20 April 2009

The Idea of North

I'm still digesting Michael Valpy's conversation with Michael Ignatieff from this weekend's Globe.

Iggy on the imagined community of Canada:

What we know is only a fragment of what is there. We have to imagine the expanse we have not seen. We have to imagine the ties that bind us to our fellow citizens, many of whom may not even speak the same language. ...

We engage in this act of imagination because we need to. The lives we live alone do not make sense to us unless we share some public dimension with others. 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.

How does this observation square with Ignatieff's statement that freedom trumps community in market societies? Badly, I think.

I read Ignatieff's meaning to be that the lynchpin of our relationship with others is an exchange built more on the individual's subjective imagining of the other than the shock and humility of engagement with the other's authentic life. An atomized society in which citizens have nothing in common but their need to imagine - without any commonalities regarding the capacity or content of their imaginings.

Fine, you say. Cogito ergo sum. Yet we know that for Ignatieff freedom in the market economy trumps all else. So the freedom to imagine a community precludes any need to subsume freedom to that community: the nation becomes whatever the market economy will bear. The imagination becomes a commodity, and the saleability, self-interest, and self-promotion of an imagined community becomes paramount to success. Chilly, indeed.

I think Ignatieff's obsessive examination and rexamintion of his own family mythology speaks not only to his own fraught attraction to the worst excesses of the Canadian post-colonial inferiority complex, but to his awareness that this complex provides a cagey marketing opportunity. The Ignatieff brand is built on personality: on his intellectual and personal forbearers and on his own genius for cooly revelatory self-analysis in books like The Russian Album and Scar Tissue. Yet this reconstitution of the past is highly selective: a repackaging of Candian history to support the claims of Ignatieff as Canada's "Imaginer-In-Chief."

Ignatieff wants Canadians to see him "as a patriot, someone who is anchored in the country and whose investment in the country is more than a personal matter, more than just a matter of my personal career...a four-generation project." Methinks the fellow doth protest too much.

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