Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Ignatieff's "Martian outsiderness" really means

In a post disagreeing with Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff over reopening the constitution (for more on that, by the way, read Calgary Grit's fascinating post on the subject), Greg Staples puts his finger on my own concerns about the fact that he lived outside of Canada for thirty years:

If Mr. Ignatieff had lived in Canada and/or had the scars of Meech and Charlottetown he would know that there is no desire to go through this again. Do the Liberals really want a leader who will march directly into the constitutional quagmire?
Now, many of us amateur pundits--and even some professional ones--have tried to make Ignatieff's long residence outside of Canada about insufficient loyalty to this country. This is off the mark enough (it is quite possible to have multiple loyalties, thank you very much) that it's allowed Ignatieff's defenders to combat that criticism simply by saying that his experience abroad is an asset, not a weakness. I agree with that positive assessment of time spent in other places, and this is why the problem with that time isn't that Ignatieff was somewhere else, it's that he wasn't here. It's about what Greg alludes to in his post: Canada has changed an awful lot in thirty years, and no matter how Canadian Ignatieff remained throughout his time abroad, he simply wasn't here to experience various culture-altering events for himself. He may have watched them intently, but he wasn't a part of them.

Keep in mind that I know what I'm talking about, here. Just as Ignatieff was always "the weird Canadian" when he lived in other countries, I've always been and always will be "the weird American" here. I have cultural assumptions my friends don't have, and bits and pieces of my personality clearly stem from having grown up in that country to the south of us. And yet when I visit the U.S., there are so many ways in which I'm now a foreigner. This isn't because living in Canada has somehow purged the Americanness out of me, but simply because I've been gone ten years, and in that time the U.S. and its culture has moved on without me. The top stories on the news each day are different ones for me than for my fellow Americans, the water-cooler conversations are about subtly different celebrities, and most importantly, I completely missed out on 9/11 and its cultural aftermath. Even in an ever-shrinking world such as this one, where an emigré can read online versions of familiar newspapers and talk to her friends from "back home" every day via cheap cell phone plans or instant messenger, there are some things you just can't pick up on that way. And a few visits a year just don't cut it.

Now, Canada may not have suffered a major terrorist attack that dramatically altered the national psyche, but as Greg suggests, it went through a period that was equally reality-altering. Ignatieff was in England for Meech Lake, the Charlottetown Accord, and the 1995 referendum. And perhaps just as importantly for someone who wants to lead the Liberal party, he was in the United States for the Chrétien-Martin civil war, the sponsorship scandal, and the Gomery inquiry, which are all key to understanding (and fixing) the problems in that party today. Even if he knows and can rattle off every minuscule fact about these events--which I'm sure he can--he simply isn't aware of all the insidious ways they have seeped into the pores of Canadian culture. There's no way he could be.

In fact, as an intelligent, self-reflective sort, Ignatieff even seems to recognize this in himself. This is how I read that much-quoted bit from the preface to his 2000 book Rights Revolution in which he acknowledged being "a Martian outsider" who had not resided here "since 1969." The people who have used this quote to malign his Canadianness are quite misguided; being that sort of "Martian outsider" doesn't make him any less Canadian than someone who's never left Canada. In fact, this dual role as stranger and native son probably gave him precisely the right mixture of understanding and detachment to write a book like that one. But leading a country requires subtler types of knowledge that Ignatieff simply cannot possibly have at this point. And he shouldn't pretend to be able to fill that role as well as someone who's steeped in Canadian culture for thirty very important years.


Anonymous said...

Good post, I appreciate this perspective, particularly the point about the problem not being that he was somewhere else, but that he was not here. This isn't about anti-americanism its about canadian perspective.

Copp's article today in the sun touches on some of this too:

Canadian Tar Heel said...


I'm not sure if I completely understand what you're saying. Are you saying that Canadians wonder if Ignatieff can relate to them due to his absence from Canadian life over the years?

Although it was not discussed in this thoughtful post (as most of your posts are), Ignatieff's absence does not necessarily mean that his policies are bad. His ideas should be judged on their merits, not his absence.

With that said, I understand that politicians are not just selected for their thoughts. They are also chosen for their ability to relate to the populus and their charisma. But I wonder if that's what the Liberals are really looking for. Instead, I wonder if Canadian Liberals are having a crisis of ideas similar to what American Democrats have been experiencing.

Any thoughts?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm not saying any of those things, no. Instead, I'm saying just what I stated in this post--that there are certain subtle kinds of knowledge about Canada that Ignatieff simply cannot have because of not having lived here for thirty years. And I have my doubts that someone without that knowledge would be a good choice to lead Canada.

Anonymous said...

Great perspective. You just can't get a feeling for what is going on when you're elsewhere. I was in Kyiv last summer during the same-sex marriage vote (dammit, and I'm going to be away for whatever happens this fall, too... gotta stop travelling!), and I just really had no idea what people were saying about it - I got the news coverage, vaguely, but I don't know what the sentiment in Canada was. Who was up in arms? How many people? For most people was it just a ripple, or was it a storm? Now, for instance, if I had come back home after that vote and said 'well, look at the law we have here, isn't that nice? the country's being all progressive as usual, let's go about our lives, and now I can find me a wife and just sit back and relax', I would have been mightily surprised to know that things are not sitting well with everyone. Ok, that was a rambly story, but maybe it might be another way of demonstrating something of what you're trying to say. I hope so, anyway. I should really go home now, it's late... ^_^

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I mean!