Michael Ignatieff receives a lesson in humility

Political reality has been giving Michael Ignatieff a lesson in humility, and he needed it.

This is a guy who's spent much time, since moving back from the U.S., telling us what kind of guy he is, as if we need to know. ("I made a very calculated decision that I am the guy I am.") He spent the 1990s with his career on a steep rise. He acquired a heady podium in The New York Times, became chair of Harvard's human-rights school and regularly explained reality to Michael Enright on CBC Radio.

The rise came in tandem with him providing human-rights arguments to justify traditional U.S. policies of attacking or invading weak countries for its own reasons, and because it could. New arguments were needed after the Cold War, and people like him supplied them. But he seemed to think his ideas caused those policies, rather than justifying predetermined actions. It's the intellectual equivalent of being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

Even when he apologized for something, like supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was half-hearted and self-congratulatory. He and George Bush had sincere, idealistic motives all the way; it just hadn't worked out.

Now he's on a get-to-know-the-leader bus, and the bus is in trouble. It broke down on Day 1. He handled that with aplomb and a witty crack about Stephen Harper's being seen sneaking off with oily hands. (Party leaders have support groups tasked with supplying witty cracks for such moments.) At the Calgary Stampede, he actually wore the cowboy hat better than Stephen Harper ever has. It seems to suit his lanky, as they say, frame, and self-image. It's also true he looked more like the Jack Palance villain in Shane than the Alan Ladd hero. Que sera, sera.

But humility won't come easy. The arrogance isn't just personal -- it's buttressed by arguments similar to those used to support U.S. wars. For instance, a recent book, Victors' Justice: From Nuremberg to Baghdad, by Italian academic Danilo Zolo, devotes a full chapter to refuting his case for imposing human rights on others by force. That case is based on a "negative" view of rights stated by Ignatieff mentor Isaiah Berlin. All you're "imposing" is the right not to be coerced and freely develop your own identity. What could be wrong? It's respectful, and applies universally. But Danilo Zolo says, behind it, lurks Western arrogance. It ignores, for instance, social or communal elements that may be basic to notions of personhood elsewhere.

Personally, I'd add that I'm not a moral relativist. I think there are universal values that many societies strive to reach. But it is arrogant to think any of them have come so far along that road that they have a right or, as Michael Ignatieff wrote, a responsibility to impose theirs on others. Not all versions are equal, but none has achieved a moral pre-eminence against which all others can be judged. Our own forms, for instance, of democracy, justice (as in the legal system) and economics are, let us say, works in progress. We'd better expend energy improving our own society than forcefully expanding to benighted others, whether they want it or not.

This imperial arrogance is tenacious in Michael Ignatieff and won't be easily subdued. It may underlie his inability so far to connect with Canadians. He doesn't just approve and defend the empire; he identifies, so that, among Americans, he speaks as "we." Even Stephen Harper, who seems to adore the U.S. with all his heart, relates as an admiring subordinate, not one of them.

Still, he might learn. It's hard to go into a Tim Hortons and not be intrigued by, say, the instant conviviality and life those places mystically engender. But are we really here to help re-educate the guy? Is that the point of our politics now? How altruistic can we get?


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