Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
(Random House, 2013).

Review by Allan R. Gregg originally published in Policy Options via IRPP.org

Full disclosure: I have always liked and admired Michael Ignatieff. Before he returned to Canada in 2005 to run as the Liberal candidate in Etobicoke-Lakeshore with his not-so-secret plan to run for the party’s leadership, I felt he was probably Canada’s finest public intellectual. His book and television series Blood and Belonging was one of the most penetrating and useful analyses of the forces that precipitated the devolution of state-to-state warfare into ethnocultural conflict that have ever been penned.

His defence of the decision to invade Iraq — while discredited as time passed — was elegant and provided a sweeping historical and geopolitical context that was never present in the triumphalist exhortations of other supporters. And while it was often cited out of context, his parsing of concepts such as a “moral war” and the lines between justifiable and illegal state use of force in his book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror made it absolutely clear that you were reading the works of a superior mind.

He had held academic postings at Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford. He had been on the cover of GQ magazine. The British press had labelled him “the thinking woman’s crumpet.”

In sum, he was the total package. It was small wonder then that the three so-called “men in black” who came to visit him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 2004 would see him as the ideal candidate to lead Canada’s natural governing party past its sponsorship-scandal muddle back to glory. Given his pedigree, his accomplishments and the accolades he had received throughout his career, the man himself could be forgiven for agreeing with them.
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Revised Notes for the University Of Winnipeg’s Knowles-Woodsworth Lecture October 23, 2013
“Reason, Religion and the Public Good”
By Allan R. Gregg

“A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion” – Gandhi

Last fall, I delivered a lecture at Carleton’s School of Public Affairs entitled “1984 in 2012: The Assault on Reason”.
In it, I documented some troubling trends which demonstrated our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy was declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency was on the rise.

Starting with the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census and continuing through the 2012 Budget and to this day, a clear pattern emerged that indicated a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making – namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions. It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.

As a researcher who had dedicated a better part of my life to understanding Canadian culture and the political process, I had also come to believe that our nation’s progress has been advanced by enlightened public policy that marshals our collective resources towards a larger public good … and conversely, that that public good is threaten by regressive public policy. And in the end, it has been reason and scientific evidence that has delineated effective from ineffective policy. And this relationship exists for a very straight-forward reason – namely, that effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond to an accurate understanding of the problems they are designed to solve. Evidence, facts and reason, for me, therefore form the sine qua non of not only good policy, but good government.

So I felt I had a personal stake in the game and should speak out. But the more I researched and studied for that lecture, the more it also became clear that there were other larger reasons, beyond the personal, to remind ourselves why we value reason and why we should be very concerned when it comes under assault.
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Notes for the University Of Winnipeg’s Knowles-Woodsworth Lecture October 23, 2013
By Allan R. Gregg

“A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no religion” – Gandhi

Last fall, I delivered a lecture at Carleton’s School of Public Affairs entitled “1984 in 2012: The Assault on Reason”.
I had spent my entire professional life as a researcher, dedicated to understanding the relationship between cause and effect. Yet, I began to see some troubling trends. It seemed as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy was declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency was on the rise. And even more troubling …. Canadians seemed to be buying it.

My concern was first piqued in July 2010, when the federal cabinet announced its decision to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. The rationale for this curious decision was that asking citizens for information about things like how many bathrooms were in their homes was a needless intrusion on their privacy and liberty. One might reasonably wonder how knowledge about the number of toilets you have could enable the government to invade your privacy, but that aside, it became clear that virtually no toilet owners had ever voiced concerns that the long form census, and its toilet questions, posed this kind of threat.

Again, as someone who had used the census – both as a commercial researcher and when I worked on Parliament Hill – I knew how important these data were in identifying not just toilet counts, but shifting population trends and the changes in the quality and quantity of life of Canadians. How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless you knew the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposable income available to eligible recipients?

And even creepier, why would anyone forsake these valuable insights – and the chance to make good public policy – under the pretence that rights were violated, when no one ever voiced the concern that this was happening? Was this a one-off move, however misguided? Or, the canary in the mineshaft?
And the more I looked at what was going on – in the 2012 Budget and on the legislative agenda of Parliament – the clearer it became that a pattern was emerging that demonstrated a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making – namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions. It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.
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Thanks to The Walrus Magazine who have reprinted this article in ebook format. For more info on format see their FAQ.

200 years ago today, in what is now called Moraviantown, Ontario, the great Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh was killed defending Canada against invading American troops during the War of 1812. After waging a fearsome battle with the encroaching American militia for over five years, Tecumseh had struck terror in the hearts of American settlers, soldiers and commanders alike. His alliance with the British General, Isaac Brock, and their victory at Detroit, decisively shifted the early momentum in the War to Canada’s favour. No longer could the Americans boast that victory would be (as Thomas Jefferson promised then President James Madison) “a mere matter of marching.” Indeed, it can be said that it was Tecumseh – as much as any other single individual – who saved Canada in the War of 1812.
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Since Lyndon Johnson launched “the daisy ad” – accusing Barry Goldwater of capriciously threatening nuclear war – negative advertising has become common place in politics.

So common place in fact that, almost half a century later, on the heels of yet another volley of Conservative attack ads against another new Liberal leader, Canada’s “national” newspaper, The Globe and Mail, is now exhorting Justin Trudeau to counter attack and “fight fire with fire or look weak”.

For decades, political operatives have defended the practice of focusing on your opponent’s weaknesses, rather than your strengths, as a legitimate part of democratic choice. The Globe echoes this sentiment … “Isn’t politics about showing why you’re a better choice that your opponent? That implies both the positive and the negative”. But the Globe goes even farther than the practitioners, with the claim that “…. the notion of rising above negativity feels false to what politics are really about …”. This view of “what politics is really about” and the role that negative advertising plays in it, is not only callow, it is dangerous and wrong.

Not just part of democratic choice, attack ads are also justified for the simple reason that they work. Of course they work. They play to – and I believe feed – the public’s general cynicism towards the political system and distrust of politicians. Sad but true, a message that states … “politician A is a crook” is far more likely to be believed than one that claims “politician B is a paragon of virtue”. But using this justification implies that the only practice of politics and role for politicians is to secure short-term electoral gain over your opponent.

If negative advertising is so effective, maybe the media and politicians should ask themselves why other big advertisers (who are far more experienced and savvy) do not employ these same tactics. Just like the electoral process, it is safe to assume that McDonald’s wants to take market share from Burger King. They also know that the quickest and most immediate way of doing this would be to launch an ad campaign that claimed their competitor’s product contained botulism. Burger King could neutralize McDonald’s advantage by countering that Big Macs are rife with e-coli. This attack and counterattack might “work” to the extent that it would affect market share but it is not employed by McDonald’s and Burger King because they know it will destroy the category and pretty soon no one would ever buy a hamburger again. In other words, they are smart enough to know that the business they are in is not just about taking market share from the other guy … it’s about making consumers believe in eating hamburgers.

So while focusing on your opponent’s weakness rather than your own virtues might lead to a short term electoral advantage, over time, it will create a cascade of political cynicism. If you say “politician A is a crook” often enough, it is only a matter of time before the public comes to believe that all politicians are crooks. That is what is happening now and these are the seeds that defenders of negative advertising are sewing.

We would be wise to remember that politics is not a blood sport and that “what politics are really about” is not bludgeoning your opponent until they cannot stand.

For good or ill, politics is the process by which we organize civil, democratic society. It is used to allocate a nation’s scare resources. Through it, we confer a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Because of it, we are able to represent the wishes of the majority and at the same time protect the rights of minority. And at bottom, politics creates a state that has the potential to do immense good or infinite harm and as such, we all have a vested interest that the best and brightest and only those who are motivated by the public good are encouraged to enter public life.

In the very same way, those who believe that this is “what politics are really about” have a responsibility to draw attention to its virtues and not just its shortcomings.

The Travers Debates – Ottawa October 16, 2012

Opening Statement

“Be it resolved that that the future of the United States is brighter than Canada’s”
Allan R. Gregg on the negative side of the resolution

For the better part of modern history, the facts have supported my worthy opponent’s side of the resolution.

Fueled by a revolutionary fever and personified by the most impressive generation of political leaders on record, within two Centuries, the United States literally modernized the world. Its worship of enterprise, initiative and individualism was buttressed by an unwavering belief that theirs was the “Shining City on the Hill” that would provide a beacon for the world to follow. This ethos of exceptionalism gave America an unshakable confidence and focus to pursue its destiny; and created a resilience that allowed them to weather a Civil War, the Great Depression and two World Wars – growing ever stronger with each encounter of adversity.

Canada’s beginnings were more modest. Founded in counter-revolutionary roots, our leaders tended to be more pragmatic, than idealistic or inspirational. Still, in the face of vast and inhospitable terrain, all the while living in the shadow of the most powerful and militaristic nation in civilization, we were able to build one of the most prosperous and generous countries in the world. Absent a unified founding myth or heroes, we nonetheless developed our own unique national personae; one focused not on “might and right” but on an ability and willingness to accommodate and even value differences. In strong contrast to the US, we view immigration not as a problem to be managed, but as a national asset; the NDP are not vilified as dangerous socialists but Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition; and the BQ are not branded as seditious traitors but – for good or ill – the legitimate government of the second largest region in the land. Far from signs of blandness or weakness, as we look towards the future, our ability to accommodate differentness and find compromise with otherwise opponents, now serves us well.

In contrast, I will argue tonight that the very culture that made the United States not just the most powerful, but the best country in the World, now serves them poorly.

America’s future is clouded not by the fact that they are on some kind of death spiral of decline, but – as Fareed Zakaria noted – by the rise of everyone else.

Moreover, in Thomas Friedman’s flattened world where everyone has access to same educational curriculum, information and invention, values and culture matter more than ever. Futures are formed by what you do with this knowledge, rather than in the past where fortunes were determined by whether you possessed, and could make others pay for it.

Being the alpha dog, winning every race and leading the World is in America’s DNA. Now as the world is starting to catch up, there are increasing signs that the United States is suffering from post-Hegemonic Stress Syndrome.

The most obvious manifestation of this is how core values that once unified and set the course for the United States now set them apart and leaves them rudderless. The sacred pursuit of individualism now makes America one of the most inequitable nations in the world. Disparities between rich and poor, divisions along ideological and religious lines have lead to the demise of political compromise and the erosion of what has been called “the vital center”. As a consequence, what was once the most vibrant political system in the World is now virtually paralyzed; and the most dynamic enterprise on the planet is now functionally ungovernable.

In the same way, America’s blind faith that it is destined to lead, now makes it nearly impossible for them to fit in or to follow. This sense of exceptionalism justifies unilateralism and leaves them increasingly isolated in an ever-more connected world. This same fear also makes it impossible for their leaders to disengage from almost a trillion dollars in military commitments, choking off expenditures that otherwise might be applied for much needed social programs and infrastructure or making more friends in the world.

Even the ingenuity and innovation that marked American enterprise is now being perverted by their inability to grapple with the prospects of decline. While still a relative powerhouse in patent filings, as a proportion of GDP, the United is now only ranked 5th – behind New Zealand. As a percent of total R&D spending they rank 10th – behind the likes of Poland and Ukraine. In fact, protecting copyright appears to be more important than creating it; as much vaunted examples of US ingenuity – such as Apple – now spend more on litigation than research and development. Instead of creating a $2,000 car – such as the Tata in India – the best and the brightest seemed to be more consumed with developing more derivative products that generate individual fortunes but no national wealth.

It isn’t by chance that Canada has fared better in the post-meltdown period of 2007-8. In the same way that we have no qualms about – and there is no protest against – things such as limits on election expenses, our more collectivist impulse lead us to regulate our financial service sector. In fact, the very absence of an unassailable national ideology means that compromise is not only possible, it is also still highly valued in Canada. Could you image a leading Conservative leader in the United States deliberating avoiding a divisive dust up over an issue such as abortion, because it would be a diversion away from more pressing national matters?

And as a middle power, we have always known that co-operation – rather than conflict – serves our interests on the international stage. Consequently, Canada fits more easily into our interconnected, flatten world and has the potential to be a friend to all nations. And because of the value we place on our multicultural make-up, we are now positioned to harness our ethnic Diaspora as ambassadors to expand trade between their new and former homelands.

No one disputes that there are forces shaping and changing the patterns of power in the world, and few would dismiss the great threats that these changes pose to the status quo. What is at issue now, is how well equipped nations are to adapt to adversity and how resilient their culture is when it is time to rise up to those changes. Compared to the United States, I have to say, Canada’s future looks very bright.

Closing Statement

Canada never has been – nor has ever sought to be – a world military or even an economic leader. But as a nation, we do see ourselves as moral leaders. And this is more than just vanity or hubris.

This is how the world can see us as well.

A welcoming home to the displaced and those seeking a better life; a stable country whose policies are rooted in common sense rather than the cult of personality or ideological zeal; and if not a world leader, certainly a nation with the potential to lead by example.

This isn’t a portrait that generates much chest thumping; but it also is one that requires no saber rattling.

We have flourished in the shadow of the most powerful nation the world has ever known. And while we share a continent, we have steadfastly stood an independent ground and reveled in our differences.

It is difficult and nearly impossible for America to learn from others because – as a world leader – they believe no one has anything to teach them. We have looked into the mirror of America, learned from their mistakes and adapted accordingly. And at the end of the day it is that resilience – and humility – that will propel Canada forward … and hold America back.

Thank you

Notes for Remarks to Carleton University – September 5, 2012
By Allan R. Gregg

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire

In his novel 1984, George Orwell paints a portrait of a nightmarish future where rights that we now take for granted – the freedom of assembly, speech and to trial – have all been suspended. Acceptance of this totalitarian state is justified by the interests of stability and order, and by the needs a perpetual war. But what makes 1984 endure where other dystopian novels have been forgotten is that Orwell removed one more right that is even more unimaginable in a modern context – the right to think.

Instead of reason and rational discourse, Oceania is ruled by doublethink – “to know and not to know. To be conscious of complete truthfulness, while telling carefully construed lies … to use logic against logic: to repudiate morality while laying claim to it”. As Orwell summarizes…. “In Oceania the heresy of heresy was common sense”.

Emblematic of the regime is Big Brother’s slogan, repeated constantly as a means of thought control….

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

Even by the standards of the time in which he was writing, the juxtaposition of these concepts is so ludicrous, many believe that Orwell was using satire to wage his war against authoritarianism and the assault on reason. Anyone who has been to war knows it is anything but peaceful. Anyone who has been enslaved is more than aware that they are not free. But what about those who are ignorant? Do they feel weak … or strong?
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The 2011 Gordon Osbaldeston Lecture
by Allan R. Gregg

“That above all – to thine own self be true; And it must follow as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man”

Polonius’ advice to his son, Laertes in Hamlet

A Short History of the Erosion of Trust

Even someone with only a passing interest in current affairs would know our political leaders are in big trouble.

A few years ago, Seth Meyers of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live developed a routine where he lampooned politicians by simply asking “Really!” …. no narrative; not even a snappy punch-line; simply a run a clip of a politician followed by an incredulous “Really!” Jon Stewart has taken this vein of comedy one step further where the joke doesn’t even require speech … just show the politician speaking; pause for a moment; and arch an eye brow. Both routines are invariably followed by gales of laughter. Not only is the joke on our elected leaders, it seems they are the only ones left on the planet who don’t get it.

And you also would not have to be a student of Canadian history to know that this condition is very different from the Canadian political culture of the past.
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1) It’s time: I have been in the public eye for over 30 years. My children have left home and I want to be free to pursue interests in travel, writing and teaching. The panel is the only thing left in my schedule that tethers me to a place and time. At this stage in life I also feel an increasing burden to “make a difference”. I worked in politics for 18 years and while I’m not proud of everything I did during that time, I’d like to believe I was drawn to the process by a belief in the duty and intrinsic reward of public service. While I have no desire to re-enter the partisan arena, I want the latitude to get involved in issues and causes and express my views freely and unfettered of “journalistic objectivity”.

2) I still have lots to say, but now I need more than 30 seconds to say them: I don’t know if it’s because I’m slowing down or that, with age, I’ve become more reflective but increasingly, I find it difficult to express my views in “sound bites”. I’ve become significantly more aware of the complexity of issues, personalities, events and our country and feel I need more time and space to reflect on these things. Unfortunately television isn’t the best medium for this (not to mention the fact that I am starting to look like the crypt keeper, which also suggests that I would be better off in a non-visual medium).

3) At the end of the day, it’s really not “my thing”: While politics and current affairs have always been a central part of my adult life, they have never been my sole interest or focus. I’ve produced music, television and videos, chaired film festivals, started businesses, written extensively on societal trends, hosted my own television show and delivered countless speeches on an array of subjects from demography, to business and culture. While it might sound vain, throughout my career I have tried to establish a reputation for eclecticism and not allow myself to be pigeon-holed. In the very same way that the panel has unquestionably raised my profile, I also think it has narrowed my band-width. Instead of striving to have a more Hitchens-like perspective on society and I the world, I fear I am being reduced to just another “talking head” yammering about todays headlines.

At the end of the day, it’s been a great ride. I will be eternally grateful that I have been part of the At Issue panel and in particular, I owe a tremendous thanks to my pal, Peter Mansbridge for the central role he played in making that happen… but it’s time to move on.

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