Insecure Citizenship: Michael Ignatieff, Memoir, Canada
Rak, Julie, Biography
In the United States, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama is no ordinary political memoir about a politician's career in the public eye, and not just because Obama wrote it before he became a politician. The book has been credited with convincing some of its readers that Obama should become a public figure. It became part of the picture of his values and beliefs as a private citizen when he ran for the presidency of the United States (Scott). In Canada, a similar phenomenon occurred when Michael Ignatieff became a politician. Ignatieff is a former university professor, writer, broadcaster, and public intellectual who in 1987 won one of Canada's best-known literary prizes, the Governor General's Award, for the memoir of his father's family called The Russian Album. Around the same time, during the development of Reagan and Thatcherite neoliberalism, Ignatieff wrote the essay for which he is best known in scholarly circles, "Citizenship and Moral Narcissism," an argument for citizenship as a revived category of resistance to the dismantling of social services in the United Kingdom. The interest that Ignatieff has in citizenship would make a study of citizenship in Ignatieffs memoir writing interesting enough.
But there is another reason to look at Michael Ignatieff, citizenship, and memoir. At almost the same time that Obama decided to run for the United States Senate, Ignatieff decided to leave life as a private citizen and become a public servant, something which changed his relationship to memoir writing and to the idea of citizenship itself. In 2005, Ignatieff returned to Canada, after decades of living in the United Kingdom and the United States, and ran for public office. He became a Member of Parliament in 2006. By 2008 he had become the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and the head of the federal government's Official Opposition. During this time, he kept writing; and in 2009 he published a memoir of his mother's family, True Patriot Love.
The idea of citizenship as an affective category within North American politics becomes the occasion for thinking about how Ignatieff has written about citizenship in his memoirs. In the process, I hope to shed some light on the question of citizenship and affective belonging--and its connection to memoir--which is becoming very important for anyone doing politics in North America, whether that person is Ignatieff, Obama, Hillary Clinton, or most recently, Sarah Palin. As North American politics moves more closely to accepting celebrity discourse as part of the conditions of political visibility, it is necessary to think carefully about what the relationship of celebrity to politics is becoming, and how that relation is connected to changing ideas about citizenship in the public sphere. Memoir discourse, which was once the record of the public lives of people but is now becoming a discourse that sits between the private and public performances of identity in North America, also bears the traces of the celebrity economy of public and private, and of the changing ideas about what citizenship can mean. This is why, in my view, it is no accident that political memoirs by people who are still becoming public are so widely read. As readers examine them, they could, as in the case of Barack Obama's memoir-writing and perhaps in the case of Sarah Palin as well, be a litmus test for citizenship, and then for leadership. In the case of Michael Ignatieff, his work as a memoirist and a political theorist shows clearly the traces of this changing thinking about memoir, citizenship, and the nature of public office. As Ignatieff moves from an endorsement of a left-wing version of "active citizenship" in his political thinking, to an acceptance of affective citizenship as a way to address the limits of state service, and then, perhaps due to his latest role as a politician, to an embrace of what could be termed a neoliberal approach to active citizenship, we can get a sense of how ideas about the nature of citizenship, the role of memoir, and even of "Canada" as an imagined community are changing too.
CELEBRITY AND POLITICAL CULTURE
Before I look more specifically at the idea of citizenship and Ignatieff's thinking about it, it is necessary for me to think more broadly about the changing role of politicians in the political cultures of North America. First of all, I think it is no accident that there are a number of parallels between Barack Obama and Michael Ignatieff, who will become Prime Minister of Canada if the Liberal Party wins the next federal election. The parallels show that Canadian political culture is beginning to take on American attitudes about the importance of individual testimonials in political life and the role of the politician as a special kind of celebrity who must expose his/her private life as part of his/her appeal to the electorate. As Joshua Gamson has pointed out, the celebrity can on the one hand be seen as someone who potentially could be emulated by anyone, and on the other, as someone who possesses a mythical glamour that marks him or her as more special than others (159-63). This tension plays to fan desires to know about the private lives of celebrities, but also accounts for the fact that revealing too much about a private life sometimes reduces celebrity glamour, the aspect of visual presentation that makes audiences desire to know more about the celebrity in the first place (Marshall 3-4). Celebrity discourse in the United States therefore often maintains a deliberately unstable balance between public life or performance and private revelations focused on the celebrity as a commodity, a contradictory "interest" in the invasion of privacy that is meant to delight and repel in equal measure (Dyer 10-13). The balance between public and private, the position of the celebrity as a medium of exchange, a symbol of the unattainable, and as potentially a democratic figure, all combined to make celebrity discourse a major part of American political life from the 1940s until the present. It is a grammar of knowing which American citizens can recognize easily and which politicians can use to gain recognition. Today, many former actors move from the world of entertainment to the world of politics to take up this new "role." The easy transition from one role to another shows how central celebrity has become to political life in the United States. (1)
In Canada, political culture has been slow to take on celebrity discourse. One reason for this lag is that Canada is a parliamentary democracy: people who are elected as Prime Minister do not run separate campaigns from those of their parties. This is different from the American system, in which the President runs for office with his or her party's support, but not as the party leader. Since the office of head of state in Canada is not embodied by the Prime Minister but by the Governor General, who represents the Queen of Great Britain and Canada, the interest in all aspects of the life of the Prime Minister is rarely as intense as it is in the President of the United States. Another reason can be found in the differences between the existence of a celebrity network or star system in each country. The development of celebrity culture in the United States since the 1920s has been dependent on the existence of three major culture industries: the film and television industries concentrated in Hollywood, and the popular music industry. With the exception of Quebec, which has its own cultural industries, celebrity culture has not been, arguably until recently, as strong or influential in Canada as in the United States because Canada does not have enough for-profit cultural industries to support it. Instead, many English-speaking Canadians prefer to consume American mass media. With a few notable exceptions, the Canadian culture industries survive with the help of government funding because it is believed that without support they would be swamped by the influx of entertainment options from the United States (Szeman 85-86).
The history of party politics in Canada has meant that in most cases, politicians have not been treated as if they were celebrities, with the notable exception of Pierre Elliot Trudeau when he was Prime Minister. But even Trudeau, whose rocky marriage with Margaret Sinclair was well publicized, managed to keep most of his private affairs away from media scrutiny. He could do this because in the past, Canadians showed little interest in the private lives of Prime Ministers and other politicians. Except for Margaret Sinclair Trudeau and Maureen McTeer, both of whom wrote best-selling memoirs, relatively few Canadians can name the spouses of recent political leaders, much less the names of their children and pets. As a result, Canadian politicians have not had to tell their life stories as part of their political campaigns or when they need support for a major policy decision.
But this is changing. With increasing frequency, Canadian politicians display their "private" lives in public settings in an effort to show voters what their values are. For example, in a recent interview for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Prime Minister Stephen Harper played the piano, said that he plays in a rock band, and talked about his childhood as a musician to show that he is not really an enemy of arts and culture, despite his authorization of deep cuts to funding for Canadian culture (Bradshaw). The changing Canadian political climate means that younger politicians like Ignatieff can discuss their personal lives as part of their values in a way that they could not before. Moreover, younger Canadian voters now expect their politicians …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Insecure Citizenship: Michael Ignatieff, Memoir, Canada. Contributors: Rak, Julie - Author. Journal title: Biography. Volume: 33. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2010. Page number: 1+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.