The Métropolitain

The Ignatieff ascendancy

Par Beryl Wajsman le 18 d├ęcembre 2008

Many have speculated what a Michael Ignatieff Liberal Party will look like. With his ascendancy we will soon find out. After the turbulent events of the past few weeks this country needs what Harry Truman once called some “plain speaking”. Not just for the sake of Michael Ignatieff’s party but for the sake of conscience and for the sake of this country. Without fidelity to conscience, public men are of little use.

Ignatieff has written that he is driven by two convictions that propelled him into the public arena. The first is that liberalism, the liberalism of principle not of partisanship, is the last great hope of mankind. The second is that the modern Canadian experience, whose foundational organizing principle was the liberal spirit, is a light to the nations of the world. That Canadians are a people greater than the sum of our parts, and that at its best our public discourse can succeed without a descent to the lowest common denominator.

The public manifestation of that will be for Ignatieff to lead not merely to oppose but to propose. To propose policies that spring from the noblest principles of his liberal spirit. But for those policies to succeed, no matter how just, the means of their propagation must be as legitimate and authentic as the ends they seek to achieve. And when those means are compromised - when those very principles are perverted - merely to satisfy an avarice for power, the time comes for conscience to oppose.

A first step, if Ignatieff will be true to his words, must be a break with the coalition of connivance. However legitimate are the political underpinnings of the NDP, they are not liberal. And common cause would be submission to the stiffest of ideological constraints. The chasm is too wide. The cost to the liberal conscience far too dear.

The implication of the Bloc Quebecois in this coalition is more troubling still. Though they may not be formal members, they will have a defacto veto over the governance of this land for eighteen months. It is a prescription for chaos. But more than that, the principles of the Bloc are those which Ignatieff has rejected from the depth of his being. They are the politics of, in Ignatieff’s own words, “blood and belonging”. For his party, the party of Laurier and Trudeau, and now Ignatieff -to be dependent on the support of those who seek the dismemberment of this nation is a perversion of all that Liberals and liberalism held to be true and right.

Michael Ignatieff will do this land a great service by having the courage to disavow the coalition and to boldly begin anew.

But in examining the aspirations and expectations of Michael Ignatieff there is room for optimism. In what he has written of his concept of a social contract, he may very well raise, to use his words, “the better angels of our nature.”

It is a notable coincidence that Ignatieff was confirmed by the Liberal caucus as leader on Dec.10th. That day marked the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Ignatieff moved into elective politics from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights.  Indeed, he has been privileged to have engaged the world from a unique perspective. He has studied those philosophical and political forces which have forged good, and those which have caused harm. He has witnessed those national experiments that have elevated and gentled the human condition, and has seen those which have wrought nothing more than division, discord and death. He has walked with the victims of the latter, and has advised the leaders of the former.

But I would suggest that for Ignatieff, human rights are not merely lofty theories penned by international  legal scholars and diplomats. The “Rights Revolution” , as he termed it in his 2000 Massey Lectures, is not just an agenda for emerging  democracies abroad to emulate, but a goal for mature democracies at home to perfect. To “get it right” as he would say. To perfect the balance between rights and responsibilities. To understand what comprises the modern social contract between governors and governed.

To comprehend Michael Ignatieff’s position on the world’s existential struggle between pluralistic liberty and theocratic tyranny it is critical to examine “The Lesser Evil”. And much attention has appropriately been focused on it. But the year after that book was published, Ignatieff authored a lengthy piece in The New York Times Magazine called “The Broken Contract”. Its words could hold the key to Robert Fulford’s challenge that, “If Ignatieff chooses to deploy his talent he will be the most articulate Canadian public figure of his era.”

On its face, “The Broken Contract” was a critique of the American government’s response to the needs of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He criticized slow moving bureaucracy, unfeeling officials and outdated institutions. But the heart of “The Broken Contract” evidences what Ignatieff feels are a nation’s responsibilities to its people. And when taken with his words from “The Rights Revolution”, proposes as compelling an approach to our current social ills as “The Lesser Evil” and “Blood and Belonging” did in analyzing our modern international challenges.

In “The Broken Contract” Ignatieff crystallized the minimal duties owed by government.  And he did it in a personal and poignant manner. In the centerpiece of his argument he quoted the plaintive cry of a displaced black woman. “We are Americans!” she shouted. Americans are not supposed to be treated this way. No one is. We must do better. More is expected.

Ignatieff goes on to write some of the most stirring words I have read in a long time. “That single sentence was a lesson in political obligation. Citizenship ties are not humanitarian, abstract or discretionary. They are not ties of charity. ... a citizen has a claim of right on the resources of government when she cannot - simply cannot - help herself.”

That woman’s cry was message and metaphor for many facing abuse and neglect. What is important in the attention Ignatieff gave it was that it demonstrated his capacity to viscerally identify with victims. To understand that the disenfranchised are no less human and the unempowered no less worthy of our compassion.

 In Canada one can easily echo it. “We are Canadians!”.  The message is that in a mature, wealthy democracy better is expected. Better rule and regulation that do not compromise individual consequence. Better protection of minorities’ civil rights. Better health care where the wait for treatment will not be as fatal as the malady. Better attention to the political and distributive problems we still face in a rich land with only a thin veneer of affluence.

In examining the response to Katrina, Ignatieff demonstrates his understanding that our political systems fail our most vulnerable too often and too spectacularly.  Not from want of resources or logistics, but from what he terms “ lack of will.”  Ignatieff argued against the sentimentality that leads too many to look at things through rose-colored glasses.   “Let us not be sentimental,” he wrote, “the poor and dispossessed… cannot afford to be sentimental. They know they live in an unjust and unfair society. There are inequalities that people endure, and there are inequalities that enrage. When government failed so dismally…it was no longer possible to believe in the contract that binds…”

“The contract that binds”.  How long has it been in Canadian political discourse that someone  recognized  that social contracts are not static and must be renewed time and again. It has been a long time since this country has had an exponent of liberalism as a two-way street instead of a one-way dictat.

Ignatieff summed it up succinctly, “The failures were not just failures of performance or anticipation. They were failures of political imagination.”

In his use of the word “imagination”, Ignatieff harkens back to his idea of the pursuit of justice being based on ”unique acts of the imagination” that he set out in “The Rights Revolution”.  He wrote, “The precondition for order in a liberal society is an act of the imagination: not a moral consensus or shared values, but the capacity to understand moral worlds different from our own. We may be different, but we can imagine what it would be like to be each other. How do we generate a world in common? We take actual human individuals …and we imagine them as equal bearers of rights…a moral fiction. Yet it is this fiction, and our devotion to it, that enables us to be just. The entire legitimacy of public institutions depends on our being attentive to difference while treating all as equal. This is the gamble, the unique act of the imagination on which our society rests. “ The gamble of empathy.

It may be argued that this “gamble” - the courage to take it and the passion to convince citizens of its worth – is the authentic conscience of the liberal ideal. Empathy, to Ignatieff, is the spark for bold political imagination to rise above brittle political will. For it is always opposed by those who  would leave inequities to be resolved by  private benevolence   In “The Broken Contract”  Ignatieff answered that argument in words that are  testament to our common humanity. “Private benevolence”, he wrote, “cannot heal the wounds of humiliation and abandonment caused by government failure. All lives are worth protecting …worth protecting at the highest standard.“

What strikes one about Ignatieff’s social vision is that it compels us to be mindful  that the just society which people of goodwill seek to build is predicated on a recognition of a claim of equal  opportunity on the stock of welfare of the land by all, and that this recognition has not yet found full expression in the social contract between our government and our people. Ignatieff frames his arguments on rights and responsibilities in both “The Broken Contract” and “The Rights Revolution” in a refreshing restatement of classic industrial liberalism.

A liberalism , that first and foremost, holds to the proposition that the political governance of society must be done in a manner allowing for the fullest expression of individual possibility.  A liberalism that strives for the broadest equality of opportunity to enable the fullest flowering of that possibility. A liberalism that understands that there can be little opportunity unless we raise people from poverty, but not at the expense of their liberty. A liberalism that accepts that there can be little equality if we do not reward individual enterprise, but not with untrammeled privilege and preference. And finally, a liberalism that comprehends  that there can be little possibility if we constrict the breadth of personal rights, certainly  not with politically correct pandering to collectivist chaos.

Canada needs this vision. Perhaps now more than ever.  The irony is that to champion this liberalism, Ignatieff must free himself to be himself. To lead Liberals, while at the same time expounding liberalism. That is no mean feat. Liberals and liberalism are not always  synonymous. But,  if he succeeds, he may become, in Harold Laski’s words, “...the warm gentle breeze of compassion that is prelude to the renewal of a bright spring... rather than the cold stinging frost of complacency that signals entry into a long night of winter...”