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Defending Michael Ignatieff

A pro-torture US imperialist? Not the guy I've seen.

Shefa Siegel 9 May
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During his brief residence at Harvard, Michael Ignatieff quickly became a regular on the lofty Cambridge lecture circuit. At points in his talks, he had a custom of reminding the audience of his perspective "As you know," he would say "I am Canadian," as in "The United Nations sometimes asks me to sit on commissions, because, as you know, I am Canadian."

But since reentering Canada and seeking the Liberal Party leadership, Ignatieff's Canadian identity is something he is required to defend in every interview. He is subject to suspicions about the imprint of foreign lands and whether he is attempting to import American military arrogance.

Most of the questions about Ignatieff's loyalty are fixed trivially on how much time he spent on Canadian soil, as if this is the only determinant of Canadian identity. But those questions about Ignatieff's patriotism imply deeper identity issues - questions about what, in the end, makes Canadians belong to each other. What, if anything, do Canadians believe about how the needs of people should be met by government? And how, if at all, should Canada represent itself in foreign policy?

Ignatieff has been cast one-dimensionally as an Ivy League academic. In fact, his Harvard post was at The Kennedy School of Government, which is less an academic environment than a global policy centre, a seminary for bureaucrats and a way station for dethroned Democrats waiting out the election cycle. Ignatieff himself was not awarded the human rights post for academic contributions. His reputation was built as a London (not American) -based writer.

Humanist impressionist

Just as he had done as a journalist, while at Harvard, Ignatieff practiced a brand of engaged humanism which is not the territory of an academic at all, but rather that of an intellectual. Unlike an academic, who seeks to dominate a discrete discipline, an intellectual views knowledge as evolving, changing and growing. An intellectual insists on verifying ideas through primary experience; frequently gutting old ways of thinking to meet new truths. If he is a public intellectual, then this transformation happens before an audience.

And as an intellectual at the largely technocratic Kennedy School, Ignatieff stood out. He stood out as a humanist and human rights philosopher; he stood out for caring about good writing and literature as much as politics; for being irreverent to the point of calling the entire body of academic human rights literature entirely beside the point ("If you can even call it literature," he liked to joke). And, because he insisted on telling everybody, he stood out for being Canadian.

As a student who attended Ignatieff's classes, I heard my peers criticize our teacher for being too impressionistic. For me, Ignatieff's lectures were a source of refuge precisely because the rap against him was true. Like every impressionist, he sacrificed detail in pursuit of a bigger, often fuzzier picture. Today's policy studies are dominated by the anti-poetic, wrathful "instruments" of social science - standard deviations, qualitative analysis, indicators, assessments and the assessment of assessments.

But Ignatieff was unconvinced by the American establishment's economic reductionism. "The quality of people's lives cannot be evaluated by gross domestic product alone," he argued, following the reasoning initially recorded in his book The Needs of Strangers where he wrote "What we need in order to survive, and what we need in order to flourish are two different things."

Ignatieff's thinking was grounded in the political philosophy of a different age - Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt - not to mention the best Canadian philosophers like Charles Taylor, James Tully and Will Kymlicka, whose writing on multiculturalism has no parallel in contemporary American political theory. In no small part, he was teaching the Canadian rights tradition.

More fox than hedgehog

Privately, Ignatieff had what religion scholars call a prismatic personality; demonstrating an ability to meet people on their own level. In addition to pontificating, arguing and thinking aloud, he did something rare for Ivy League professors - he asked you questions. This had the effect of making one feel led, not by someone omniscient, but by an avuncular thinker with a pragmatic thirst for knowledge. He could also be deeply self-deprecating, mocking himself for having sold out his pursuit of art.

In fact, Ignatieff was at his best in the realm of the artist. "If you want to write, you must find your metaphor," he told me at the first of our three meetings. And it is important that Ignatieff's finest work is not a political document at all, but a biography of Isaiah Berlin, a deeply personal portrait which manages to strike the chord of simultaneous affection and criticism so seldom achieved in biographies.

True to Berlin's own personality, Ignatieff falls into a category of artist Berlin called a fox. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," Berlin wrote in his classic essay, citing the Greek poet Archilochus. As a writer, rather than settling into one genre, Ignatieff veered from traditional historical writing to become a novelist, memoirist, moral philosopher and biographer.

He contributed to liberal magazines like the New York Review of Books and NY Times Magazine, writing about political and literary figures like Bernard Kouchner and Bruce Chatwin. Ignatieff's combination of linguistic finesse, artistry and photogeneity - qualities that will play well in televised political theatre - made him a good documentarian and he seemed to locate a more political voice in this genre while filming Blood and Belonging, his six-part BBC series on nationalism.

From there, he started to concentrate more on conflict, war and human rights. As a field reporter, Ignatieff never seemed quite in the middle of the action. More than reporting the news, Ignatieff remained a writer, always seeking philosophical motivations coursing beneath facts and engaging with friends among the dead. To understand the conflict in the Balkans, he invoked Freud's "narcissism of minor differences;" while grappling with Rwanda, he conversed with Joseph Conrad.

'Empire Lite'

It was while reporting from the Balkans that Ignatieff began developing his chief criticism of the international community. "You cannot run an empire with 25-year-olds working for aid agencies between finishing their bachelors degrees and going to law school," Ignatieff observed in a talk in 2001 at Tufts. This evolved into Ignatieff's magazine article and later a book called Empire Lite, which, despite its poor title, drove home the point that Western powers defend liberal democracy and human rights on the cheap and with unclear military motives.

Since the publication of his earlier book, The Warrior's Honour, Ignatieff had been working toward an ethics of intervention; attempting to articulate when and how to intervene militarily in humanitarian crises. His objective was to avoid exactly the unconscionable and humiliating situation we are witnessing yet again, where young aid workers with CARE or Oxfam are charged with stopping genocide in Darfur, while military power is deployed to the wrong places, or not at all.

Though he remained a popular feature on the lecture circuit, there was always the sense that Ignatieff was still searching for the right stage. Ignatieff possessed a pragmatic bent not shared by his mentor Berlin. Indeed, for any artist, there comes a point of wanting to prove his existence. But the question remains, when an artist decides he wants to use his ideas to govern, can he be trusted with the affairs of state?

The novelist Lawrence Durrell, who also had a career as an information officer in the British Foreign Service, once cautioned that the artist cannot dabble in politics because his real job is to "concentrate on values rather than policies." At the same time, Durrell wrote, contradicting himself like any good novelist should, "Ruling is an art, not a science, just as society is an organism, not a system."

Ignatieff has little of the managerial experience we have come to expect in the job profile of our professional politicians. He has not been CEO of a company, or administered a government agency. His primary public service falls more in the realm of literature and ideas than budgeting and tax shifting. So, the question goes, can an intellectual drive policy through government's crushingly impenetrable bureaucracies, where real political power lies today? What's more, does deep reflection necessarily translate into good political instincts?

Supporting Bush's invasion

At first glance, there are real concerns to be raised about Ignatieff's leadership bid. Though consistent with his ideas on intervention and support of the Kurds and Shias, Ignatieff temporarily ignored obvious signs of incompetence in the Bush administration that ensured a disastrous reconstruction in Iraq. This is an example where the virtue of an idea did not necessarily dictate sound policy.

But more than whether he would have taken Canada into war in Iraq, the question journalists should start asking Ignatieff is whether he would have withdrawn troops after realizing the war was mismanaged from the start. The reality is that Canada lacks military capacity to war on two fronts simultaneously, meaning the debate on Iraq was always a bit of moral showmanship. More important is how political class refuses to accept the lesson from Viet Nam, where the majority of deaths occurred long after everybody knew the policy was a failure. In short, political leaders also possess the most basic of human rights - the right to admit mistakes. The question is whether they have the humility to exercise it.

Here, Ignatieff may actually enjoy an advantage over a professional politician or bureaucrat. As an artist and intellectual, he has made a career of learning from experience. Early in 2002, I attended a panel on which Ignatieff was sitting with the conservation biologist E.O. Wilson. During Wilson's sermon, I watched Ignatieff turn his chair around to face the lecturer, as a student would face his professor. He then immediately incorporated Wilson's ideas into his own talk on human rights. The message? He was learning alongside us.

In a forgotten NY Times Magazine article of March 14, 2004, Ignatieff did withdraw his support for the Bush-led war (as opposed to the war itself), acknowledging he had underestimated the competence of his shipmates, writing "I supported an Administration I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences."

Environment and human rights

On other critical policy issues, Ignatieff also demonstrates a willingness to have his mind changed. In all his writing about international affairs, Ignatieff has not once written significantly about environment and resource issues. And yet, following his parliamentary campaign, he told a reporter he had not previously understood just how central environmental issues are for people in his riding.

Meanwhile, Ignatieff's foreign affairs expertise might be the only thing capable of coaxing Canada out of an increasingly lazy foreign policy. As civil war in Iraq hands control of the region to a potentially nuclear, and definitely nihilistic Iran, China - backed by Russia - is economically colonizing Africa, southern Arabia and parts of Latin America and the South Pacific. What this means was summarized in one line by the president of Yemen, who, after returning from a recent trip to China, announced triumphantly "China wants to give us lots of money, and they don't care whether we are democratic or corrupt!"

As Ignatieff postulated in an op-ed for the New York Times in 2002, it is possible we are now witnessing the end of the human rights era. If this proves correct, it is a poor moment to choose isolationism over internationalism. But so far, Canada's response to this new order is to shutter its embassies the world over.

And yet, a powerful voice of moral persuasion to balance U.S. aggression is the ideal role for Canada to play in foreign policy. Framed this way, it might be possible to persuade people that being a left-leaning social democrat is not inconsistent with supporting a real foreign policy aimed at stitching the world back together.

Taking on torture

But the real dilemma for a public intellectual like Ignatieff is whether his audience possesses the patience for precision and deliberation. To this point, the smell test suggests the answer is maybe not, or at least not yet. The clearest evidence is the issue of Ignatieff's alleged support for torture. A close reading of the position he articulated in the Financial Times on May 15, 2004, shows Ignatieff clearly rejecting the idea proposed by Alan Dershowitz that liberal democracies should start regulating rather than outlawing torture, following a longstanding American belief that torture in times of trouble is inevitable.

"Legalisation of physical force in interrogation will hasten the process by which it becomes routine," Ignatieff wrote, vigorously defending the inviolability of human dignity. "For torture, when committed by a state, expresses the state's ultimate view that human beings are expendable. This view is antithetical to the spirit of any constitutional society whose raison d'etre is the control of violence and coercion in the name of human dignity and freedom. We should have faith in this constitutional identity. It is all that we have to resist the temptations of nihilism…"

Nowhere does Ignatieff support methods like water-boarding, and his treatise on the suppression of civil liberties in the name of national security was roundly applauded by the New York Review of Books, whose reporting on Abu Ghraib exposed and admonished the Bush administration for adopting a policy of torture. The problem for Ignatieff is he openly debates himself in public, examining differences between coercion and torture, asking out loud why it is not okay to torture your enemies but it is acceptable to kill them. These are the questions of an ethicist at work in his laboratory, at a time when the electorate confuses simplicity of thought with ideological resolve and moral courage.

As more a popularizer of ideas than a populist, Ignatieff's campaign amounts to a referendum on the role of intellectuals in Canadian politics. Modern politics was never intended to be the exclusive domain of career politicians and tycoons. A meritocracy is supposed to respect service from all social spheres, including the realm of ideas. Indeed, Ignatieff's real challenge is to make the Liberals a thinking person's party again. If he is successful, the challenge for Ignatieff is just how tied a career thinker will be to the pre-existing Liberal establishment, whose ideas have been atonal for a generation. After a career circulating as a fox on the fringes - observing, recording, witnessing - can Ignatieff make Canadian government hum again by proving the point that ruling really is an art?

Shefa Siegel is a writer living in Vancouver. He works as an environmental expert for the United Nations, and, as you know, is Canadian.  [Tyee]

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