Feature

Ignatieff’s Realm

The New York Observer wrote that Michael Ignatieff left Harvard “to save the Canadians.” Why have his writings led some to wonder if we need saving from him instead?

Illustration by Thomas Libetti

Political philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided intellectuals into foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes, wrote Berlin in Russian Thinkers, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” Hedgehogs “relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate.”

Michael Ignatieff seems like a fox. His written work, which includes an admiring biography of Berlin, ranges from recent offerings on terrorism, human rights, and empire, to a family memoir, a book on nineteenth-century history, commentaries on nationalism and ethnicity, and three novels. Hovering between the footnote and the byline, his writings flit from the theoretically ambitious to journalistic works of evocative scene-setting and dramatis personae. Saint Augustine is cited, then Hobbes, then Dostoevsky; then, elsewhere, we are riding a plane with Boutros Boutros-Ghali or browsing a Greek market with Richard Holbrooke, before being encircled by a menacing band of Serbian paramilitaries. This mix suggests a versatile mind probing for answers across many domains and employing whatever mode of discourse is necessary.

Ignatieff’s most recent writings convey a certain disquiet, an impulse that purposeful politics has given way to righteous ideology on one side and venal pragmatism on the other. His writing and public speeches have taken on a new urgency, staking out positions and assuming considerable risk. While not generally reported as such, his address to Canada’s Liberal Party convention last March contained both a rebuke and a boast. The Liberal Party “has never been just a machine for winning elections,” he said, hinting that if the current Liberal leadership lacks the clarity and resolve to chart an independent and genuinely internationalist course for Canada, then perhaps a certain public intellectual should return from thirty years of exile to throw his hat into the electoral ring.

And so it has come to pass. Though the rumour mill was active for months, many were still surprised by Ignatieff’s entry into the hardscrabble world of politics. Knocking on doors, stumping for votes, and speaking during Question Period are seldom nuanced experiences. At the nomination meeting that marked his political birth last November in Toronto, raucous heckling denied the patrician scholar a platform from which to expound upon lofty ideas. The question of whether Ignatieff was up to the challenge haunted his campaign. Skepticism toward Ignatieff the candidate focused on two of his specific positions. The first was his support for the US-led Iraq war. Although he recanted this view when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered, the criticism remains that the Harvard professor was not circumspect enough vis-à-vis the Bush administration and its intentions. The second position was his willingness to countenance coercive interrogation practices in terrorism-related emergencies, a stance prominent left-wing critics claim provided intellectual cover for Donald Rumsfeld.

If we take Ignatieff as he appears—as a fox, sprightly and cunning but ranging far and wide—then the attention given to his controversial stances should surprise no one. Since foxes have no overarching world view, we must take their positions one by one, and in politics this means asking, “What have you done for us lately? ” A survey of Ignatieff’s divergent works, however, reveals a hedgehog-like consistency to his political outlook: a liberal, civic nationalism that aims to merge carefully articulated idealism with reality and that imposes specific demands on the citizenry.

Ignatieff’s emergent vision seems to be based on a model of strong citizenship and an ethos, similar to Thomas Jefferson’s, in which the strength of a polity rests primarily on the engagement and patriotism of its people. To twenty-first-century Canadians—uncomfortable with the language of patriotic sacrifice and, by most estimates, politically apathetic—such a vision may seem old-fashioned or out of place. Furthermore, Canadians may not be ready for the more direct consequences of this vision—the reduced domestic entitlements that would attend to the more robust military and more generous foreign-aid budget that Ignatieff sees as prerequisites for Canada to play a serious global role. And how prepared are we to put our troops in harm’s way in order to thwart ethnic cleansing or genocide? Such an updated—and more demanding—social contract may be just the tonic that Canada needs. The answer will depend on how well Ignatieff carries his ideas from the page to the podium.

Ignatieff’s intellectual journey began far from the mass graves of Kosovo and the battlefields of Fallujah. It began at Pentonville Penitentiary, the focal point of a debate over crime and punishment in nineteenth-century Britain. Pentonville was the subject of Ignatieff’s doctoral thesis at Harvard—later reformulated as the book A Just Measure of Pain, which explains the shift in British penal policy between the eighteenth century, when corporal punishment was the norm and imprisonment used only in rare circumstances, and the mid-nineteenth century, when the public became convinced that incarceration was a reasonable way of dealing with criminals. “Total institutions” such as Pentonville were constructed so that prisoners could be isolated from one another and put through scripted regimens with the goal of character reformation.

Ignatieff gives two explanations for the shift. First, following an evolution in the concept of citizenship, campaigns were launched to convince the public that penitentiaries could reform criminals. Second, prisons fulfilled a desire for order in the face of the social and economic disruptions stemming from the Industrial Revolution. Though a work of social history, A Just Measure of Pain signals a pragmatic bent and a clear interest in public policy. The book was written against the political backdrop of the deinstitutionalization movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and against the intellectual backdrop of Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault’s history of the penitentiary in France. Neither receives Ignatieff’s embrace—an early sign of his tendency to reject well-intentioned panaceas and to resist the pessimistic simplifications that often accompany sweeping social critiques.

In his second book, The Needs of Strangers, Ignatieff steps away from history to engage philosophy, literature, and economics. The book is the work of a public intellectual trying to find his voice, and Ignatieff at times comes off like a dilettante bored with footnotes yet ultimately unsuccessful in his quest to touch popular nerves. Just the same, the book contains the germ of a big idea, while displaying a keen interest in the torsions, anxieties, and longings of human lives.

The Needs of Strangers is a meditation on human needs and the liberal welfare state’s attempts to meet them. Needs, Ignatieff points out, vary among persons and historical epochs; even as individuals, we are often ignorant of our own needs. If our needs are varied, inscrutable, and evanescent, how can an impersonal administrative state ever meet them? Liberalism has addressed this dilemma by drawing a line between public needs that a state can attempt to satisfy and private needs that it cannot and should not. If the state provides the necessary substratum of public needs (food, shelter, health, and education), the theory holds that individuals will be better positioned to pursue their private ends.

Yet the liberal compromise leaves something to be desired—a sense of belonging and togetherness that even the most generous administration cannot furnish. “Our task,” writes Ignatieff, “is to find a language for our need for belonging which is not just a way of expressing nostalgia, fear, estrangement from modernity.” But stories of shared history often falsify the past and exclude newcomers, and the language of universal humanity is too abstract for us to recognize ourselves in it. The desired language remains elusive.

In Blood and Belonging, an account of the largely unforeseen “new nationalisms” that sprung up after the end of the Cold War, Ignatieff begins to hit his stride as a public commentator. The book’s strengths are its timeliness (1993, a year after Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” and the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy, a time when “the withering away of the nation-state” had almost become a cliché); its cast of characters (Serbian warlords, a souverainiste bank president); and its on-the-ground narrative. It is a cultural and political travelogue with stops in Yugoslavia, Germany, Ukraine, Kurdistan, Northern Ireland, and Quebec, and encounters with nationalists of all kinds.

Ignatieff recoils from the violence and falsity of much that he has seen. Yet he concludes that the problem is not nationalism per se, but its chauvinistic ethnic variety—the nationalism that defiantly denies membership to those outside the tribe. This is a nationalism blinded by the “narcissism of small differences” —Sigmund Freud’s notion that we hate most profoundly those who are closest to us. “Civic” nationalism, a national identity based on shared political practices and shared values, is more difficult to achieve, but is desirable because it meets our need for belonging without being ethnocentric. In other words, the liberal democratic nation-state allows for the creation of a common heritage among people with radically different histories.

Citing Isaiah Berlin, Ignatieff compares ethnic nationalism to a twig that, if pressed down, will spring back with even greater force. Without an inclusive civic identity for people to embrace, one that recognizes people’s differences without denying their equality, the forces of ethnic nationalism are likely to take hold.

Blood and Belonging has a personal dimension for Ignatieff, who has family ties to Ukraine and to Quebec, and who lived in the former Yugoslavia as a child. Visiting the crypt in Ukraine where his great-grandfather is buried, he discovers that a butcher has used his ancestor’s grave to cut meat. The experience prompts a cri de coeur:

Nations and graves. Graves and nations. Land is sacred because it is where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves. The graves were profaned. The butchers slaughtered on top of the marble. A person would fight to stop this if he could.

He goes on: “Looking back, I see that time in the crypt as the moment when I began to change, when some element of respect for the national project began to creep into my feelings.” The post-national, cosmopolitan consciousness that Ignatieff had acquired began to seem like a privilege of Western elites—those who can rely on a stable nation-state to return to and therefore have the luxury of forgetting that even old-fashioned Westphalian states are no simple task to maintain.

Reading this, one thinks: This is not how academics operate. You don’t admit coming to accept a certain brand of nationalism because you felt something in a crypt. You mention a theory. You cite new social science. In the worst case, you admit that your critics pointed out something you didn’t know. But you don’t let your feelings into it!

The crypt incident reveals the soft inner side of Ignatieff’s liberalism, which recognizes humans as conflicted, emotional beings, incapable of being defined by one overarching characteristic. In A Just Measure of Pain, Ignatieff expresses skepticism about the social-scientific view that humans can be gauged and explained by rational means alone. In The Needs of Strangers, he rejects the economic supposition that material self-interest is behaviour’s primary motor. In Blood and Belonging, his views about human nature begin to resemble those of Isaiah Berlin, whom Ignatieff describes as “an intuitive thinker, interested… in inner anguish, personal dilemmas, and the conflict between human values.”

Berlin regarded human beings, both individually and collectively, as fundamentally divided. Rather than trying to straighten what Kant called the “crooked timber of humanity” by imposing one supreme vision of how to live, a liberal polity’s task is to accommodate human duality by providing a peaceful realm where individuals are free to discover who they are and choose their own vision of the good. Self-discovery and choice, however, are often linked to a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself—a culture or tradition with which one can identify and where one can feel understood. It was for this reason that Berlin supported the creation of the state of Israel, which he maintained would grant Jews the freedom to decide whether to embrace their ancestral culture. Ignatieff’s willingness to recognize Quebec as distinct is based on similar thinking.

Showing one’s soft side may be anathema to academics, but it is not a bad thing for a politician. Politics requires knowing how to tap into people’s hopes and fears. It is also high drama, a place where making visceral decisions can appear noble, decisive, and comfortingly human. Intuitive decisions can be the stuff of high political mythology in the way rational decisions cannot.

Like a hedgehog, Ignatieff’s liberalism has a tough exterior as well as a soft inside. While some prominent liberal theorists take for granted the existence of stable, orderly states, for Ignatieff the maintenance and promotion of state stability is a core aspect of responsible, modern liberalism, and it is difficult to achieve. Whether at home or abroad, whether in prisons or through military intervention, creating stability often involves the use of coercive force by the state. Ignatieff’s tough exterior shows itself in those works where he examines the delicate overlap between this use of force and the moral principles it aims to protect.

The Warrior’s Honor, Virtual War, and Empire Lite round out a four-part series, which Blood and Belonging began, examining the world through the prism of ethnic conflict zones. The Warrior’s Honor is based on visits to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and Afghanistan. Virtual War examines the ethical issues raised by the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign, a war in the name of human rights, conducted largely by remote control, with zero casualties on the nato side. Empire Lite explores nation-building efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, documenting the emergence of what Ignatieff calls an American “humanitarian empire.”

One of the lessons in these books is that we do not live in a post-national world, and that for people who inhabit weak or collapsed states, the importance of sovereignty, security, and the rule of law are painfully clear. It is the weakness of states, rather than some fundamental inter-tribal antipathy, that causes ethnic and racial conflict. The nation-state, therefore, remains the best guarantor of peace, stability, and human rights, and so helping to strengthen weak states should be a serious priority for liberal internationalists living in the developed world.

When used as a last resort, Ignatieff argues that military intervention may be morally required as a way of protecting against systematic human-rights abuses or of countering threats to the international community. Decisions to intervene must carefully assess risks, capabilities, and consequences, and demonstrate that non-military means have been exhausted. This theoretical framework led Ignatieff to support the nato campaign in Kosovo, to argue that further military action should have been taken to prevent the Rwandan genocide, and to support, initially, the second Iraq war.

In reality, Ignatieff acknowledges, intervention is rarely chosen or carried out with a clear mind. Instead, it is fraught with paradox and laced with greed and righteousness. We often act hubristically, underestimating the commitment required to build sustainable democratic nation-states. But our ethical aspirations are cheapened to the degree that they do not match up with our willingness and capacity for action. If we believe we have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and, equally, to prevent greater evils, then we must be willing to put Western lives on the line. If America believes in exporting freedom, it cannot disavow the unavoidably imperialist nation-building responsibilities that go along with it. This critique need not apply solely, or even principally, to the world’s only superpower. In Canada, too, our record of protecting human rights abroad often pales in comparison with our soaring rhetoric of generous internationalism.

Ignatieff’s position on human rights—his insistence that Western states bear a responsibility to protect that they must discharge with real purposive action—led him to part ways with most left-leaning foreign policy analysts, especially over his support for the Iraq war. The nuanced professor has had to stickhandle the criticism that he acted as a smooth-talking enabler of might-is-right, and that he was blind to what the “New American Century” truly entailed. Had Ignatieff restricted his side-taking to what was in Kosovo and what might have been in Rwanda, he would have stayed in safe territory politically. But as John Kerry learned, the meaning that attaches to one’s position on the ongoing, messy war in Iraq can be difficult to control under the klieg lights of a campaign.

In The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff examines the overlap between force and morality in the domestic context, asking how liberal societies can defend themselves against terrorism without compromising democracy. Not surprisingly, his position falls somewhere in between the pacifist civil libertarian and the security-minded hawk. “The issue,” Ignatieff writes, “is not whether we can avoid evil acts altogether, but whether we can succeed in choosing lesser evils and keep them from becoming greater ones.” Doing so involves weighing the efficacy of counterterrorism measures against the damage those measures could cause to individual dignity and free institutions. Struggles against terrorism are also struggles for public opinion, and governmental overreaction can allow terrorists to win those struggles. Assassinations and torture are never acceptable, but under exigent circumstances detention without trial might be, provided that it is subject to review by legislatures and independent courts.

Because some lesser evils are necessary, Ignatieff concludes that we must determine what principles are dearest to our democracies and learn to articulate them with force and clarity. A strong liberal civic identity reduces the likelihood that we will sacrifice our essential values in defending against terror. It also helps citizens understand what they are fighting for.

Here is where the tough exterior of Ignatieff’s liberalism meets its soft inner side, where the responsibility to protect and the duty to defend meet the need for belonging and the longing for recognition. The meeting happens through language. Citizens in a liberal political order need the words to express their fundamental principles, their common political practices, and their shared fate. These words help societies make difficult decisions without betraying themselves. The words also give us a sense of belonging and identity—of participating in a project that is larger than ourselves. The challenge is to find a language that is factually accurate, resonant, and that accommodates the diversities of modern liberal polities and maintains a commitment to people beyond their borders.

Finding such a language has been an important part of Ignatieff’s life’s work. This pursuit can be seen as a search for a civic identity—a way for liberal societies to understand, describe, and believe in themselves without resorting to the tropes of ethnicity, religion, or class.

In his 2000 Massey Lectures, “The Rights Revolution,” Ignatieff said: “The essential distinctiveness of Canada lies in the fact that we are a tri-national community, trying to balance individual and collective rights without sacrificing the unity and equality of our citizenship.” This vision of balancing difference and equality, of trying to reconcile individual and collective rights, is distinct from Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s liberalism, which largely rejected group rights. That said, Ignatieff’s view is consistent with a line of multiculturalist philosophy espoused by such Canadian scholars as Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka.

While parallels between the Harvard human rights professor and the father of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are inexact, the accusation that thirty years of expatriate life have desensitized Ignatieff to Canadian political culture is even farther off the mark. But political philosophy alone is unlikely to engage the attention of Canadians and will certainly not win elections. To be viable politically, even the most compelling abstract vision of Canada must be anchored in our most urgent questions: How to manage Canada-US relations? How much control should provinces have over natural resources? How to respond to our continuing health-care crisis? How to maintain our economic competitiveness without betraying our commitment to a just society? How to increase our influence abroad while maintaining our fiscal health at home? Perhaps most importantly—because this seems to be Ignatieff’s reason for getting into politics in the first place—how to fight Quebec separatism while recognizing Quebecois distinctiveness and strengthening national unity in English Canada?

How Ignatieff will respond to these questions remains unclear. If we are to entrust a man of ideas with political responsibilities, we need from him a sense of urgency and concrete solutions. We may also need something ideological, thus denying him the pragmatist’s favourite excuse—“It depends.” For examples Ignatieff might look to Trudeau’s Cité Libre essays, to his cousin George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, to Madison, Hamilton, and Jay’s Federalist Papers, and even to that ultimate synthesis of high theory and political persuasion, Marx’s Communist Manifesto. In short, Ignatieff must justify his transition to politics by hunkering down and giving old-fashioned stump speeches that articulate a civic nationalist vision that captures the Canadian imagination.

Thomas Libetti was included in the thirty-first edition of American Illustration.