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. …