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Canada’s Obama and the Cult of the Prof

The game is afoot. As the loathsome Stephen Harper gnashes his teeth in the nether corridors of 24 Sussex Drive, the newly coronated leader of Canada’s federal Liberals, the sometime-quisling sometime-polemicist Michael Ignatieff, gestures menacingly at the Prime Minister’s official residence, hoping, of course, that his prolific publication record will one day catapult him there. Headlines from coast to coast herald the dawn of a new era: with the election of the professorial Barack Obama below the 49th parallel and the sharp ascent of Dr. Ignatieff’s political career above it, academic credentials have suddenly become chic. Our political leaders, we are told, are going to be smart again. And smart guys always do the right thing, right?

Niccolò Machiavelli was a smart guy. When he wrote The Prince, his now-famous manifesto on the art of gaining and retaining power, he was in the nadir of an otherwise long and illustrious career as the foremost adviser to the Florentine statesman Piero Soderini. Following a coup in which Soderini was deposed by the Medicis, Machiavelli found himself unexpectedly out of favor, and was not long thereafter exiled to the Florentine hinterlands, where he spent eight years licking his wounds and writing manuals on military tactics and history. He set about leveraging The bitter political lessons that he had learned firsthand to win the ear of the freshly installed Lorenzo de’ Medici, dedicatee of The Prince and, Machiavelli hoped, his new political patron. It is not so hard to shift sides once you see where the wind is blowing.

To the modern eye, Machiavelli’s writings seem to reveal a pathologically cutthroat personality; this is the man, after all, who once observed that “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” and whose name has become synonymous with naked ambition and the guileful pursuit of power. Yet we would do well to remember that, in his own time and place, he was just a smart guy doing what all the other smart guys were doing: currying favor with the moneyed authorities, endorsing the acquisition of strategic resources through war, and deploying his unique elocutionary talents to those ends. Such activities are surely not unfamiliar to us.

“Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great,” Machiavelli counselled Lorenzo, “if you will only follow those men to whom I have directed your attention.” I have spent much of the past year enduring similar entreaties from friends and acquaintances intent on persuading me that the Canadian political scene has been blessed with its own version of Barack Obama. Look at Michael Ignatieff, they urge fawningly. He’s published sixteen books that have been translated into twelve foreign languages; he produces films, writes fiction, has nine honorary doctorates, has held distinguished professorships at both Oxford and Cambridge, is the Chancellor Jackman Visiting Professor in Human Rights Policy at your own institution, the famed University of Toronto. Everything will turn out well, they eagerly insist, if we just follow the right man: the sophisticated Harvard literatus with the gilded tongue.

Rather than bore readers of this page with unimpressed witticisms—or exhaustive deconstructions of Ignatieff’s much-publicized advocacy of targeted assassinations, preemptive aggression, indefinite detention of suspects, and coercive interrogations — I will confess simply that I do not quite understand this latest infatuation that has taken hold of the North American continent, this new weakness for political candidates with honors and accolades heaped on their résumés. Perhaps it is a kind of allergic reaction to having labored eight years under the yoke of Yale University’s most notorious C student. But are we to believe that war crimes and curtailments of civil liberties take place only because political leaders are just not intelligent or accomplished enough? Are we to believe that it is through wisdom and integrity that these people have achieved their sundry distinctions, rather than through ambition and institutional gamesmanship?

“The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.” When Machiavelli wrote these words, he surely could not have envisioned the expectant hand-wringing that has now come into vogue in left-liberal circles. “The fact is,” as he had previously noted, “that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.” This is a principle familiar to the highly educated. Neither Obama’s nor Ignatieff’s well-documented equivocation on such things as the illegality of preventive war, the immorality and inefficacy of torture, and the universal applicability of international human rights law ought to be surprising . Both men have doubtless read the same World Court rulings and Amnesty International reports and Lancet studies as the rest of us; both nonetheless know full well that to evince moral courage on any of the above points would be political suicide, and so they elect to either stay silent or carefully knead their language so as to avoid alienating the wrong constituencies.

They’re smart guys, and, like our friend Niccolò, they, too, understand the merits of tacking into the wind. It’s a  lesson that one learns early in one’s career. Keep your mouth shut and your head down, and you will come out ahead.

I am, alas, a graduate student. Perhaps this colours my perspective. As I type these words, my desk is littered with densely worded journal articles and other forms of academic product whose rhetorical drapery serve, far more often, to obscure logic and reason than to enhance them. To be fair, this is a neither ubiquitous nor inevitable property of scholarly discourse. But as many public intellectuals and award-winning essayists will secretly tell you, if you wrap enough glittering prose around anything, it will assume the form of sculpture and become pleasing to those valuing style over substance. If you are able to perform when the spotlight hits—at the lectern, on the printed page, on the campaign trail, at the black tie gala—and if your rivals and competitors are not, you will take home the prize.

Barack Obama and Michael Ignatieff and other academician-politicians of their ilk know this. They have witnessed these principles at work throughout their professional lives, and they have learned, to their own delight, how to harness them to critical acclaim. This is old hat: precisely what university career counsellors call prudence and networking and curriculum vitae refinement. Why is anyone surprised? Like all the smartest kids on the block, they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re in it for themselves. Those who find themselves feeling betrayed in the months and years to come may want to consider yet another Machiavellian apothegm: “It is not titles that honor men; it is men that honor titles.”

EUGENIA TSAO spends her leisure time studying medical anthropology at the University of Toronto. She can be reached at tsao.eugenia@gmail.com

For more on Michael Ignatieff’s apologetics, see:

Ignatieff, Michael. (2004). The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Excerpted in “Lesser Evils,” New York Times Magazine, 2 May 2004, section 6, p. 46)

McQuaig, Linda. (2007). Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

 

 

 

 

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EUGENIA TSAO is a Ph.D. candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Toronto and a CGS Doctoral Fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). She can be reached at tsao.eugenia@gmail.com. A full list of references, sources for the quotes and figures cited in this article can be obtained by emailing the author.

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