Save us from windbag intellectuals

My colleague Susan Riley just returned from summer vacation dismayed that nothing had changed in Canadian politics. To be fair, we have sunk a few more inches into the mire, and at least we avoided sudden disaster. But our politics do seem to be suffering a peculiar vapourlock that, as so often, gets filed under “Ideas have consequences.” Or, in this case, the absence of ideas. Consider Jack Layton’s recent call to bolt from Afghanistan, negotiating with the Taliban as we flee. It looks bold and controversial, but it’s just politics, crafted to attract media attention and play to his base. And tragicomically, it’s bad politics. If the NDP is ever to move beyond its 18-per-cent electoral support, it has to make arguments, not demands. Only its core supporters thrill to unconstructive negativity. Everyone else cringes.

Mr. Layton could have said his party is so committed to gender equity that it supports the Afghan mission despite the other concerns. Or so committed to pacifism that it supports withdrawal despite the Taliban being homicidal homophobes. He could then have explained what possibly painful implications either line of reasoning had for, say, Darfur. But he produced no line of reasoning at all.

Nor did Gilles Duceppe in seeking an emergency debate on foreign policy because “Harper is taking the same alignment that Bush is taking.” Now there’s a condemnation that doesn’t require thought. Or permit it. As leader of a major Canadian political party he’s singularly well-placed to start a debate without needing anyone’s permission. He just has to say something worth debating.

Well, then, how about the Liberals? Won’t their leadership race give us a candidate of change? Oh yeah. Right out of spin central. The Sept. 4 Maclean’s cover announces “THE IGNATIEFF MANIFESTO,” over a photo of the candidate in mid-oratory, fist clenched, lips pursed, penetrating blue eyes fixed on a distant but glorious future. “EXCLUSIVE” it goes on, “The most intriguing new face in Canadian politics reveals how he’d change the country.”

Not how he’d try, whether he might succeed, or why if the country’s so great everyone’s obsessed with changing it. I thought Pierre Trudeau transforming Canada was like the ultra-great thing of the past 40 years that made everyone want to be the next sexy, brainy, nonchalant radical. But then shouldn’t we keep what he created or, if Brian Mulroney threw it in the alley when no one was looking and Jean Chrétien didn’t bother retrieving it, go get it back? Or are we now into perpetual revolution, like skinny undergrads swooning over Trotsky in 1963?

I confess that Mr. Ignatieff impressed me at the spring 2005 Liberal party convention (except his pseudo-denial of political ambition, in retrospect cunning and contrived).

So I decided to read his book The Rights Revolution and was crushed to discover he’s a windbag who takes three paragraphs even to get something wrong, anaesthetizing you with equivocation before banal radicalism overwhelms judgment and he endorses arranged marriages or says children are “frequently” better raised by strangers than their parents (see pp. 102-03).

Don’t mistake ponderousness for profundity. Instead, try to decipher: “In the new century, most families that survive do so not by jettisoning the values of their parents, but by reinventing them and rebalancing the division of labour.” (p. 110) Written before the new century even started. His Maclean’s manifesto, and the longer version released yesterday, are equally a vapour of vapidity, a mist of mediocrity, a cumulonimbus of cliché, full of “Canadians believe” and “bold” and “nation-builders” and “The country … does not want to be divided, it wants to be united” that make you so drowsy you barely twitch when he calls for a “national food policy.”

In that same Maclean’s Paul Wells quotes Mr. Ignatieff as saying that politicians “are in the dream business.” Yuck! When “dreams” become a business they get mass-produced by consultants, yielding a sticky mass of focus-grouped cotton candy about “united, prosperous, sustainable and successful on the world stage” that can’t please anyone because it can’t offend anyone. It plays to a different, larger audience but contains no more genuine argumentation than Mr. Layton’s sneering, no admission that reasonable people might find any of his proposals difficult to implement or genuinely contentious, and nothing for them to discuss. No wonder voter turnout is down.

I harbour no illusions about political discourse in days of yore. But couldn’t one politician today reason frankly from principle to policy, offering hard choices instead of mindless strings of phrases that are designed mainly to make the demographically representative focus-group press the green smiley button instead of the red frowny one?

We need a vacation from vacuity.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson