The Interest of Conflict
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The Interest of Conflict

A copy of Ignatieff’s latest offering awaits purchase at a store counter.

If Michael Ignatieff is to be believed, there is no motive behind his latest book beyond that of providing a Canadian companion to his 1987 book, The Russian Album.
Indeed, on one level, True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada is just that. Starting with his great-grandfather George Munro Grant and ending with himself, Ignatieff guides us through his impressive Canadian pedigree of accomplished and influential men who, each in their own way, “took it upon themselves to pose, then to answer, the central questions facing the country.” On another level, True Patriot Love is Ignatieff eliding the virtue of empathy with one of the most volatile and divisive ideologies of our time: nationalism.

The book begins with Ignatieff invoking the panoply of Canadiana: “We start from what we know—the street where we grew up, the brightly lit skating rinks at night, the tingle of the lake water when we first plunge in, the feeling when we set our feet back on native soil—and we make these parts stand for the whole.” A benign, if not hokey, act of imagination this may be, but it nonetheless contains shades of a national narrative—something Ignatieff weaves in the book through the story of his ancestors. Like skating rinks and lake water, their thoughts, values, and principles often feel like they’re being made to stand for the whole.
Ignatieff deftly explored the subject of national fictions in a previous book, Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, observing that it “does not simply ‘express’ a preexistent identity” but that “it ‘constitutes’ a new one,” and it is this idea that nationalism supplants an individual’s uniquely formed identity with an “official” version that pesters the reading so. When he writes that “Canadians can only envy the scriptural sublime of America’s Founding Fathers” one wonders, am “I” included in that mass? Encountering, as one does early on, a passage where the word “we” appears sixteen times prompts the question: Do I belong in this “we”? Is he speaking for me? Ironically, reading the man plagued not too long ago by the question Is He One of Us? one wonders too frequently Am I One of We?

Michael Ignatieff signed copies of his book at a recent speaking event at Indigo.

That Ignatieff is engaging in national fiction writing doesn’t come as a surprise. Or at least it shouldn’t. He comes from a long line of public intellectuals who have re-imagined the nation, written its history, formed its geography. His great-grandfather, George Munro Grant, made the first cross-country trek when surveying the nation in preparation for its transnational railway; his grandfather, William Grant, penned “the most widely used historical textbook in secondary schools in the 1920s”; and his uncle, George Grant, wrote the canonical Lament for a Nation.
But they’ve never articulated our moral charge so explicitly or problematically. Ignatieff gives us the virtue of empathy, which seems noble enough, stating that it is “the moral meaning of our country.” “To imagine Canada as a citizen requires that you enter into the mind of someone who does not believe what you believe or share what matters to you.”
It seems noble enough and, as Ignatieff’s treatment of his uncle George Grant illustrates, empathy—the ability to share and understand the feelings of another—is the basis for tolerance and the bridging of divisions, be they familial or national. But as unimpeachable as the ideal may seem, situating so honourable a virtue in the guise of a national fiction does more to turn such fictions into inarguable non-fictions than anything else. The reach of national fictions, even those bolstered by lofty virtues, ultimately falls short because of their inability to accommodate those who reject them. In other words, empathy as a part of a national fiction just isn’t.
Ignatieff once wrote, “One of empathy’s pleasures is to forget one’s moral inconsistencies.” Another is the pleasure to not forget those with morals inconsistent to ours—something Ignatieff would do well to remember if (and when) he gets the chance to speak for all of us.
Michael Ignatieff will discuss “True Patriot Love” at Convocation Hall on Friday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are available at:
Photos by Matt Kim/Torontoist.