Establishment man

December 10th, 2008
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If past behaviour is any indication, over the coming months Canada’s journalists will be struggling to find new laudatory adjectives for Michael Ignatieff. This will be particularly challenging for the Globe and Mail, as they have already almost exhausted all known avenues of praise.

Some readers will recall that the Globe had a seven (yes, seven) page feature on The Great Lib Hope in the summer of 2006 when he announced his candidacy for the Liberal Party leadership. That was followed by a few more pages on him around the time of the leadership convention. It would be worth starting a pool to see how many more trees the Globe will kill during the “Ignatieff era”, as Jeffrey Simpson is already calling it.

One thing that is certain about Mr. Ignatieff is that, if the Canadian establishment were to design their ideal political leader, he would be it. He’s an intellectual, with all that comes with that label, a self-professed “militant liberal”, i.e. not apparently of the squishy variety. He’s an academic who can forcefully argue Liberal values and might actually be able to define what those are.

Fundamentally, he’s not very Canadian. Or let’s say he’s foreign enough to have real cachet amongst all our right-thinking people – whose neediness in this regard still reflects a certain inferiority complex. His family legitimizes him with the cocktail crowd, providing that patina of old world aristocracy. His success in the U.S. is not a liability because it was the right kind of success – at Harvard and all the other right places.

In short, he’s the kind of Philosopher King that the some in the Liberal Party have been trying to find since the departure of Pierre Trudeau, and we all know the tremendous legacy he left Canada. He represents a kind of paleo-Slavic Obama, an apparent visionary who can breathe life into the country and the emaciated carcass of the Liberal Party.

What greater difference can there be than that between the media’s reaction to the new Liberal leader and their appraisal of Prime Minister Harper? We know how the latter has been portrayed: as a heartless bully, political thug, his intelligence grudgingly admittedly but cast in the worst light – an otherwise pedestrian hockey dad who accidentally (or through shrewd conniving, take your pick) landed Canada’s top political job.

Let’s compare that with some early commentary on Mr. Ignatieff. CTV’s website describes him as “a celebrated author of 16 books, a respected public intellectual and a former journalist and documentary filmmaker who reached near-celebrity status in Britain during the 1990s” and as “a writer, filmmaker and commentator (who) became an international celebrity.” Their Newsnet reader, Dan Matheson, called him an “outstanding” leadership candidate. I can’t recall the PM ever having that adjective used to describe him, or anything he’s done.

The Globe editorial today chimes in: “That Mr. Ignatieff is a man of substance and achievement is understood. What is a revelation is how quickly and astutely he has learned the game of politics, both in the House of Commons and inside his party, where he has demonstrated considerable organizational ability.” This was echoed by a national newsreader I happened to meet at a dinner party last summer. He let slip that, despite obvious media objectivity, he was a big fan of Mr. Ignatieff, whom he described as “one of two politicians most of us poor scribes would quit our jobs to go and work for”. The other was (surprise!) Frank McKenna.

Jeffrey Simpson adds that, while the two have superficially similar personalities, the Prime Minister is an economist, while Mr. Ignatieff is “a humanist”. He doesn’t define the latter, but I assume he means the part of this definition that says “One who is concerned with the interests and welfare of humans”; or “a. A classical scholar. b. A student of the liberal arts”. As the media has firmly placed the PM into the category of those not “concerned with the welfare of humans”, i.e. a Conservative, that couldn’t make the contrast between the two men any greater.

Just how much the new liberal leader is concerned with human welfare is encapsulated by this revealing quote from CanWest news service. “Torture bothers me enormously,” he told The Scotsman, “because that’s a bridge I’m not prepared to cross under any circumstances. Let’s be clear what I mean – I mean attaching electrodes to your genitals, pulling out fingernails and stuff.”" Believe me as bad as a battery boost to the genitals sounds, it’s the “and stuff” that you really have to worry about.

Besides all the structural, logistical problems the Liberal Party faces, and all the adulation he’ll have to put up with, Mr. Ignatieff does face the challenge of high expectations. He’s smart and believed to be capable. Despite the fact he’ll likely be given a pass by journalists, people expect a lot from him. Obvious errors will likely still be reported.

The latest reports, that he will give the socialist-separatist coalition a chance, are concerning. At about the furthest right of that brood, he will unfortunately put a respectable face on what is a real danger to our country.

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By John Weissenberger