Monday, April 23, 2012

When Scholar-Politicians Fail to be Philosopher-Kings

Michael Ignatieff represents a proud tradition of scholars who run for office and fail.  Ignatieff famously spent much of his time outside of Canada as a scholar in the US, working on nationalism and other stuff with a history background.  So, I guess I cannot blame him if he is a lousy political scientist in his latest statements.  He says:
It's a kind of way station [devolution]. You stop there for a while, but I think the logic eventually is independence — full independence," Ignatieff said in an interview in his home last month.
Quebec has been in this way station for forty years.  Not too shabby for a temporary condition.  In discussing Scotland and Quebec, he sees parallels but not the ones that I see.  What I see in both places are separatist movements that capture the imagination of a significant hunk of their desired audience but not enough to get a majority in favor of secession.  Yes, it ebbs and flows, and as long as Canada/Quebec use a ridiculously low standard of 50% plus one, a referendum might pass some day. 

I think Ignatieff is over-generalizing about Canada, but what do I know, I have only lived here for the past ten years?  I tease, of course, since that still puts me ahead of him in terms of recent experience living in Canada.  But I don't know where he is getting his "facts" of mutual indifference.  Yes, Canadians and Quebeckers have been burned by years of this stuff, but frustration with the politics of it does not mean that either side is now close to saying "let's divorce."  At least, that is how I remember the past few years of polls.

Anyhow, he then is quoted as saying:
"I think if Scotland goes independent a lot of other smaller nations in Europe will start accelerating their quest for independence," singling out national minorities in Spain and Belgium.
If only folks studied nationalist movements and assessed how contagious these processes are.  Oh wait, there are.  Perhaps I am miffed that Ignatieff has not read my work.  Perhaps I am miffed that he has not remembered or read much of the post-Soviet work that addressed the question of contagion.  The reality is that separatist movements do their own thing.  They may learn tactics from elsewhere, but their motives are almost entirely their own.  The ebbs and flows of these movements are due to their relations with their host country and maybe they push their claims farther if they get more support from outside (see Erin Jenne's work). 

The key bit of reality that I have mentioned in my blog before is that motivated political actors learn what they want to learn from elsewhere and not much else.  So, Quebec separatists looked at Montenegro's secession and said how wonderful it was that a referendum would produce independence, ignoring the 55% threshold the EU had set.  Likewise, Quebec separatists said that Kosovo got to have independence with a referenda, so why not Quebec, ignoring the very different processes and stakes involved.

Scotland is already ignoring the Canadian/Quebec experience (or learning the wrong lessons) by pushing for a complicated question, by pushing for a referendum at all when the polls show it to be a loser, and so on.

Perhaps I tweeted a bit strongly when I called Ignatieff an idiot.  But that is perhaps because I had high expectations.  That a politician who is also a scholar of nationalism might think twice about what we have largely learned over the past couple of decades--that separatism is not contagious, that federalism is not so unstable, and so on. 

So, he spoke without considering what we have learned, triggering my hasty label of "idiot." 

So, tell me what would be a handy label for a scholar of nationalism who seems ignorant of the scholarship of nationalism?

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