or perhaps even engage in debate. But on the whole the discourse is incredibly dignified when compared to the blood and guts of a political scuffle.

Can Canada's pragmatic scholar excel in this arena? Will decades spent in the relatively antiseptic environments of journalism and higher education handicap this descendant of Russian aristocracy?

Pragmatism is all well and good, but in the heat of an election campaign the electorate will look for strength and conviction. Flip flopping is a common trait among successful leaders, but typically it is behaviour engaged in only after power is attained.

This is the one lesson that Michael, I believe, has yet to learn. Assuming he achieves his goal of leading the Liberal party back to the seat of government, he will then be able to veer away from previously asserted convictions and brush aside criticism by saying, "I'm a pragmatist". Until that time arrives however he would do best to state his convictions, lay out his courses of action...and stick to them. Successful leaders are often forgiven, aspirants on the other hand are judged more severely.

Good Luck.

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