On Thursday (October 13) the Wpg Free Press published an article called “Intellectuals, The Empty Drums of Scholarship” on the editorial page, in a section called View from the West. The author was Barry Cooper, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and managing director of Calgary office of the Fraser Institute. He writes a regular column for the Calgary Herald. This article was probably a reprint his column in the Herald on October 5, published as “Ignatieff’s Vanity”. It is an attack on Michael Ignatieff
Cooper’s criticism of Ignatieff is that he is a liberal, and his concern is that Ignatieff is rumoured to be considering entering Canadian politics as a Liberal. Ignatieff has had tremendous media experience and he has a background and presence that would put him on a par with Pierre Trudeau as a formidable candidate. Cooper tries to dismiss Ignatieff as a mere intellectual dilettante. He also criticizes Ignatieff’s willingness as a liberal, to use power to implement an agenda that Cooper, as a conservative, finds to be utopian, inherently oppressive and potentially totalitarian.
Cooper takes his inspiration from the fact that Ignatieff is on a list of the world’s top 100 intellectuals for the poll taken by the magazines Prospect and Foreign Policy. Some of the people on the list are heavyweights in their fields (Baudrillard, Habermas, Pope Benedict XVI, Eco). The list is in fact a list of public intellectuals who are known for accessible public discourse, or whose academic work has been popularized. It is based on influence and visibility, and not scholarship. Ignatieff chose a career outside of academic philosophy. It’s hard to follow Cooper’s implication that Ignatieff’s intellectual accomplishments are not worthy of admiration. Ignatieff has published many serious and scholarly works in philosophy, international relations, government and international human rights, and taught at leading Universities. He is also an acclaimed novelist, playwright and broadcaster.
Cooper is a serious scholar with a conservative philosophical outlook, a devotee of Eric Voegelin. Cooper uses the philosophy of Voegelin to rationalize laissez-faire economics and libertarian policy. He seems to have a coherent and sophisticated outlook, which informs his own public work – which is not precisely scholarly. He is an ideologue and a progagandist, promoting a blend of ideas incorporating Voegelin’s maxim “Don’t immanentize the eschaton” with the less arcane right-wing slogans like “You can have my guns when you take them from my cold dead hands”.
Since the discussion of Ignatieff’s becoming the leader of the Liberal party are speculative at this stage, Cooper’s attack on his accomplishments and values must reflect Cooper’s deeper, long-term objectives as a conservative propagandist. The objective would include providing conservatives with an inventory of criticisms of Ignatieff and undermining his potential candidacy with potential supporters. Writing for Alberta conservatives, naturally, he compares to him to Trudeau – still unpopular with large and small businessmen, farmers and fundamentalists in Alberta. Writing for a wider audience, his rhetorical trick is to trivialize him. Further, and quite ironically for an academic, he manages to play the populist anti-intellectual card. Cooper’s other objective is simple to promote conservative ideas and to criticize liberalism. It’s another skirmish in the culture wars.