Monday, April 20, 2009

Patrician Patriotism


During the past week, Michael Ignatieff was all over the newspapers and the air waves, promoting his new book, True Patriot Love. It's a catchy title; and it will probably top the Canadian bestseller lists. It is sure to be reviewed in the New York Times. In a difficult period for publishers, it should make money.


But there is more at stake than money. The leadership convention for the Liberal Party of Canada is just around the corner, and -- even though the outcome has already been decided -- Ignatieff is using the book as a means to breathe life into his party and into his bid for the brass ring.


As he told Michael Valpe in the Globe and Mail last week, what he is trying to do is offer his country a vision for the 21st century. And part of that vision is based upon the idea of a National Dream -- in the sense that John A. MacDonald's transcontinental railway or Pierre Trudeau's Just Society were national dreams.


For Ignatieff, it is a shared dream which holds a country together. And it is the reason the federal government exits. "The job description of a federal government," he told Valpe, "is just one job -- hold the country together, make it stronger." To do that, Ignatieff said, "we need a public life in common, some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live." Those common allegiances find expression in common projects -- the railway, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, National Health Insurance.


The problem for the present government, says Ignatieff, is that it has no common project. I has nothing big that has yet to be accomplished. "The fatal flaw" of Stephen Harper's government is that it "fits a country that is finished, but it doesn't fit a country that is not yet done."


The problem for Ignatieff is that many Canadians fear that he himself is not yet done.There is much about him we still need to discover. He is no common man. His father's family were members of the Russian nobility. His mother's family are members of what passes, in this country, for nobility -- Ontario's Family Compact. And Ignatieff has spent his whole life coming to terms with that legacy.


Now that he is a potential prime minister, Canadians need time to come to terms with that legacy, too. Most of all, Ignatieff needs to convince Canadians that his patrician patriotism is as unshakable as the patriotism of the common man. And that his return to Canada was not just a career move -- that it was, instead, an act of true patriot love.

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