31 March 2006

Ignatieff in the race

We've all seen it coming: Ignatieff all but declares leadership bid. Here is his speech, Canada and the World, delivered yesterday at the University of Ottawa. In light of Michael Ignatieff's unofficial bid for the leadership of the Liberal Party, this seems a good time to republish immediately below a column I wrote for Christian Courier, in the issue dated 23 January, the very day of the federal election:

Although at one point in his life the Greek philosopher Plato thought that philosophers should become kings, in the real world few intellectuals gravitate towards the life of practical politics. To be sure, during his tenure as prime minister, Pierre Trudeau was often called a philosopher-king – a label as often as not used in disparaging fashion. Yet few political leaders come to their offices from the academy. Thus I was somewhat surprised to hear that Prof. Michael Ignatieff would be standing in today’s election for the Liberals in Toronto’s Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding, with his eye eventually on Paul Martin’s job.

Ignatieff was born into an old Russian aristocratic family, which fled the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in Canada. Michael’s father George (1913-1989) was a respected diplomat, Chancellor of the University of Toronto and recipient of the Order of Canada. Michael’s maternal cousin was the late George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), whose conservative vision of Canadian nationhood was deeply antipathetic to the liberal individualism Michael has come to champion. Much of his life has been spent in Britain and the United States, and he most recently taught human rights at Harvard.

Now he has returned to take up a position at the University of Toronto and has seized the opportunity presented by the defeat of Martin’s government to make a bid for a seat in the Commons. What sort of political leader would he be?

While I found much to like in his 1984 book, The Needs of Strangers, in which he qualified his liberal individualism with an appreciation for community, his more recent works show him to have made a potentially troubling change in direction. The turning point seems to have been his work on the television series and companion volume, both titled Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. His recognition of the dangers of nationalism appears to have made him wary of the claims of community in general.

Thus in his Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Ignatieff argues that “Rights are meaningful only if they confer entitlements and immunities on individuals; they are worth having only if they can be enforced against institutions like the family, the state, and the church.” Furthermore, in The Rights Revolution, presented as the 2000 CBC Massey Lectures, he asserts that communities have value only insofar as they help individuals to achieve their own goals and aspirations.

So what happens if the claims of individual and community come into conflict? What if, say, a church institution disciplines one of its members for being unfaithful to her husband or one of its clergy for preaching heresy from the pulpit? What if the Salvation Army “discriminates” against an otherwise qualified unbelieving prospective employee and hires a confessing Christian more obviously agreeing with the organization’s vision? Where does justice lie in these potential disputes?

For Ignatieff the answer is simple: “Group rights – to language, culture, religious expression, and land – are valuable to the degree that they enhance the freedom of individuals. This suggests that when group rights and individual rights conflict, individual rights should prevail.” Period.

While Ignatieff manifests a proper concern for individual liberties, it would be difficult to imagine an approach less conducive to the doing of justice to the full complexity of human social life in God's world. Rather than hearing and weighing carefully the conflicting claims in the political arena, Ignatieff has already made up his mind before the claims have even been made. Someone less charitable than I might well see fit to label this prejudice.

Prime Minister Ignatieff? We’ll pass on that, thank you.

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