Last weekend, a not remarkable number of Canadians witnessed the conclusion of the desperate struggle for leadership of the Liberal Party between Michael Ignatieff and his only opponent, his Olympian ego.
The latter, though clearly the more organised, sophisticated and motivated of the two, acceded to a draw. Both creatures have agreed to co-rule their party, the Apollonian ego providing the spirit and the body providing its newly "folksy" corporeal form--liberalism with a human face, as it were (or Stephen Harper's "conservatism" with a pulse). They will likely form the next government, unless Stephen Harper has "Je me souviens" tattooed on both cheeks of his ass and performs a nude pole dance at Place-d'Armes to a dance mix of "Vive la Canadienne" sung by Pauline Marois.
The Liberals have thus re-connected with an important tradition, but not the one Ignatieff wishes to claim. He can invoke Trudeau all he likes; that Liberal icon would never have stooped to writing a loving paean to America's "Empire Lite", nor was he capable of committing the logical solecism of describing democracy and human rights as mere "grace notes" to something more significant, more beautiful, more awesome.
No. Ignatieff's paragon is that politically ingenious founder of modern Liberalism--William Lyon Mackenzie King. Their kinship is deep and abiding--unsurprisingly, given Ignatieff's rootedness in the soil of the mid-century technocratic Liberal élite King virtually invented.
King was Liberal royalty--the grandson of the Reform/Clear Grit rebel William Lyon Mackenzie. After the calamity of the 1911 election, King retreated to the States, where he made his fortune strike-breaking for J.D. Rockefeller, forging an admiring relationship with the magnate (and with America's capitalist leadership) that lasted a lifetime. Later, he published Industry and Humanity, a turgid tome of earnest Gladstonian bromides whose claims upon his conscience evaporated the minute he won his first ministry. This "serious" volume polished an already-shining intellectual reputation, secured through King's receipt of a Harvard PhD in 1909.
Upon his return to Canada and his 1919 leadership triumph, King began his sustained assault upon Canada's traditional moral, cultural and political anchors--relentlessly (and tediously) preaching the virtues of free-trade and continental integration. He found himself in substantial disagreement with American élite values only once--when, despite witnessing the evident dynamism of FDR's New Deal, he rabidly opposed even the slightest interventionist use of the state to remediate the Great Depression's disastrous effects, even going so far as to rejoice when the provisions of R.B. Bennett's modest New Deal-ish program were struck down by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as ultra vires. King remained publicly undisturbed by the sight of a Canadian government hobbled by the irresponsible fiat of a British Star Chamber (yes, this knight errant of "anti-imperialist" Canadian nationalism was a confused man indeed).
All the while, King fatuously transvested himself as the "populist" champion of Parliament and of the people against the "arrogance" of the Crown. King pursued this sacred mission by running away from the House after trying to have it arbitrarily dissolved (by the "arrogant" Crown, of course) and, more notoriously, by calling a plebiscite in order to be released from an iron-clad pact he had made with Canadians during the last election, just two years before.
Thus, in his exalted Liberal lineage, in his return from a protracted sojourn through the American academic/corporate star system, in his establishment of a scholarly reputation that would precede his candidacy, and in his meek acceptance of America's claim to be the world's only significant force for good, Ignatieff has managed to resurrect and inhabit the body of the Liberals' most successful leader. For them, this can only be a good omen. For us, the situation is, of course, more complex.
In any event, we now have a real contest. Not a contest of fundamental political philosophies, necessarily (which, in any case, has been a rare thing in Canada since the mid-'60's). Rather, the contest between Ignatieff and Harper is a contest between Kings, for Harper--superficially scholarly, rabidly pro-American and pro-corporate--is, too, but a new incarnation of King.
Harper enters this contest holding an unfair advantage: he has had the privilege of being an executive King rather than just a rhetorical one: in his fraudulent populism, in his abdication of responsibility by devolving contentious decisions onto others, in his sabotage of Parliament and rape of the constitution for partisan advantage, and in his basically regionalist vision, Harper has channelled King so uncannily that he could have served as one of King's own mediums.
Whatever choice we make in the next election, then, we shall get a King. Some may rejoice at this prospect. As for me, I am reminded of Eugene Forsey's quip about the Liberals' 1935 campaign slogan: "It said, 'King or Chaos'. We got both".