Monday, September 23, 2013

Ignatieff's latest book, a reflection on the clash of theory and action in political life

From Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics by Michael Ignatieff, excerpt from Toronto Star, September 23, 2013

Why theoretical acumen is so frequently combined with political failure throws light on what is distinctive about a talent for politics. The candour, rigour, willingness to follow a thought wherever it leads, the penetrating search for originality — all these are virtues in theoretical pursuits but active liabilities in politics, where discretion and dissimulation are essential for success. This would suggest that these theorists failed because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut when flattery or partisan discipline required it of them.
Equally, however, theorists may have lacked those supreme virtues that separate successful politicians from failures: adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna, the keen intuition that a situation has changed and that what was true once is no longer so, together with the noble capacity to lead, to charm and to inspire.
Thinkers too often disparage men of action in ways that do them no credit. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reportedly said of Franklin Roosevelt that he had a second-class intelligence but a first-class temperament. Holmes was being condescending. Roosevelt himself was happy to admit that he had no theory of politics, other than being a Christian and a Democrat, but no theorist could have created the modern liberal state and revived his people’s faith in politics in the pit of the Depression.
Finding solace and comfort in the lives of men whose writings have inspired the education of political science students for centuries, yet who led miserable if not downright tragic lives as active politicians, Ignatieff honestly and forthrightly links with the theorists.
However, "men of action," even including the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, too often grasp for the most convenient and most easily saleable gimmick to enable them to sale through troubled waters in the body politic. It is the deep thinkers, hopefully linked to some leadership talent, who can see farther than the latest poll, and the next telephone pole, and even the next election. Harper is not such a political leader. He, conversely from Ignatieff, has fixed his personal and his party's star on the wagon of capitalism, endorsed its chief actors and almost completely ignored the people struggling to make a living, earn an education and climb out of poverty and namelessness.
Too much over simplification, reductionism and elimination of the hard knots of both social and foreign policy is rendered homogenized by the national media, believing as it does, that their average reader reads at about the grade six level.
Compressing Ignatieff's complexity of thought into an instant and gripping headline is, in a word, can't be done. And, given his commitment to both disclosure and patience with his fourth estate interogators, and his nuanced views, he suffered a public portraiture of wistful, unfocussed, and occasionally distant.
The introvert, at least in a public posture, has a very difficult time winning public applause. Posing as an extrovert, would undoubtedly in Ignatieff's mind, be nothing short of hypocritical. It is in his authenticity, and in his depth of both thought and feeling that Ignatieff found himself swimming against a current of political gamesmanship, lacquered and liquored over with mascara and kleg lights and "life-of-the-party" testosterone, however an audience inhales and consumes such ether.
Canada may have lost a potentially creative, and iconoclastic and even penetrating thinker as prime minister; the University of Toronto, however, rescued him and put him in front of fresh and nimble and hungry minds, the better to nourish the next generations, both with lectures and with writings.
No doubt, Ignatieff's own writings will become the stuff of the political curriculum in political science in the next decade and our grandchildren will be able to learn more about the deep divide between theory and action, and between thought and theatre, in the political sense.

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