The Downfall of an Academic


Michael Ignatieff, once a respected academic, authored a handful of important books on human rights, nationalism and ethnic conflict in the 1990s, making him the pride of many Canadians — even if, from 1978 until 2000, he lived in the UK, and then in the US, where he was director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Blood and Belonging, The Warrior’s Honor and The Rights Revolution were all must-reads, proof, we thought, that intellectuals had a role to play in describing, and perhaps influencing, the politics of our time. Despite his almost 30 years of exile, Canadians counted him as one of theirs, someone who reflected the ever-elusive “Canadian values.”

Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and more importantly, the US launched its mass disinformation campaign to justify its invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11.

Strangely, during that period Ignatieff became more conservative in his views and penned justifications of his own to support the actions of the US government in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Empire Lite,” which served as both catchphrase and title of one of his books, followed by The Lesser Evil, epitomized Ignatieff’s radicalization. Where in the past Ignatieff had sided with the downtrodden, and where he had been so perceptive on the idiosyncrasies of nationalism, the academic now argued that empire — supported by force of arms and buttressed by an architecture of racism, lies and deceit — was a good thing, even if, in retaliation for Sept. 11 and in the name of “nation-building” a la US, Washington ended up slaying more Afghan civilians than died on that fateful morning in September, and many, many more in Iraq.

Despite this shift, many Canadians (myself included), welcomed Ignatieff’s return to Canada in 2005 and, a year later, his election in parliament. Around that time there were rumors that he was being groomed to become the next Liberal Party leader. Many (again myself included) looked with great optimism to the possibility that an Oxford-educated man of letters, biographer of Isaiah Berlin to boot, could one day become Liberal leader, if not future prime minister. The contrast with the seemingly illiterate George W. Bush south of the border could not be starker and would again help consolidate the great myth than animates many a Canadian, that somehow they are the “wiser” Americans, that Canadians had it within themselves to pick a leader who spoke the language of academics, who had visited the killing fields of Kosovo, brushed elbows with the sages of this world and written novels, including Scar Tissue, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Under prime minister Ignatieff, Canadians would shine and his would be the eloquent voice of our values — values we all like to think differ from those represented by the Bush administration and which were supported by a large swath of the US population. At the very least, he could hold his own with the charismatic new president, Barack Obama.

Many were disappointed (as I was), when in December 2006 the Liberal Party picked Stephane Dion, an ineloquent politician from Quebec who somehow always managed to give the impression that he was both annoyed with and ill-at-ease in the presence of ordinary Canadians, over Ignatieff, who we were told still needed to learn how to play politics, to lead the party.

It didn’t take Ignatieff too long to learn the game, and less than two years later, he was ganging up with the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party to virtually overthrow the Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, sparking a series of events that culminated in the strange proroguing of parliament and threatened to unseat a government that not only had been elected democratically, but that in elections that same year had actually gained seats. Once the coalition disbanded and Dion had been discredited, Ignatieff made short shrift of his opponents and, on Dec. 10, became the interim leader of the Liberal Party, a position that will require ratification by the party in May.

However reluctantly, Canadians seemed resigned to the turn of events, accepting, perhaps, that this was how political machinations worked in Ottawa, a behind the scenes act that this time around had occurred in daylight. Undemocratic and shameful though the bloodless “coup” may have been, many (as I did) believed that in the long run Ignatieff would be a better Liberal leader — and possible future prime minister — than Dion.

The coup de grace in Ignatieff’s downfall as a respectable academic, however, was served — by himself — on Jan. 8, when he aligned himself ideologically with the Conservative government’s position on Israel’s war in Gaza, echoing the views, expressed earlier that week, by Canadian Junior Foreign Minister Peter Kent.

“Canada has to support the right of a democratic country to defend itself,” Ignatieff said in Halifax. “Israel has been attacked from Gaza, not just last year, but for almost 10 years. They evacuated from Gaza so there is no occupation in Gaza.”

In Ignatieff’s view, the about 1,300 Palestinians killed — many of them women, children and otherwise innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and unable to flee — and countless injured were the sole responsibility of Hamas.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization and Canada can’t touch Hamas with a 10-foot pole,” he said. “Hamas is to blame for organizing and instigating these rocket attacks and then for sheltering among civilian populations,” repeating many of the old rationalizations of the Israeli government that on many occasions have been proven to be lies by the UN, humanitarian agencies and, when Israel allows them to do coverage, the media. What’s even more infuriating is that an academic of Ignatieff’s caliber, someone who visited war zones and so eloquently made the proper distinctions on the complex issues of nationalism and ethnicity, would fail to recognize that Gaza remains under occupation, if not with boots on the ground than at least through blockades, barriers and virtual isolation from the outside world, that the anger of the Palestinian people, given substance by Hamas, lies in more than 60 years of humiliation, injustice, assassinations, more than a million refugees and a succession of broken promises. What Ignatieff furthermore chooses to ignore is that it wasn’t Hamas that broke the ceasefire, leading to the past two weeks of carnage, but Israel, which as veteran reporter Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent, killed six Palestinians in Gaza in a Nov. 4 bombing and four more on Nov. 17.

Surely, a learned academic such as Ignatieff would know that Hamas extremism can only be discredited once Palestinians are offered a just and viable state, an end to Israel’s illegal building of settlements and a workable solution to the refugee problem. Surely Ignatieff — or at least the old Ignatieff, the one who hadn’t completely been poisoned by politics — would agree that if Hamas bears responsibility in launching rocket attacks across the border into Israel (in the 10 years that is has done so, a total of 20 Israelis around Gaza have been killed by rockets), the radicalism that it embodies is a response to injustice rather than the root cause of the problem and that using force to eradicate Hamas would not solve the problem, as other extremists would emerge to give voice to a people’s anger. Surely Ignatieff knows that if Israelis are to obtain the security and recognition they deserve, diplomacy, not force, not the mutilation of innocents and the leveling of UN-run schools and mosques or the targeting of UN humanitarian aid convoys, is the only way.

“Ultimately,” Ignatieff said on Thursday, “this thing has to end with an Israel that is recognized, is safe and secure … and living side-by-side in peace with a Palestinian state.”

If Canada ever had a politician who knew that we simply cannot throw out the words “Palestinian state” without meaning a viable state based on international law, justice and negotiations between equals, Ignatieff would be that person. There is no doubt about his intelligence; he is charismatic, good-looking, eloquent and extremely well-learned — all the stuff of a great leader. And yet, he speaks in a way that makes Canada sound more radical than the people Canadians so often criticize for their radicalism. Sadly, his new voice, the one he has adopted as a politician, entirely fails to reflect the views of ordinary Canadians and makes a travesty of his previous life.

J. MICHAEL COLE is a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada and author of Smokescreen: Canadian security intelligence after September 11, 2001. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, where he works as a columnist and editor at the Taipei Times newspaper.

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