Monday, August 28, 2006

Iggy, Philosopher King

The Globe has a really, really great profile of Michael Ignatieff online at the moment. It illustrates quite a bit of why he is the Liberal leadership frontrunner, perhaps as much as anything because no one seems capable of not talking about him. The article’s great. If you don’t have the time, here are my thoughts.

Ignatieff is the product of elevated status, both politically and intellectually. On his father’s side, he is two generations shy of Russian aristocracy, were it not for the Bolsheviks. On his mother’s side, he is descended from homegrown Canadian intellectuals. His blind, potentially amoral political ambition is as much a commonality with Nixon as with Trudeau.

As a political aristocrat in a fairly classical sense, however, he reminds me as much as anything of a would-be philosopher king. I spend too much of yesterday (for unrelated reasons) picking through Plato’s Republic. Might just be my immersion in both this and the Globe piece at the same time, but the similarity is striking. The impulse to intellectual leadership, the high-mindedness, the remarkably well-rounded education away from home, the dispassionate willingness to judge and praise or condemn—all of these either implicitly or explicitly typify Plato’s ideal ruler.

Regardless of what you think of Plato’s political scheme (I doubt anyone much takes it seriously these days), what’s interesting about the comparison is where it doesn’t measure up. The biographical cracks in Ignatieff include a cold aloofness, a palpable personal ambition, and an all too visible history of ruthlessness. Quite a bit of this is apparently typified in his poor treatment of his younger brother (the first to bear the nickname Iggy) as a child. His disowned his brother at boarding school and, later, wrote him entirely out of a magazine article about their family.

All this is belied by a social conscience—Ignatieff volunteered for years at a Massachusetts prison while completing a doctorate at Harvard. After a prison riot, he and a group of students he recruited volunteered to serve as civilian buffers between inmates and guards. Even here he seems to have been deeply single-minded, immersing himself completely in the project and volunteering to serve himself in the maximum security wing, containing the most dangerous offenders.

No one questions Ignatieff’s general brilliance or breadth of achievement. Never mind that he’s the only candidate to be a journalist, novelist, academic and filmmaker—he’d likely be the only Prime Minister to be all of these. His intellectual achievements might well outstrip Trudeau. His political waverings can largely be couched as an innate moral-political ambivalence. This is something with which I sympathize, frankly, and that I admire as a quality in a policymaker. I also share his preference for liberalism over socialism.

Nonetheless, for all his pragmatism and ambivalence, Ignatieff show a propensity for grand, extreme policies (like the war in Iraq) that is just plain dangerous. This is the worst of Trudeau, a temptation toward high-minded solutions without thought for their consequences. The careers of idealistic leaders tend to go either very well or very badly. Were Canada in crisis this might be a risk worth signing on for, but it isn’t— actually, it’s in great shape, by and large. Even as foreign policy stagnates and corruption appears at the top, what is wrong is that things are right. Things stay the same because we don’t have much we need to change. Caretaker Liberal governments resulted from a period of largely successful reform under Trudeau. The current Tory hiatus, if it is one, will likely give way to more of the same. At least, it should. Ignatieff represents something altogether different: the radical intellectualization and personalization of Canadian politics. This is something we can do without.

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