Michael Ignatieff
Stanford Humanities Center

Michael Ignatieff:
A Very Public Intellectual


Michael Ignatiefff portrait Michael Ignatieff portrait by Dave Chan, 2011.
Used with permission.

A Public Career

Michael Ignatieff is one of our great public intellectuals. In 2005, Foreign Policy and Prospect Magazine, jointly naming Ignatieff one of the world’s 100 leading public intellectuals, defined this term as “[s]omeone who has shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it.”[1] Ignatieff’s place as a public intellectual for the English-speaking world — or, at least, the North Atlantic English-speaking world — may be unique. He has independently made his mark while living and working in the United States and Great Britain, as well as in his native Canada. In the United States, Ignatieff is best known to the public as a frequent contributor to The New York Times and to the New York Review of Books. In Great Britain, where he lived for many years, Ignatieff’s public career includes work as host of Voices on Channel Four, as host of The Late Show (a BBC arts program), and as the writer and on-camera journalist in the 1993 BBC television series Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism.

In Canada, in 2006, Michael Ignatieff took on his most public role yet. Leaving the United States and his position as Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Ignatieff became Member of the Canadian House of Commons for Toronto’s Etobicoke-Lakeshore constituency. He went on to become Deputy Leader and then, from 2008 through 2011, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. In standing for Parliament and leading his party, Ignatieff took on a new type of public life: electoral office — rare for a senior professor at a major research university. However, this period of political service is in keeping with the very public nature of Professor Ignatieff’s singular career. As his Stanford Presidential Lecture will show, Professor Ignatieff, Senior Fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto, is now working to confront challenges facing liberalism by bringing together political theory with his experience in leading a major political party in an advanced industrial democracy.

A Public Writer

In Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (1993), the book that he wrote in conjunction with the television series, Ignatieff identifies what he calls a “fundamental conflict of principle” that continues to confront the world community of nations today: “the struggle… between those who still believe that a nation should be a home to all… and those who want their nation to be home only to their own.”[2] In setting out the contours of this struggle, Ignatieff characteristically pours elements of his own life into the analysis. He does so by highlighting his Russian heritage and his cosmopolitan preferences:

Anyone whose father was born in Russia, whose mother was born in England, whose education was in America, and whose working life has been spent in Canada, Great Britain, and France, cannot be expected to be much of an ethnic nationalist. If anyone has a claim to being a cosmopolitan, it must be me.[3]

[C]osmopolitans like myself are not beyond the nation; and a cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation-states to provide security and civility for their citizens. In that sense alone, I am a civic nationalist, someone who believes in the necessity of nations and in the duty of citizens to defend the capacity of nations to provide the security and the rights we all need in order to live cosmopolitan lives. At the very least, cosmopolitan disdain and astonishment at the ferocity with which people will fight to win a nation-state of their own is misplaced. They are, after all, only fighting for a privilege cosmopolitans have long taken for granted. [4]

Ignatieff’s career as a writer began auspiciously. His first two books show him to be a passionate scholar engaged with history and the effect of ideas (particularly the core ideas of liberalism) on society. In 1978, Ignatieff published his Harvard University dissertation, A Just Measure of Pain, which examines the place of prisons and the role of prison reformers in England during the Industrial Revolution. The book traces the evolution of prisons and, particularly, the practice of solitary confinement as an alternative to workhouses and involuntary transportation to the colonies. He shows how prisons — once they were rid of disease and the worst excesses of corruption – came to serve as a new tool for the state in maintaining order and social harmony, in an era seen as a moment of apocalyptic “breakdown in urban order, class harmony, and moral discipline among the poor.”[5] In The Needs of Strangers (1984), Ignatieff, writing within the framework of standard philosophical discourse, confronts the atomization of modern liberal society and the resulting absence of a sense of belonging.

In his next book, The Russian Album (1987; winner of the Heinemann Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction), Ignatieff faced this lack of belonging directly by looking at himself and by turning to the personal, the familial, and making it public: “To come, as I do, from a hybrid family of White Russian exiles who married Scottish Canadians is to be at once lucky — we survived — and typical. Because emigration, exile and expatriation are now the normal condition of existence, it is almost impossible to find the right words for rootedness and belonging…. Belonging now is retrospective rather than actual, remembered rather than experienced, imagined rather than felt.”[6] In this turn, in which he integrated historical inquiry and personal longing, Ignatieff blossomed as a writer.

Since creating that work of intense family introspection and serious scholarship, Ignatieff has gone on to write three novels, two screenplays, a television play, and innumerable works of commentary for all types of media, while at the same time continuing to play a key role in the community of scholars focused specifically on human rights and, more generally, on liberalism and its challenges. His theoretical work, fiction, journalism, and other works are not tangential to each other; rather, they are intertwined, as insights gained in one project are explored in another. So, Ignatieff’s first novel, Asya (1991), followed on the heels of The Russian Album. Asya traces the travails of a White Russian woman who escapes the Red Army by ship at the close of the Russian Civil War, and then the Nazis by crossing into Spain during the invasion of France. However, she ultimately escapes neither: her husband leaves her to fight for the USSR in the Great Patriotic War; her doomed son, captivated by White Russian exiles in Paris, joins the Nazi invasion of Russia. Thus Ignatieff tells not only the story of a “lucky” White Russian who “survived,” but the stories of other White Russians who did not. The novel concludes with Ignatieff imagining the heroine returning to Russia to the mansion of her youth (and by the tiniest leap, to the house of Ignatieff’s family, then known to him only in photographs) where Asya finds that the big house has been converted into a school. Slipping into the crumbling building, she sees that “time and forgetting could not efface the unique distribution of light in these rooms, the way the tall, narrow windows framed the green lozenges of garden lawn. The bare administrative drabness of every object could not shield Asya from the full force of recognition: the present was only a thin gauze of screen, through which there streamed, with all its unbearable brightness and clarity, the ivory light of her past.”[7] In Blood and Belonging, Ignatieff reports on his own subsequent trip to see that ancestral home (now a primary school in Ukraine): “They lead me through a house that my aging uncles in exile in Canada can still remember room by room, corridor by corridor, I feel I am sleepwalking through their memories. Now it is hung with pictures of Soviet pioneer heroes of the Great Patriotic War, and I am asked to give a little speech. I tell the children that I am the great-grandson of the man who built this house. I present them with copies of my family album’s photographs. They stare at them and at me with awe and disbelief.”[8]

A Public Mission

In his role as public intellectual, Ignatieff has spent great time, attention, and personal capital calling our attention to the fundamental conflicts of principle which confront the liberal world as it faces terrorism, ethnic conflict, demands for national self-determination, and its own internal political pathologies.

Ignatieff followed Blood and Belonging with two other investigations of ethnic conflict and political violence: Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (1998) and The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (2000). All three books involved first-hand exposure to violence at some real personal risk. Ignatieff imaginatively revisits the violence in Kosovo in his novel, Charlie Johnson in the Flames (2003), telling the story of a war correspondent who, suddenly, in a moment of intense contact with a woman burned to death in an act of ethnic violence, breaks down and loses all personal distance from the violence. Finding himself with the perpetrator, he wants “the man to feel fear, wanted him to know what being burned would feel like. That was it. A laying on of hands. The flame of recognition and shame would jump the gap between one soul and another. Something like that. One way or the other, a kind of religious occasion, a righteous moment.”[9]

Ignatieff synthesizes this empirical and imaginative work on nationalism and ethnic conflict in two lectures bound together in the short, powerful book Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001), in which he reasons that most Western states are choosing to ignore the tension between rights and stability. “They proclaim human rights as their goal, while aiding or investing in states with derisory human rights records. While this is usually seen as a problem of hypocrisy — not matching words to deeds — in fact it represents a fundamental conflict of principle.”[10] By carefully considering the case of the Kurds, Ignatieff reasons that such a fundamental conflict of principle is not easily reconciled and that advocates of human rights frequently fall victim to political naïveté. “Thus human rights advocates campaign on behalf of groups or individuals imprisoned or oppressed by states in the region without squarely facing up to the political issue — which is how to find a constitutional framework in the four states that have a Kurdish minority that will guarantee their rights, without creating a dynamic toward independence that would drive the region into civil war.”[11]

The idea that political actors frequently err by failing to recognize the existence of fundamental conflicts of principle within liberalism is an idea that Ignatieff attributes to Isaiah Berlin. In fact, in Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1998) he calls this insight “the one big thing” that “was to order his intellectual life thereafter: the theme of freedom and its betrayal.” In setting out this characterization of Berlin’s work, Ignatieff relies on one of Berlin’s “best thoughts” — that, following a line from the Greek poet Archilochus, the great minds of the past can be divided into two categories: the “fox who knows many things” and the “hedgehog who knows one big thing.”[12] In this biography — a work of great intellectual empathy which is based on Berlin’s somewhat epigrammatic writing and on many hours of interviews done over a period of ten years — Ignatieff synthesizes this idea that liberalism has fundamental conflicts of principle at its core. Through this synthesis, Ignatieff shows us how Berlin, the fox, discovered “that he was a hedgehog after all.”[13] Berlin taught, he tells us, that “[b]oth public and private choice had to take place in the absence of certainties. The compromises that made liberal society viable were rarely painless and sometimes they involved real damage and harm…. Tragedy was intrinsic to choice because all choice entailed significant loss.”[14]

Characteristically, Ignatieff also explored in fiction the idea that private “choice had to take place in the absence of certainties.” In Scar Tissue (1993; short-listed for the Booker Prize) he tells a searing story of a family confronting the loss of aging. The narrator, whose mother is slipping into dementia, draws inspiration from Moe, a man dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) but choosing to use his remaining strength to stay connected to his family, and from Mrs. Adkins, a woman who chooses assisted suicide rather than watch her life ebb away through dementia. Ignatieff compels the reader to recognize that Moe and Mrs. Adkins are faced with the same fundamental conflict of principle:

Whatever decision you make — whether you choose as Mrs Adkins did or not — it is important to understand that it is a choice. You can choose to die, or you can choose that life beyond selfhood, the life beyond the gates of truth. How you choose, Moe taught me, depends on the value you place on self-consciousness. No one can decide that for you. You can choose life or you can choose consciousness, but as Mrs Adkins knew, the illness does not allow you both. If you do not act, as Mrs Adkins did, on the first signs of its presence within you, the illness will not allow you the dignity of choice.[15]

In The Lesser Evil (2004), Ignatieff forces us to face difficult public choices and to consider the limits on state violence for the liberal, constitutional state confronting terrorism. While recognizing that liberal states must defend themselves — at times with armed force — he reasons that they must not choose violence unrestrained by the core institutions of political liberalism: “If force must be the ultimate response to violence against a constitutional state, what is to keep state violence from becoming as unconstrained as the enemy it is seeking to destroy? The only answer is democracy and the obligation of justification that it imposes on those who use force in its name.”[16] Thus he concludes, “[W]e have to do this because we are fighting a war whose essential prize is preserving the identity of liberal society itself and preventing it from becoming what terrorists believe it to be.”[17]

In his Presidential Lecture, Professor Ignatieff, as one of the few political thinkers to have led a political party, invites us to face a current crisis within liberalism: the partisanship that is tearing our politics apart by turning adversaries into enemies. Drawing, characteristically, on his personal experience, Michael Ignatieff will propose what we need to do to recover civility and compromise in our political discourse.


[1] Herman, David.

[2] Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, p. 249.

[3] Blood and Belonging, p. 11.

[4] Blood and Belonging, p. 13-14.

[5] A Just Measure of Pain, p. 82.

[6] The Russian Album, p. 1.

[7] Asya, p. 197.

[8] Blood and Belonging, p. 121-122.

[9] Charlie Johnson in the Flames, p. 113.

[10] Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, p. 25.

[11] Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, p. 26.

[12] Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 173.

[13] Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 201.

[14] Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 203.

[15] Scar Tissue, p. 186-187.

[16] The Lesser Evil, p. 108.

[17] The Lesser Evil, p. 144.

Text by Matthew Marostica, Curator for Political Science and Economics,
Stanford University Libraries ©2012



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