In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell observed that “if one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.” By his reckoning, nationalism is a matter of sentiment mixed with a desire for power and prestige; “swayed by partisan feelings … there is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed.”
There are several passages that Barbara Kay may have had in mind when she concluded, in her essay “Michael Ignatieff hands Quebec separatists an unexpected gift,” that “Professor Ignatieff has just cheerfully thrown us all under a bus for the pleasure of adding colour to an international interview. Orwell was right about intellectuals.” One concerns war propaganda that he noticed being spread about by academics. Observing the credulity of certain intellectuals, the author of Animal Farm and 1984 dryly observed that (I am citing this from memory) some notions are so absurd that only an educated person could believe them. There is also a passage, again from “Notes on Nationalism,” which comes to mind: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe [these follies]: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
It’s dangerous for any writer to quote Orwell, more dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism, and most dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism in an article about nationalism. I know what I’m talking about: I lived nearly a decade in Quebec, and in that time I absorbed the lesson that a rational, dispassionate discussion of separatism in Canada is a rarity. Orwell’s essay is saturated with the cautionary observation that in such matters “no unbiased outlook is possible” and that the best one can hope for is an “essentially moral effort” to struggle against our own loves and hatreds.
I labour this point because, having listened to the Ignatieff interview , I was surprised at how measured it was, when juxtaposed with the partisan reactions. It is objectively true that Canada, since 1980, has undergone political decentralization. It is furthermore objectively true that fiscal and monetary policies uniquely bind Quebec to the federation. Less certain are Ignatieff’s claims that the two solitudes have nothing to say to one another, and that Canada is on a path logically tending to separation, but what affront is there in considering these possibilities as possibilities?
Only the affront to sentiment, and the power-and-prestige contests with which readers of Orwell are well familiar, stand in the way. Accordingly, Heritage Minister James Moore attacked Ignatieff’s statements as “arrogant, irresponsible and narcissistic,” while NDP leader Thomas Mulcair noted his own opportunity to pander, accusing the Liberals of obstructing his party’s past efforts “to give real meaning” to the recognition of Quebec nationhood. (More note should have been taken of this loaded declaration.) The Quebec premier, stumbling in the polls, reassured federalists while invoking the destructive intentions of the PQ leader, Pauline Marois. Soon everyone had their partisan speaking points on the podium, each declaiming over the others. Could it really be that there are only two solitudes in this country?
Kay’s central assertion that the former Liberal leader had “just handed [the] separatists a metaphorical bunker buster,” may have fallen short of the truth. By the time the sunlight had arrived to Canada’s shore, everyone was armed. The fury however overlooked the inadmissable fact that no one much cares what Mr. Ignatieff thinks and says. During the last federal campaign I had argued that this was a shame, and that the Liberal leader was himself largely responsible for it. Despite having thought a good deal about topics like war, foreign policy, nationalism, and terrorism — and despite having written numerous books on these and other topics — Michael Ignatieff dishonestly campaigned as if he were the down-home, plaid-and-ballcap type he most clearly is not. As a result, he bored everyone even more than he might have had he actually talked ideas. But for the purposes of nationalism, his not-so-outrageous speculations had to be dangerous and potent. The man who proved himself capable of sinking a political party had to be seen as capable of sinking a country also. This is a case of folly, the swallowing of which I don’t recommend. If Mr. Ignatieff possessed the power to direct the fate of a nation, he would not now be back at his other day job, leaving behind the also-rans of the Liberal Party of Canada.