A Liberal Autobiography

True Patriot Love: Four generations in Search of Canada
by Michael Ignatieff

In True Patriot Love, Michael Grant Ignatieff, current leader of the Liberal Party and aspiring Prime Minister of Canada, shakes the family tree to establish the patriotic bone fides of three generations of public intellectuals on his mother’s side. The book stretches from Rev. George Monro Grant’s exploration of the Canadian Northwest as a member of Sandford Fleming’s CPR survey party, through William Lawson Grant’s experience of the Somme to George Parkin Grant’s elegy in the 1960s for the Canada he had grown up in and loved. Theirs was a particular kind of patriotic love: an attachment to the British Empire grounded in Christian conviction. When asked in a recent Globe and Mail interview what distinguishes him from his ancestors, Ignatieff replied he is the first to take the plunge into elected office. (His great-grandfather, when offered the position of Minister of Education by Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, turned it down because he didn’t think Presbyterian clergy ought to be involved in partisan politics.) But another obvious answer is that he is a religious sceptic. The end of Christian Canada, which his Uncle George grieved so eloquently in Lament for a Nation is, for Ignatieff, cause for celebration.

He gave up on his country at exactly the moment when it roused itself to action. At the moment of the lament’s appearance, Canada went through a most extraordinary reinvention of its identity. And to no one’s surprise but his own, much of the impetus behind this was inspired by the party he detested, the Liberal Party of Canada.

Whereas Grant’s work is filled with intimations of spiritual deprivation in the late modern world—a sense of what has been lost—Ignatieff comes across as complacent, self-assured and very much at home in a society of packaged
fulfillment, artificial desires and the consumer marketplace. George Grant feared modernity; Ignatieff is a fan of progress and enlightenment. At the core of True Patriot Love, concealed under political talk about patriotism, is an argument about the meaning of “liberalism,” the definition of freedom, and the extent to which human beings “author” their own destiny.

What is the freedom that liberalism affirms? The book claims Galatians 5:1 as Rev. Grant’s favourite biblical text: “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free,” and glosses it with the comment that “faith was freedom, the freedom to choose the path to salvation.” But freedom for great-grandfather Grant certainly did not consist of human beings choosing their “path to salvation.” Far from being an advocate of consumer religion, he had a Calvinist sense of having been chosen— elected—for work in the Kingdom. Perfect freedom was to be found in the God who is beyond us and in conformity to his son. Grant’s engagement with secular politics began from within the context of faith; faith that was open to dialogue with “the other” but faith also that the truth was one (as God was one) rather than multiple. his version of pluralism did not end in relativism. The talk about “self-authoring” by his great-grandson would have rung alarm bells. (It is Milton’s Satan who brags, in Paradise Lost, about being “self-begot, self-raised.”)

It is true that Grant championed a Pauline notion of freedom in the Spirit with respect to 19th-century Puritanical legalism that demanded Sunday streetcars be banned, governments enact prohibition legislation, get rid of “scrofulous” French novels and generally legislate good behaviour. He preached temperance but was against legislated prohibition; the reduction of Christian faith to a fanatical moral crusade. He rebuked those who “shut their eyes to facts” and identified it as

… one of the gravest sins of which men who profess to live moral lives can be guilty …. [Prohibitionists] find the cause of the evils, not in selfish weak or wicked human nature, but in that which men drink, and so their policy is misdirected. But moral earnestness when misdirected does nothing but harm.

Grant was a Victorian liberal in the tradition of British Prime Minister William Ewart gladstone for whom “liberalism was the Christianity of politics.” Responsible liberty, including the liberty of individual conscience before god, was important because God has chosen for human freedom. That is the choice that really matters.

Although it flies under the same flag, the late modern liberalism of the great-grandson is a different beast. In the Globe interview Ignatieff declared:

I like market society because I like its freedoms, and freedom is a very chilly thing. It doesn’t give you a metaphysics. It doesn’t give you a community. But it gives you freedom. And then you have to decide which of these values in life you want … Freedom matters more to me than anything else … the choice of your gods, the responsibility of choosing your gods, the responsibility of leading a moral, disciplined and purposeful life.

As Uncle george never tired of pointing out, late modern liberalism owes its notion of an absolute freedom for human beings to create themselves to the atheist existentialism of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre—the political manifestations of which have been grim. In the absolutization of such freedom, Uncle George smelled tyranny. What happens to human politics when human freedom becomes the only absolute? Responsible freedom had slipped its moorings in the secularized liberalism of the 1960s; the resulting cultural anarchy was heading for disaster; and would give birth to a new tyranny. George Grant may at times have succumbed to overly dramatic rhetoric but he was not wrong in intuiting a coercive streak in modern liberalism—neatly captured in the phrase “political correctness.”

So where does Ignatieff, the politician, fit into this multi-generational discussion of liberalism by his forebears? What is clear is that he is committed to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the “moral basis” of our national project. Denis Smith, in Ignatieff’s World: A Liberal Leader for the 21st Century?, notes that the Christian faith of his ancestors has been replaced by a “utopian faith in human rights.” This, Smith argues, is what got in the way of good political judgment in the case of the American invasion of Iraq. Ideological commitment clouded his judgment about matters of fact and the likely consequences of action. Ignatieff’s subsequent admission, “I wuz wrong,” does not address the underlying issue—which is his basic take on the world. For Trudeau (and Uncle George), the Charter of Rights and Freedoms gave legal expression to values that are themselves grounded in Christian faith. (Trudeau had witnessed in the Quebec of his youth how Christian faith can be given a very different political expression.) For Ignatieff, however, the Charter, or its U.N. counterpart, is a freestanding object of faith. A holy Writ. In the process, Jeffersonian democracy—a form of political organization that has served the West reasonably well for 200 years—becomes a “sacred cause.”

But this is to make human politics carry a burden that it cannot bear. His great-grandfather would have called it idolatry and a recipe for bad political judgment. G. M. Grant’s political judgment was sharp, precisely because he was able to distinguish the concrete particulars of a situation from the ultimate horizon against which human politics is to be judged. It made it easy to resist being stampeded into a crusade. Foreshortening the horizon of politics leads to a false sacralization (choice of gods) and the myopic political judgment to which Smith points. It may also lead to a sanctioning of means (like torture) that cannot bear Christian moral scrutiny (see Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror).

William Lawson Grant, at the time of his father’s funeral, noted the powerful combination of “enthusiasm which never loses its hold on facts yet soars at times into the regions of the prophetics.” This was the source of the mysterious authority with which he addressed the Canadian public as a public intellectual in his generation. If Ignatieff wants to lay claim to that family legacy as he seeks to become P.M., the electorate deserves a more candid answer to the Globe and Mail’s question in terms of what distinguishes his political philosophy from that of his ancestor’s.

There are worrisome signs that, like the prohibitionists of old, some modern liberals are not immune to the temptations of crusading zeal for social conformity in ways that threaten individual conscience. Were Uncle George’s fears completely unwarranted? My own sense is that the ancestral chorus in the imaginary drama of Canada is less worried about effusions of “true patriot love” than with the question of who is “standing on guard” and for what?