Ignatieff's blind spots

  • December 24, 2008
{mosimage}In his first few weeks as Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff has been surefooted. He has exuded confidence, determination and a sense of what needs to be done. Canadians have seen a strong alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper if the country is forced into another federal election sooner rather than later.

Still, we know very little about him, other than that he is the son of Russian aristocracy, a Harvard intellectual, author of both political treatises and novels and has been absent from the country for most of his adult life. He offers plenty of impressions but precious little about where he would like to lead the country.

His academic reputation is based on his writing about human rights, so to get an idea of what kind of society Ignatieff would like Canada to be, it doesn’t hurt to start with his writing. A primer of sorts would be The Rights Revolution (Anansi), the published version of his 2000 CBC Massey Lectures.

In his lectures, Ignatieff offers a potted history of the evolution of human rights. Much of it is uncontroversial and would be widely accepted by Canadians. After all, it was a Canadian — John Humphrey — who was the major author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and we have for the most part embraced the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But there are some worrisome forays into trendiness and one significant blind spot. That latter would be religion. Ignatieff, a professed secular humanist, sees religion as a largely private matter that should be tolerated, but not necessarily promoted. His few mentions of the topic in The Rights Revolution are generally negative.

Nowhere does he recognize that there would be no “human rights revolution,” indeed, no Enlightenment, had it not been for Christianity. This omission does not bode well for his understanding of the place of faith in Canadian society.

More worrisome yet is his overly optimistic evaluation of the role of the sexual revolution in debilitating family life in Western society. Ignatieff laments the high price we’ve paid in divorce, absentee fatherhood, abuse and wounded children, but argues the price of “freedom” — as he defines it — is worth what we’ve paid. To Ignatieff, the children will just have to suck it up. “We wanted freedom and we should stop apologizing for it. We must simply pay its price.”

For Ignatieff, the genius of Canada is that there is no one cookie-cutter version of what it means to be Canadian. Rather, it can mean whatever we want it to mean. This, to him, is cause for celebration.

For many others, however, it has gone too far, causing much of our discord, disunity and lack of any sense of responsibility for each other.

Maybe it isn’t fair to judge the man based on one nine-year-old lecture. But if it represents his views today, many Canadians will not be prepared to follow where Ignatieff would like to lead us.

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