21 May 2010

Michael Ignatieff: leadership potential in Canadian politics

Revised May 29, 2010
Updated June, 2012

It's astounding that Michael Ignatieff is being treated the way he is, when you look at all he has to offer.

In our society, continuity is seen as normal, and better than discontinuity or separation. The lengthy, continuous career is looked upon as a model for a good work history, while travelling and working in diverse occupations, and in more than one country, can be viewed as a sign of flightiness. In reality, this kind of life can make a person 'more of a Canadian,' (a term attributed to Ignatieff in recent news articles, and not kindly eg ‘Michael Ignatieff thinks,’ 2010), more understanding of different ways of living and working, more able to stand back and look at the entire picture, but it can be detrimental when one comes to trying for a new career in a country that doesn't understand this. Ignatieff was probably right when he said the Conservatives were "provincial" in their thinking - the Conservatives and many Canadians (Michael Ignatieff accuses Conservatives, 2010).

After all Ignatieff has done in his life - teaching, journalism, writing books, serving as professor at universities, he is sometimes criticized for not doing anything substantial, for not showing Canadians what he is all about. But isn't what it's all about is having the "trust and confidence" of the people, and "vision for Canada," as this article claims? Could the problem, in part, be the people working for the Liberals. See this, from the article, apparently a comment by "one senior insider" : “Ignatieff hasn’t unveiled any substance yet and until he does, he can’t move anywhere" (The pressure is on Ignatieff, 2010).

So now we're back to having to have something of substance to convince the people of Canada that Ignatieff would make a good leader, not just knowing that he is able to think, write, do the work, act with determination, and do all the things a leader must be able to do. He actually has to show proof, and not proof gained while working in other countries for non party-political jobs.

To say it's up to Ignatieff to stop the freefall, if that's what it is, is unfair (The pressure is on Ignatieff, 2010).  According to this article, "Mr. Ignatieff has already fired one group of top advisors yet his poll numbers are still dropping." He must wonder what is going on too.

He may be the best thing to happen for the Liberals, and our country, but if people can't change their perspective on his travels out of Canada and return to it, and all the qualities he has proven (though not to us), he may not ever get the chance to be PM.

Ignatieff is not only being blamed for the Liberal freefall, he's the one being forced to take responsibility for stopping it. I think that's not so. It's got to come from the people themselves. If, when one is absent, one takes the time to look at what is going on in Canada, one might see things about it that are truly disquieting. and so, I'm not sure this would make one a "better Canadian" (as Rex Murphy claims Ignatieff said), when being a good Canadian often seems to mean keeping quiet about the norms of our society and the injustices committed here.

In his May 29th column, Rex Murphy becomes rhetorical, saying, "We learn our country by living in it, by absorbing the flow of its events, by acquiring an emotional as well as an intellectual grasp of its rhythms and moods. We inhabit this country, and it returns the favour: It inhabits us" (Michael Ignatieff’s out-of-country, 2010).

In reality, the ideas expressed in this sentence are nonsense. Being that close to a country or a person can make us take its qualities for granted, so much so that people are often advised to take a break from it - a vacation or a separation, to reflect and enable rational thoughts to emerge, where once feelings guided all decisions. No one can know the entire country, or all its people. We all live in our own little worlds, sometimes of our own making, sometimes not. We latch onto pieces of it that we recognize as being 'ours', as Canadian. But most importantly, it is the leaving that enables a person to get a better picture of what is going on - and the returning that holds the promise of something better for the country.

Ignatieff's absence is no obstacle to his ability to do well at the job of PM. In fact, I know that staying away will have given him so much more. Besides having been able to look upon Canada from a distance, he has now undergone critique by his fellow Canadians, who seem unable to grasp the significance of his time abroad. I have said before that leaving and then returning does leave one out-of-touch with prices, and changes in laws, but a read-up of these is usually enough. Does one ever forget how to ride a bike?

Rex asks, "There is an essence to this country. What we have in common, the core, is that which enables the embrace of diversity in the first place. Mr. Ignatieff may understand some of this, but does he feel it? Does he perceive the strength and depth of the common endeavour which has been and is this country since its founding? "

Perhaps not, Rex. I don't feel it. Perhaps it takes something from one's countrymen, after having spent time away, before one can feel it again. Perhaps one does have to take some time going through the motions before people start to see how unjust their behaviour and criticism is.

Added June 2012

In ‘Beyond Workaday Worlds’ (2005) I draw on the work of Mary Catherine Bateson, who wrote:

“continuity is the exception in twentieth-century America, and that adjusting to discontinuity is not an idiosyncratic problem of my own but the emerging problem of our era...In may ways, constancy is an illusion” (Composing a life, 1989).

As I state in that essay under the subtitle Unity, Continuity, and Contradictions, “her aim was to make sense of interrupted and discontinuous lives of the “composite life,” illustrating the importance of responding to change and learning to adapt (p 7). To illustrate what I had discovered about work and about such concepts as continuity, as they apply to real life, I incorporated aspects from life stories of five individuals I had written following interviews and research.

More often than not, in the past, it was men who had the careers that established continuity for them, thus a form of respectability and earned trust, I imagine. In the fairly recent past, it was more often women whose careers lacked that kind of continuity, and not just over childbearing. In some ways, it seems as though this is what’s bothering some people about Michael Ignatieff, that he didn’t have a long continuous career, or keep his focus on politically-oriented positions, instead branching out to academia and tv broadcasting, for instance, thus must have the ‘stability’ factor lacking in his character, I believe they must think.

If so many really are against Ignatieff, then it may be that they hold old-fashioned ideas about work, as well as about what it means to be a Canadian. For his own thoughts on this, see the 2011 article ‘My name is Michael Ignatieff, and I am Canadian.’ As for Rex Murphy’s question, “Does he perceive the strength and depth of the common endeavour which has been and is this country since its founding?,” this is not the way our country is going. The common endeavor has been lost, as people with diverse backgrounds and goals vie for their own place in society and to have their own culture recognized. What chance is there of having that unity back now that Ignatieff has left? See Adrienne Redd’s informed perspective that acts as counterpoint to all those who have expressed doubts about Ignatieff’s ability (Ignatieff, the Best Prime Minister, 2011).

There is no 'essence' to this country, and demanding that a PM encompass traditional values of work and continuity, rather than travelling and working abroad at more than one occupation places a stifling limitation on what a prime minister can or should project to the people.

Michael Ignatieff is currently teaching at the University of Toronto.

Beyond Workaday Worlds: Aging, Identity, and the Life Cycle
By Sue McPherson

Composing a Life
By Mary Catherine Bateson
New York: Plume.

Ignatieff, the Best Prime Minister Canada Will Never Have
By Adrienne Redd
May 7, 2011

Michael Ignatieff accuses Conservatives of “divide in order to rule” politics

By Linda Diebel
Toronto Star
May 18, 2010

Michael Ignatieff thinks he's more Canadian than you are
By Matt Gurney
May 18, 2010
National Post

Michael Ignatieff’s out-of-country experience
By Rex Murphy
May 29, 2010
National Post

My name is Michael Ignatieff, and I am Canadian
By Michael Ignatieff
Globe and Mail
June 29, 2011

The pressure is on Ignatieff to stop Liberal freefall
By John Ivison
National Post, Full comment
May 20, 2010

Links updated June, 2012

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