Monday, June 22, 2009

Public intellectuals

I've had my differences with Andrew Potter, but every now and then he shines. His column on Michael Ignatieff in today's Ottawa Citizen is well worth a read. He's put his finger precisely upon what's wrong with Ignatieff: the sharp disconnect between his lofty academic view of the world and his new political role. The two are oil and water.

Ignatieff is just not very good at politics. As Potter puts it:

He tried to play chicken with the government, and Stephen Harper plucked him bald. The Liberals have now lost virtually all of the momentum they had built up since Ignatieff took over as leader, and as some wag had it, he's gone from being "lionized" to "Dionized." Oof.

But Potter doesn't stop there. As it turns out, Ignatieff may not be very good at the academic stuff either:

His whole brand is built around the proposition that he's a world expert on human rights, nationalism, and the perils and prospects of liberal interventionism, but whenever someone asks him his opinion on a specific case, Ignatieff slips and slides like the greasiest city hall politico.

The truth is that Michael Ignatieff's status within the more hardcore precincts of the academy is not that high. He's considered an elegant writer and a competent popularizer, but he's also seen as a bit of a dilettante who lacks rigour and who tends to agree with the last book he read on a topic. But that's fine: it is no small thing to be an internationally respected public intellectual, even if the emphasis is on the "public."

Indeed, Potter has had Ignatieff's number almost from the start. He is no fan of Ignatieff's "cut-rate intellectualizing," and I'm with him there. In fact, I confess I've never much liked the notion of the "public intellectual." It smacks of condescension, of talking down to the people. It's not the practice of haute vulgarisation that bothers me--that's an entirely worthy pursuit, exposing a wider audience to really interesting ideas generated in the hyper-specialist atmosphere that defines today's academic world--but the attitude, not only of the aforesaid intellectual, but of his or her wide-eyed, adoring followers. (And make no mistake: so-called "public intellectuals" enjoy having followers.) They can get their intellectual buzz from the master without really having to work at it; they can bask in his glory, his reputation and his leaderly aloofness. I saw it all at the last Liberal Convention.

And I saw it all in 1968 with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a person whom I still can't recall without an involuntary shudder. He was even more noisomely aristocratic than Ignatieff, an intellectually arrogant man on a perpetual power-trip, a cynical, soulless manipulator. Ignatieff, it must be said, has not risen to those heights, for heights they are in the Liberal universe. He has not as yet publicly displayed Trudeau's nauseating contempt for ordinary people. But there is something of Trudeau redux in him nevertheless, and, perhaps more importantly, in the party that crowned him a few short weeks ago. It's all Iggy pop, Trudeaumania once more, our leader is smarter than your leader, wow, and he's just written another book.

I must make another confession at this point: I'm having a hard time disagreeing with Rex Murphy on the subject of Iggy, and even with the substance, if not the style, of the recent Tory attack ads. Ignatieff doesn't have close ties to Canada: that new book, True Patriot Love, is a embarrassingly transparent ploy. He came back to Canada for one reason, and one reason only--to rule. And the ease with which this path has been opened unto him should give us all pause.

It raises the question of what the Liberals' vision of Canada is. I don't think they have ever really had one, to be blunt. It's always been all about power, and what works to acquire it and keep it. If it takes mesmerizing the public with an intellectual import, then so be it.

And, while on the subject of public intellectuals, the Citizen graces us today with another incompetent column by Margaret Somerville, the popular self-anointed authority on bioethics from McGill who is fond of telling us how to live and what to think under the guise of ethical discussion. There is, in fact little real discussion in Somerville's writings: it's all moral claims and assertions.

This time she's on about stem cell research and the sacredness of the embryo. (The article is helpfully illustrated with pictures of fully-formed fetuses in their eighth or ninth month, but in fairness, that's not Somerville's fault.) "We are all ex-embryos," she says, in her sloppy way. We are, of course, all pre-corpses, too. That might lead some to draw quite novel conclusions about the sacredness of human life. No matter.

Somerville makes much of the potential of an embryo, its "becoming," and summons up that phantasm, "moral intuition," which she has referred to, in other columns, as the "yuck factor." But the same abstract argument of potential could be used about contraception, since sperm and ova are, at least potentially, joined. In fact one could trace a chain of potential back to the origins of life. A protozoan has the potential of evolving into a human being. Morally speaking, must the chain never be broken? How can it be avoided?

The notion of "becoming," and possible worlds arguments, do not offer in fact much in the way of a practical guide to what is moral or ethical, any more than does the natural law theology that Somerville is actually dishing out.
As she concedes, an embryo is not a baby. In the final analysis, that is really all there is to it.

Somerville ends by simply crushing her opponents thus: "To conclude, I suggest that seeing human embryo stem cell research as ethical is primarily a result of a failure of the ethical imagination." That's telling 'em, Margo. Welcome, once again, to the world of the public intellectual. It's great fun--just so long as the public knows who's boss.

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