The furor over the new Conservative attack ads, which were released early last week, has thankfully started to die down. But their central jab — that Ignatieff has been out of the country for 34 years and is only back because he is a political opportunist — has continued to inspire a stream of Facebook groups and blog and Twitter posts that keep making their way into my electronic consciousness. Here’s one of the ads:
I’ve lived overseas a few times, and returned just a few weeks ago after living in Turkey and Israel for over a year. In my travels I’ve managed to put together a pretty good-sized circle of Canadian expat friends. Most of them were not planning on coming back anyway, so their only available form of protest is to say that thanks to this latest gesture of disdain from Canada’s governing party they’re even more sure they don’t want to return.
On some level, I have trouble taking their outrage particularly seriously. I too have been homesick and anxious in a foreign country, and ready to assume that a voter registration card, or for that matter a birthday card, that goes missing in the mail is a sign that my homeland might subtlety be pushing me out. Still, I am left wondering, in tapping this nerve, does the Conservative ad hit below the belt? Or does it only sting because there is something uncomfortably accurate in the assessment that Ignatieff — and by extension all his fellow expats — is a self-centered, opportunist turncoat?
There are, according to a particularly convincing assessment I heard, two kinds of people who live abroad: the runners and the seekers. As tempting as it is to engage in some probing pop psychology and try to place Ignatieff in one of these two categories — and as easy as it would be, given his tendency to be a little too candid about his patriotic lapses — it doesn’t really matter, because both are fundamentally pretty selfish. When Ignatieff left Canada for Oxford in the late 1960s, in an era before e-mail, Facebook or the Globe and Mail online, he must have felt the unique pull of the modern-day Wild West that is life in a foreign country. I can imagine because I know it: the runner’s desire to escape the predictable ease of everyday Canadian society, and the seeker’s dream of proving you can make it somewhere else.
By almost any measure he succeeded at both. And I imagine that when he decided to come back it was some mixture of genuine longing for the place that most perfectly mirrors your values, hopes and anxieties, and the less noble fact that he wasn’t about to become president of the United States and here was a chance to be the biggest fish in a much smaller pond.
What seems to bother the expats I know, and what started to bother me once I let myself take their angst seriously, is that in addition to being narcissistic, the over 2 million Canadians who have lived abroad are also idealistic, curious about the world, and very, very brave — and made much more so by time spent away from home. It’s not a message Ignatieff is likely to find particularly politically palatable, but perhaps it will bring some comfort to the steadily growing hundreds who are joining those faux Facebook support groups for “lesser Canadians” that haunt my newsfeed. Living abroad is a a crazy, exciting, not always graceful way to test one’s own capacities, and like it or not, we all end up giving something of that back one way or another.