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Denis Smith

Michael Ignatieff: Is he just acting? Add to ...

If the latest profile of Michael Ignatieff (in the Sept. 7 issue of The New Yorker) leaves its U.S. audience confused about why he wants to be our next prime minister, it will leave Canadians even more mystified.

In the profile, expatriate Canadian essayist Adam Gopnik tells us that he has known the Liberal Leader for a long time. "He had never struck me as a natural politician, the kind of Homo clintonius who feels the need to woo and win every table," Mr. Gopnik says. He wonders what led Mr. Ignatieff to seek power, and how that experience has changed him.

Mr. Gopnik's encounters with the Liberal Leader over the summer have convinced him that Mr. Ignatieff has undergone a profound transformation. He is no longer "retiring and precise, professorial in demeanour," with "a vibe of virtue rather than of ambition." Instead, he has become a calculating actor. "He hadn't become more timid or cautious; he had become, in a professorial way, more theatrical, and more cunning. … To trade philosophy for politics is to trade observation for acting. Everything becomes a kind of performance - he was onstage at every moment … all in the search to become, for a moment in time, the written rather than the writer."

This slightly chilling insight reflects Mr. Ignatieff's own emphasis on his change of life. Before politics, he tells Mr. Gopnik, he was merely a spectator; now, as an actor, he is responsible for his words. The world of the academic/writer was one thing; the world of the actor/politician is another.

The claim is not new. In his rambling 2007 New York Times Magazine apology for promoting the war in Iraq, Mr. Ignatieff also insisted that politics is theatre, where a politician must "pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel." It is a world of "lunatic literalism" where "all that matters is what you said, not what you meant."

In 2007, he was bruised and shocked; by now, he is used to politics. "You have to be ready for combat," he tells Mr. Gopnik, "and you have to lead troops into a kind of rhetorical battle. And you've got to show fight. This is not a seminar."

When he wrote the New York Time Magazine article, Mr. Ignatieff was trying to explain his mistake in supporting George W. Bush's war. The reason, he said, was that, as a writer, he stood apart and could afford to be irresponsible. No one could hold him to account. But as a politician, he has to pay the price of his words. He repeats this neat distinction to Mr. Gopnik.

There are two things wrong with Mr. Ignatieff's contrast between thinker and politician.

First, he is disingenuous about his previous role. When he wrote in The New York Times Magazine and elsewhere in support of war, preventive detention and "coercive interrogation," he was not leading one of his academic seminars. He was in politics, seeking to encourage and persuade. As a public intellectual, he has always been in politics. If he did not know it then, he was naive; if he does not know it now, he is obtuse. Any academic who writes for the wider public should know that. His role as an academic was no excuse for his errors of judgment.

Second, his conception of politics is stunningly inadequate. Politics may, in one sense, be theatre and rhetorical battle, but it is not just performance. There must be authenticity behind the façade. The great actor is not just in it for the applause; the aspiring politician should not be in it just for the glory. Voters can make the distinction, and wise politicians know it.

So far, Mr. Ignatieff's performance leaves us with a sense of lingering distrust. As he admits to Mr. Gopnik, he can understand this. He knows that people are still wondering: "Can I trust this guy?" And he hasn't given us the answer.

The public is uncertain about him because what we see is the actor playing at politics - or the academic thinking about it - not the politician doing it. He is too aware of himself, too diffident one moment and too exaggeratedly assertive the next, trying out his performance as though it is all a theoretical game. Politics, as he says, is a difficult trade, and his real education in it is yet to come.

Denis Smith is professor emeritus of political science and author of Ignatieff's World Updated: Iggy Goes to Ottawa.

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