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The Tories’ New Attack Ads Are Full of Sound and Fury, but Might Just Signify Something

May 21, 2009

Just when I thought the verdict was basically unanimous regarding the Tories’ new crass, stupid, mean-spirited attack ads about Michael Ignatieff, I’ve come across someone who actually claims to like them, namely Steve Janke who blogs over at Angry in the Great White North. Worse yet, I think he might have a point.

First, however, it bears pointing out (again) that the ads are crass, stupid, and – what was it? Oh, yes, mean-spirited. One of them, so help me, is an attack ad that attacks Michael Ignatieff for running too many attack ads. Since this has to be seen to be believed, I offer a viewing here:

So what does Steve Janke like about the ads? Well, apparently they demonstrate that “Michael Ignatieff treats citizenship as some sort of trivial contrivance to be used to influence lesser minds”. That’s a histrionic way of putting it, but it’s clear what he means. The ignatieff.me website that goes with the ads, in particular, does raise some worthwhile questions about the chronically absent Ignatieff’s commitment to Canada.

Considering that I live in China and spent several years as a graduate student in America before moving to Beijing, I can hardly fault Ignatieff simply for spending a lot of time in the US and the UK. I really wouldn’t want to anyway. An expatriate can’t maintain the same day-to-day intimacy with his homeland as someone who actually lives there, but patriotism and commitment can extend across the miles.

However, that’s exactly where Ignatieff seems to have come up short, especially during his time in America. Would a man who thought of himself as Canadian really have said “it’s your country just as much as it is mine” (ignatieff.me mixes up the quote a bit, but that’s beside the point) to a US television audience? Janke has another, similar example, and goes so far as to accuse Ignatieff of having an entire “’we Americans’ schtick”.

It’s not that I regard Ignatieff as some kind of crypto-American. Rather, he comes across as such a committed internationalist that he really does, as Janke puts it, see citizenship as something close to a “trivial contrivance”. He devoted much of the first chapter of his book The Warrior’s Honor to talking up “moral universalism” as opposed to “the intuition that kith and kin have a moral priority over strangers”. By the end, he was awfully close to endorsing a Joycean desire to “fly free of the nets of nationality, religion and language”. That’s fine for a certain type of writer, but I want my prime minister to have a bit of respect for the “net” of nationality, and to afford considerable “moral priority” to Canada and its allies.

To be fair, The Warrior’s Honor appeared in 1997. Ignatieff’s most recent book is called True Patriot Love. Has he experienced some kind of change of heart since returning to Canada? Quite possibly, but I don’t think the Tories are wrong to ask Canadians to be skeptical.

Corwin

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob Taylor permalink
    May 22, 2009 12:37 pm

    But what makes up the “exclusive bond” between the Canadian state and its people? Not a common ethnic identity or history, like many states. Instead a series of values and beliefs about the nature of the ideal society, many of which centre – I would contend – on ideas of inclusiveness and compassion.

    If giving “considerable moral priority” to Canada contradicts those central, foundational values and leads to selfish or violent policies (like our current “we’ll lower our carbon emissions when China does” rhetoric), doesn’t that lead to the question “why have a country at all?”

    I would contend that an emphasis on “moral universalism” in a world full of states obsessed with their personal “moral priority” is, in fact, what makes it vital that a country like Canada exists.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 24, 2009 12:16 pm

      But what makes up the “exclusive bond” between the Canadian state and its people? Not a common ethnic identity or history, like many states. Instead a series of values and beliefs about the nature of the ideal society, many of which centre – I would contend – on ideas of inclusiveness and compassion.

      Well, maybe. I think the “bond” is fundamentally a social contract – the state promises protection and support in exchange for the loyalty of the citizens. However, I agree that this is reinforced by shared ideas about the kind of society we want to live in (not necessarily of the “ideal society”, if indeed there is such a thing). Cultural norms can also act as “reinforcers”, and I would argue that this is also true of ethnicity and shared history, at least for the British and French Canadians among us.

      If giving “considerable moral priority” to Canada contradicts those central, foundational values and leads to selfish or violent policies (like our current “we’ll lower our carbon emissions when China does” rhetoric), doesn’t that lead to the question “why have a country at all?”

      I think a modest amount of selfishness is healthy for either an individual or a country, as long as one doesn’t push it towards Randian extremes. Helpfulness towards others is a positive trait, but complete neglect of one’s own interests is for saints and the mad (overlapping categories, of course). With that said, I think it is in our interests to push ahead with carbon reduction whatever China might do, but that’s a separate discussion.

      I would contend that an emphasis on “moral universalism” in a world full of states obsessed with their personal “moral priority” is, in fact, what makes it vital that a country like Canada exists.

      Yes, but how much emphasis? All I’m suggesting is that there’s a need for balance between doing what’s best for the world in general and doing what’s best for Canada (and its close allies) specifically.

  2. May 22, 2009 9:16 am

    I grew up as a Canadian reading Ignatieff, watching Ignatieff and debating Ignatieff (or at least until he started to talk about Iraq and then I went through a period of being turned off by Ignatieff). He certainly wasn’t the only Canadian intellectual that I read or discussed over the dinner table, but even from his various international perches he seemed to infiltrate my life. One of the most interesting moments was during the lead up to the unfortunate referendum we held in BC on aboriginal issues. Although he didn’t live in Canada, he traveled to the west coast to warn British Columbians of the potentially destructive and myopic thinking behind such a referendum. The idea that he was absent for 34 years is absurd – his was not a distant relationship with his native country.

    I find it odd that a country with a population that is so globally connected can look on people who live and work in the international arena as liabilities. I don’t know how I feel about Ignatieff or the Liberal Party, but I value people who have experienced the world, who have tried to come to terms with its complexities, and who have developed vast and deep networks with other communities and who can confidently say where they belong. For me, Ignatieff has brought Canada to the international stage and in turn, brought the international community to Canada – with all its bumps and warts.

    I haven’t read enough about Ignatieff’s concept of citizenship to adequately respond to the points your are raising, but from my experiences with Canada’s World, I know Canadians are hungry for a dialogue about what it means to be Canadians. And I’m fairly sure, based on our own research, that we’re more globally oriented than the Conservative Party might think.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 22, 2009 12:34 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I had no idea about Ignatieff’s involvement in the aboriginal referendum – that’s interesting.

      I find it odd that a country with a population that is so globally connected can look on people who live and work in the international arena as liabilities.

      Yes, I know what you mean, and I basically agree with your perspective. Canada needs more people who are willing and able to get out there in the world and engage with it on friendly, open-minded terms. If nothing else, I’m constantly struck by how low Canada’s international profile really is these days. It’s a situation we need to rectify.

      …I know Canadians are hungry for a dialogue about what it means to be Canadians. And I’m fairly sure, based on our own research, that we’re more globally oriented than the Conservative Party might think.

      Being globally orientated is great, but that doesn’t mean we should lose sight of our own identity and our own priorities. Liking and learning from a foreign country is one thing, but coming to identify with it and make it the centrepiece of one’s worldview is another.

      If that sounds like an exaggeration in the case of Ignatieff, try reading this speech, especially the second half. I lived in America for seven years myself, and I never would have spoken to an American audience in anything like those terms. Is it too much to suggest that Ignatieff owes us one hell of an explanation?

  3. May 21, 2009 10:57 pm

    The Tory ads may raise “legitimate” questions. However, I believe you are too quick to dismiss that, in fact, Ignatieff may be able to offer “legitimate” answers. For my part, I will be watching his deeds in the coming months before I make up my mind. Whereas Tory “deeds done dirt cheap” are well known to me – I’m willing to reserve judgment on Iggy for now.

    Iggy need not embark on a shameless “I am Canadian!” beer ad tour to refute these Tory insinuations – he merely needs to demonstrate he is committed to our collective national welfare. Should he manage to do this, then I say, he will have proved HE’S CANADIAN ENOUGH FOR ME!

    As far as I am concerned, the other guy (i.e. Harpo) has consistently demonstrated a penchant for placing his ideology above his country… so really, what do we have to lose by waiting to see Iggy’s true colours? In my estimation, not much.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 22, 2009 12:17 pm

      I’m not at all dismissive of the possibility that Ignatieff might have legitimate answers, and in fact I hope they’ll be forthcoming. But until they are, Canadians shouldn’t let the questions drop.

      I agree with you about the undesirability of a beer ad tour, and about Harper’s unfortunate ideological streak (not to mention the seemingly instinctive bullying, belligerence, and control freakery). In many respects Ignatieff is so obviously the better leader. So yes, let’s reserve judgement, and I really didn’t mean to imply that I was advocating anything else.

  4. Rob Taylor permalink
    May 21, 2009 12:53 pm

    Why do you want a Prime Minister who “afford[s] considerable “moral priority”” to his home country?

    Isn’t this a big part of why the world is a bloody mess? Why wars start? Why CO2 emissions aren’t held in check? Why there is incredible economic inequality in the world?

    Isn’t an increase in “moral universalism” what most of us are hoping for these days?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 22, 2009 12:10 pm

      I really did mean “considerable moral priority”, not “absolute moral priority”. All I’m saying is that Canada should aim for a position somewhere between the logical extremes of giving outsiders no consideration at all and giving them precisely the same level of consideration as Canadian citizens.

      I can’t recall ever hearing anyone advocate a position remotely approaching the first extreme, but Ignatieff (like many other people in public life) often seems to at least flirt with the second. And if we’re going to move into that territory – if we’re going to jettison any sense of a special, exclusive bond between the nation and its people – then why have a country at all?

      • Rob Taylor permalink
        May 22, 2009 12:38 pm

        But what makes up the “exclusive bond” between the Canadian state and its people? Not a common ethnic identity or history, like many states. Instead a series of values and beliefs about the nature of the ideal society, many of which centre – I would contend – on ideas of inclusiveness and compassion.

        If giving “considerable moral priority” to Canada contradicts those central, foundational values and leads to selfish or violent policies (like our current “we’ll lower our carbon emissions when China does” rhetoric), doesn’t that lead to the question “why have a country at all?”

        I would contend that an emphasis on “moral universalism” in a world full of states obsessed with their personal “moral priority” is, in fact, what makes it vital that a country like Canada exists.

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