Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Bright is Ignatieff?

As I understand it Michael Ignatieff is something of an intellectual. But as I have watched him through the past few years in his public persona one would never know it. I have known some very bright people, and been involved in academic circles and to be honest Ignatieff simply doesn't come off as all that bright. Now, granted the public political atmosphere in  this country is not very intellectual and hardly lends itself to the process of carefully considered discourse. Furthermore, Mr. Ignatieff's primary political opponent is essentially selling fear as the primary mode of political thought, and it is very difficult to fight fear in public or private discourse with sophisticated and reasoned arguments. And yet still there seems to be something of a disconnect here. When Ignatieff answers questions about burning public issues he doesn't seem to frame these questions with the mind of an intellectual. I am not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course. If Ignatieff were completely incapable of talking about things in a straightforward manner, then he would be of little help to a political party. However, there are other public figures who are intellectuals or academics who I find come off as much brighter than Ignatieff in their public appearances and also much more effective. Gilles Duceppe and Jim Stanford are two such people. To me Duceppe, regardless of one's politics, comes off as very bright and is very effective at using his intelligence to make people like Harper look, well . . . stupid. Standford, on the other hand, is very good at distilling a complex political or economic point and making it clear and understandable. And I often see him sweeping away right-wing ideology that is disguised as fear-mongering.

I don't know Ignatieff's work very well and cannot speak to how bright he might really be. Academic 'stars' like Ignatieff are, in my opinion, often way overrated and not nearly as bright as they are made out to be. (Except perhaps in some French cases such as Derrida, Sartre, or Roland Barthes) But obviously, regardless of what one thinks of his work, he is certainly a far cry brighter than Stephen Harper. What I suspect is that Ignatieff's intelligence simply does not translate well into the public forum or maybe he tries too hard. I have seen him answer important questions from reporters with the opening quip "Yeah, but. . . " Not the most effective way to come off as bright even by Canadian standards. I think that if Ignatieff were effective at melding his private intelligence with his public persona, he would be whipping the floor with Stephen Harper. Perhaps he has tried too hard to not seem like an intellectual and in the process has lost what advantage he might have had. I don't know for certain. I don't think that the problem is that one can't be an intellectual and still gain popularity with voters, because I think Duceppe is very bright and has at times been very popular. Unfortunately, Ignatieff's looks don't do him any favours because he lacks a sympathetic appearance. He also lacks a kind of public charisma. However, if charisma were a prerequisite to getting elected most of the Conservative cabinet would never have been elected to anything. 

Perhaps the debates tonight will give us some answers to these questions. Maybe if Ignatieff does at some point become Prime Minister he will become much more effective and contribute to improving public discourse in this country. I just can't help thinking, somewhere in the back of my mind, that if Ignatieff were really bright he would have found a way to destroy Stephen Harper. Because in elections it is not necessarily your politics that really matter, it is what you do with your politics. 

It is said that when asked who the best football coach was, Bum Phillips, the coach of the Houston Oilers said without hesitation Paul "Bear" Bryant. The reason, Phillips said was because "He can take his'n and beat your'n he can take your'n and beat his'n." I suspect that if Ignatieff were really as bright as people think we would be able to apply this coloquial assessment to him too. 

1 comment:

Cara said...

One of Ignatieff's books was used in an International Relations course in which I was a teaching assistant and I was impressed with how he dealt with the the problematic nature of nationalism and identity. One of his arguments that really stuck with me was his distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism. Canada was invoked as an example of civic nationalism and explained why the country was so good at including immigrants and avoiding some of the nasty violence and wars he writes about in the book. Sorry, can't remember the name of it.