Michael Ignatieff knows how to write, how to pontificate, how to be a pragmatist.
But human being? Most would say not so much. Just ask local author Derrick O’Keefe, who just unveiled his withering rear-view paperback, Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? (Verso).
But enough has already been written about Iggy’s fuzzy take on torture or previous support for an invasion of Iraq. And those detractors are right. Iggy definitely pragmatizes himself to death and won’t let his mind get out of the way for his heart, or for his humanity.
Except the one time I caught him in the kind of contemplative mood that, if harnessed, could have been his keys to 24 Sussex Drive. I digitally recorded huge, forgettable swaths of Iggy’s campaign speech to an East Van crowd earlier this year, on April 25, a week before he lost his seat and his party was almost destroyed at the polls.
A lot of the narrative that night, prior to the May 2 carnage, was carefully manicured talk that failed to ignite and blow the roof off the place. Iggy wanted to be prime minister, and before a crowd of adoring red partisans, he calmly told everyone why. He was trying hard to be nice, sincere, against “Mr. Harper” and his vicious pitbull ways.
None of the stiff play-safe lines remain in the recorder’s archives, but for half a year now, I kept on file one question that Pete Quily, a coach for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asked about screening federal inmates for ADHD.
The response was the most human that I had ever heard given by Iggy, heartfelt and totally forgotten, ’til now.
“If he would have acted like that before the campaign, and especially at the beginning, when it started, they wouldn’t have been wiped out,” Quily, who also has ADHD, told the Georgia Straight by phone on October 27, referring to that spring night in the Alpen Club on Victoria Drive.
“He was human,” Quily mused. “He connected, and he didn’t just do traditional trite platitudes. I mean, maybe a little bit, but he actually connected with people, and he gave real answers. And that’s so rare in politics. They’re often just playing it so safe.”
My own recollection stems from watching Iggy from the bar of the East Van hub of the German Canadian community, just behind where Quily was standing as he asked the question that turned Iggy human. People were packed in so tight I had no choice but to linger in the back. But by now you could hear a pin drop as Iggy paused.
“What would we do to screen federal prisoners for attention deficit disorder, because it seems to have something to do with why they’re in there in the first place,” Ignatieff began as the crowd went quiet. “And how do we get it treated, if you’re a professional who treats these people or seeks to help?”
If you look at the prisoners in a lot of Canadian prisons, Iggy noted, “a lot of them haven’t finished high school”.
During his graduate-school time at Harvard University, Iggy said, he spent every Tuesday night with a chaplain’s group talking with prisoners in a medium-security institution, spanning a five-year period.
“All I can say about it is two things,” he said. “First, I am utterly unsentimental about prisoners, on the one hand. On the other hand, I’ve never seen a prison that didn’t make people worse. That’s the paradox, okay? [Applause] If we do send people to prison, and we must send people to prison, you’d better do something with them once they’re in there. Whether it’s ADHD, high-school equivalency, whatever it is, it just seems necessary to do that, otherwise we’re just warehousing human beings and they come out worse than when they went in.”
Quily later conceded: “It was a ballsy move. He could have answered a bit more, but [former Liberal MP] Sukh Dhaliwal said that he would commit to screening prisoners in federal jails for ADHD. [Vancouver Kingsway Liberal candidate] Wendy Yuan said that, and Green party’s [leader] Elizabeth May, ‘of course’ was her answer. I nearly fell over.”
The message, according to Quily, is clear.
“Just be yourself,” he said, emphatically. “It’s all people really want you to do in politics. Just be yourself.”
Unfortunately, the real Michael Ignatieff never really did show up except for that night.