Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

"He didn't get there, but I will" - lessons from Michael Ignatieff

Discussing failure openly with others is not a common thing for many people to do, let alone in public.  Now imagine having failed in front of an audience of close to 35 million Canadians and then proceeding to chronicle this very open humiliation. This past Wednesday, as he has in previous events promoting his latest book, this is what Michael Ignatieff did in his presentation to a large and captive audience at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.


Political memoirs, as host Craig Oliver so eloquently put, are normally mind-numbingly dull and excessively self-congratulatory.  In contrast, he finds Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics  to be a personal and strikingly candid account of Ignatieff's time in politics.  Oliver aptly added that this memoir has "personal relevancy," and "flesh and blood."  This is not a book venting complaint, Ignatieff said, but strongly insists it describes what politics and loss is like when it was happening. 


Ignatieff stresses these memoirs are targeted towards young Canadians, interested in politics, who can learn from his mistakes.  He explained that at every speech he made during his career as Leader, he spoke to the one person in the room that he hoped to inspire to run for any Party and make Canada a better place as he tried to do.  This book is for "the young man or woman thinking, I can do that… he didn't get there but I will."  


With this goal in mind, Ignatieff proceeded with a purposeful and decisive talk highlighting some important thoughts and take-aways from his book.  You could immediately tell he is an experienced public speaker and enjoys engaging directly with his audience in a frank and open manner.  Oliver did an excellent job in keeping Ignatieff on his toes and they both exchanged clever and witty (and often biting) banter in their talk. 


Ignatieff's presentation gave a strikingly candid and direct perspective of what his book has to offer in the way of demonstrating not only what politics was like for him, but what it can and should be.  First, his book urges us to think about what is currently happening to our politics.  Referencing a class he taught on attack ads, Ignatieff explained Canadian politics has turned opponents, or adversaries as he calls them in the book, into enemies.  No compromise or understanding can occur and results in personal attacks which are hurtful and often inaccurate, Ignatieff noting that he never was "just visiting" but has always only been a Canadian citizen.  Continuing in this dark vein, Ignatieff found the true battle of political life is not to write and present smart policies, but to fight for the right to speak and to be heard.  He also quite strongly came out against the digital age, which he says has fragmented our attention span and led to malicious and aggressive personal attacks.  Second, he hoped to explain what it is like to fail.  I admired his reflection on failure teaching us the most in life.  He urged others to not be afraid of failure or success, but to be fearless.  Last, he aspires to show what politics can be.  It's not just "show business for ugly people" but a calling and vocation to serve the Canadian public.  He admires Canada's global population as well as our polite approach to life. 


On the other hand, it was also quite disconcerting to hear Ignatieff explain his failure in that, when returning to Canada to run for the Liberal Party, he "didn't understand the Canada [he] was coming back to."  I question if it can be as simple as a lack of understanding or the reasoning that he was under the "illusion that Canada was as it was under [Pierre] Trudeau" as it quite evidently has not been this way for a long time.   


This young and politically engaged Canadian looks forward to reading the book, and greatly enjoyed the insightful and personal talk given by Ignatieff on his success and failure in politics.  Having read many of his other works (I'd like to highlight True Patriot Love; Blood and Belonging; Scar Tissue; and Lesser Evil), I look forward to reading his latest, and gaining more insight into his reflections and hopes for Canadian politics. One can be glad and hopeful that, at least as an author, Michael Ignatieff is far from done.