There are political philosophers and there are philosophers-politicians. The former can be found at every university and occasionally in the pages of a national newspaper, the latter are indeed rare. One of the most prominent, Michael Ignatiev, was in Dublin last week.
Gnatieff was once a Canadian expatriate academic who lived a golden life in the ivory towers of Harvard, where he alternated his work as a human rights scholar with award-winning journalism, having previously written a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel. Then, one night in 2004, a “Men in Black” group visited him and asked him to take over the Liberal Party back home in Canada and lead it back to power.
The idea was absurd: Ignatiev had been abroad for more than 30 years, little practical political experience and little evidence of the relevant skills. So he agreed. He quit his job, returned home, won a seat in Parliament, won leadership of the Liberal Party (and thus the opposition) and led the party to its worst defeat in history in 2011.
He duly resigned, returned to Harvard, and from there ran the George Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest, expelled from Hungary by Viktor Orban in 2018 and now based in Vienna. Ignatiev resigned as rector last year and returned to the classroom as a history professor.
Ignatiev is the definition of the globalized liberal – a stereotype ridiculed by the progressive left and the populist right alike; a “citizen of nowhere,” in Theresa May’s words. As her opponents portray her (with some justification), this is the kind of uprooted, centrist technocrat who has helped provoke international crises twice in a decade — the 2003 war on Iraq and the financial liberalization that led to the economic collapse of 2008. That such a person would seek first to become a philosopher-king and second to be despised by his constituency fits perfectly with this narrative.
But Ignatiev has, in today’s jargon, ‘admitted’ his mistakes and he is a staunch defender of classical liberalism; both are set out in his great political memoirs, fire and ashes. On Thursday, he gave a lecture on Democracy and Revolution at the Trinity Long Room Hub. On Friday he discussed academic freedom with UCD politics professor Ben Tonra at the Royal Irish Academy. (Both events will be available online.) In between I spoke to him. I learned three important lessons from this.
1 Expect history, but don’t erase it
The perceived threat to free speech on campus by the “abandon culture” and the “woke” left has become a mainstay of conservative media in the US and UK. I have told Ignatiev that it is difficult for me to judge from Ireland how serious this threat is. “It’s being fueled from the outside — that’s undoubtedly true,” he said. “The conservative right is having a big day with these cases. Universities need to stand up for themselves and fight back – but we need to clean up our own houses too. As an old-fashioned Liberal, I regret when Conservatives are denied a platform.”
Some of those who were canceled are long dead. The Berkeley Library at Trinity is named after George Berkeley – a seminal 18th-century Irish philosopher but also a slave owner. The Trinity Students’ Union has decided to call it the X Library and has called for its official renaming to “make meaningful engagement with historical atrocities to create a justice-oriented present,” as union leader Gabi Fullam put it last month.
“I think it’s overdue to settle accounts,” said Ignatiev. “There is no question that Trinity, Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and Harvard are all facing a very painful awakening to the fact that many of these places were built on slavery, imperialism or the exploitation of subject peoples. The problem is that the solutions imposed often involve deleting them.”
Students need to be able to hold two ideas in their head at once, he said (for example, that Berkeley was a great philosopher and that he was a slave owner) and not use one thought to nullify the other. “The instinct to erase, to abolish, is absolutely fatal to spiritual life.”
2 Our policies are based on shared democratic consent. This consent is frayed
In politics, too, there is a need to be able to keep two seemingly contradictory ideas in mind: We must reject the opponent’s positions and still be able to accept them. That requires something akin to what the French writer Tocqueville experienced in America in the 1830s, where the country was (in Ignatiev’s words) “held together by a secular religion of common democratic consent.”
But this mutual agreement is fading. Ignatiev saw this first-hand when he entered Canadian politics, where he was surprised at the relentlessness of personal attacks, which he described as an attempt to deny him “appointment”. “Standing has become the primary battleground in modern politics,” he wrote in fire and ashes. “They no longer attack a candidate’s ideas or positions. You attack who they are.”
Such partisanship “turns adversaries into enemies,” further raising the stakes and shrinking the space for engagement. “An adversary must be defeated, while an enemy must be destroyed. You can’t compromise with enemies.”
This poses a particular challenge for liberals, who believe that free and open competition of ideas is at the heart of democracy: how to deal with opponents willing to subvert that democracy? “You have to do politics with people you don’t like – that’s politics,” Ignatiev told me. “But then comes the moment when people take positions that directly destroy democracy itself. At this point – but only at this point – the conversation must stop. If they cross a line and try to circumvent the rules of the game themselves, you have to break with them, otherwise the game will be destroyed.” In the Weimar Republic at the end of the 1920s, the conservatives never took action against Hitler.
“All of us (in the media and academia) trade in alarmism and disaster,” he said. But sometimes these answers are justified. The storming of the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021 was one such event. “This is potentially catastrophic and we just don’t know how it will play out.”
“We are in an age of revolutionary change,” he warned in his presentation. “We seem to be heading for a moment when suddenly another revolution is in sight.”
3 Practical politics is hurtful, insidious, opportunistic – and a noble art
Politics is “the noblest and most troublesome of all human activities,” he wrote in his memoirs. “You use human vices – cunning and ruthlessness – in the service of virtues – justice and decency.” Those were lessons he learned the hard way; It is clear that he was not born with the ruthlessness or ease of messaging.
But despite the scars, Ignatiev remains “completely sentimental and utterly uncynical about democratic politics.” Not for him the cynicism of the slinger on the ditch; Ignatiev played senior hurling. “Those of us who answered the call know that success or failure matters less to us than the simple fact that we answered it,” he concluded.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/canadian-liberal-michael-ignatieffs-key-lessons-in-democracy-and-revolution-42051189.html Canadian Liberal Michael Ignatiev’s Key Lessons in Democracy and Revolution