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Reading Michael Ignatieff

Whether writing on Iraq, Rwanda or Kosovo, the central character is himself.

Richard Warnica 27 Nov

Richard Warnica is a senior editor of The Tyee. Read his previous articles here.

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Ignatieff: Witness to horrors.

In a professional career spanning many decades, Michael Ignatieff has been many things to many people: teacher, writer, philosopher and now politician. But in interviews, when Ignatieff describes himself, it is often his work as a journalist that he returns to. It's not surprising. In a 30-year career as reviewer, reporter, essayist and commentator, Ignatieff established himself as one of the most prolific highbrow writers of his generation. Ignatieff has written well over 100 long features of one form or another for non-academic journals since 1976. Their scope and range is remarkably wide. But read together they tell a single story, the story of Michael Ignatieff.

The final chapter of the Ignatieff opus began last year when he jumped from Harvard University to the world of Canadian politics. So far it's been equal parts tragedy, comedy and drama as the lifelong public intellectual has struggled to adapt to the less measured world of politics. We'll know one way or the other whether that story will continue after this weekend's Liberal Leadership Convention. But until then, it's worth examining how Ignatieff has written his own story up till now.

Early arguments

After a brief affair with journalism as an undergraduate -- he interned at The Globe and Mail while at the University of Toronto -- Ignatieff largely abandoned popular writing until he finished his doctorate in 1976. That year, Ignatieff began a long, intermittent tenure as a book reviewer for the American left-ish magazine, The New Republic. Ignatieff's early reviews dissected topics that would consume much of his intellectual real estate for the next three decades. Books on power, punishment and Liberalism all passed through the young intellectual's grinder. His early work reveals a man still creating an intellectual identity, and one struggling to find a voice to express it. In years to follow, that voice would lurch between the blocky prose of a Harvard trained academic and the lyrical flow of a Booker Prize nominated novelist, without ever seeming to find a comfortable middle ground.

Ignatieff's first review, of conservative philosopher Ernest van den Haag's Punishing Criminals, appeared in the May 22, 1976 issue of The New Republic. At the time, Ignatieff had begun work on what would become his first book, a history of jail in the industrial revolution entitled A Just Measure of Pain. In the review, Ignatieff steps gingerly around van den Haag's ideas. He recognizes that Punishing Criminals is a serious work. But at the same time he disagrees with all its central points.

There are two things worth noting about the way Ignatieff dissents in the review. They're notable because both occur and reoccur throughout his career. The first is the way that, even as a fledgling writer, Ignatieff took pains to distinguish himself and his ideas from the common crowd.

"All of this is stern medicine," Ignatieff writes of van den Haag's proscriptions for lower crime -- which included indefinite detention for violent offenders and the reinstitution of the death penalty. "He is sure to be attacked by those who believe that punishment does not reduce crime, but I am not sure that this is the best line of argument to take against him."

Ignatieff's first instinct, then, is not to lay down his argument, but to separate it from the obvious. I disagree, he seems to say, but it's not what you think.

It might be a little much to read into that passage a foreshadowing of Ignatieff's later contrarian instincts. But when you consider the defining moments of the man's career -- breaking with his friends to support Thatcher in the coal miner's strike of 1984; supporting the NATO campaign in Kosovo; risking his credibility on the invasion of Iraq; and publicly musing on the efficacy of coercive interrogation -- it seems almost prophetic.

Caveats enter

Ignatieff, even in 1976, was not one to wrap himself in assumed truths. Even if those assumed truths were, in fact, demonstrably true.

When Ignatieff reaches a conclusion in the van den Haag review, he wraps it in caveats, another recurring feature of his writing, and one that led him to some trouble when he took on torture in post 9-11 America.

"If you believe order is the paramount value, and if you believe order is under attack from all sides, as [van den Haag] does, you might well support measures to forcibly detain those who have already paid the formal penalties of law," Ignatieff writes. "On the other hand, if you believe that it is more important for a society to be just than to be orderly, you would probably let the 'dangerous' go and take the chance that they will do harm again.

Ignatieff goes on to say that he sides with justice, even if he is bothered by the idea of letting the dangerous go. But his wishy-washy 'if this then that' path to conclusion is hardly the most convincing one available. And it was that same over-judicious weighing of both sides, in a 2006 essay entitled "If Torture Works" that led many to believe Ignatieff endorsed the practice.

By the late eighties Ignatieff was writing extensively on topics ranging from the origins of Liberalism, to the limits of state power and his own family's history in Russia. His work appeared in most major English language magazines in England and the United States. The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, Harper's Time and Granta all published his writing. But it wasn't until the early 1990s and the ethnic strife bred by the collapse of the Soviet Union that the next phase of Ignatieff's journalism really took off.

Up until that point, Ignatieff had been mostly a book reviewer and commentator. But sometime around the first Gulf War, he became something else entirely: a reporter. It was his reportage, from human disasters such as Kurdish Northern Iraq, post-Yugoslav Bosnia and Kosovo and Northern Ireland, that formed the backbone of his three-part book series on nationalism and human rights. Today, Ignatieff's on-the-ground experience of mass slaughter remains his default excuse for supporting the Iraq war. "I made a decision to stand with the Kurds," he has said more than once. "And I stand with them today."

Ignatieff begins with I

Something else changed when Ignatieff transitioned from reviewer to reporter. More and more he began to write himself into his own work. As the '90s progressed, the main character in more and more of Michael Ignatieff's work became Michael Ignatieff.

Consider this passage from a 1993 essay in the British Literary journal Granta. In it, Ignatieff recalls his childhood experience as the son of the Canadian ambassador to Tito's Yugoslavia:

I had no idea how complicated and ambiguous the division between national and Yugoslav identity actually was. I knew that Method, my tennis coach in Bled, always called himself, first and foremost, a Slovenian. I dimly remembered him saying bitterly that he hated serving in the Yugoslav National Army, because both he and his brother were ragged by the Serbs for being Slovenian.

Was that the only time I saw the cracks that were to become fissures? Everywhere else, I remember people who told me, happily that they were Yugoslavs. In retrospect, I was there at the most hopeful moment.

Or this one from a New Yorker article on Richard Holbrooke, the American special envoy to Yugoslavia in the run-up to the NATO bombing of Kosovo

This, I was being encouraged to believe, was how American diplomacy was carried out; at least when Holbrooke was in charge: on the run, in the street, between a visit to a jewelry store and a meal in a taverna. Diplomacy was not like chess, Holbrooke told me; it was more like jazz¬ -- a constant improvisation on a theme. He had invited me along to watch the performance.

Personal pronouns litter his work. And while, individually, each story is separate, in topic, in quality, in method, taken on the whole, his journalism from this period has a unifying narrative: it is Michael Ignatieff telling the story of Michael Ignatieff as he sees and is changed by some of the worst things humans did to one another in the late 20th century.

The final phase of Michael Ignatieff as journalist, (assuming he is now, somewhat permanently, a politician) grew out of these experiences.

The Great Equivocator?

The late 1980s and early 1990s calcified much of Ignatieff's personal philosophy. The failure of Western states to prevent and arrest violence in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia took its toll on the now well-known writer. They built in him a conviction that traditional peacekeeping had lost its way. And an equally strong belief that something new, something more muscular, would have to take its place.

It was from this environment that Ignatieff's most famous, and infamous, journalism appeared. In a series of articles, mostly in the New York Times Magazine and The Guardian, Ignatieff came out strongly in favour of invasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a different Ignatieff that emerged in these articles, both from the globe-trotting reporter of the 1990s and the cerebral reviewer of the seventies and eighties: an Ignatieff calling for clear, precise action and vigorously defending those choices. In retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that it was this Ignatieff who leapt to the world of politics.

At the same time, though, the old Ignatieff was still clearly there. Ignatieff, even when convinced he had the right answer, couldn't help arguing the other side. Consider this passage, from an article supporting the Iraq invasion, published in The Guardian in 2003:

Who wants to live in a world where there are no stable rules for the use of force by states? Not me. Who wants to live in a world ruled by the military power of the strong? Not me. How will we oblige American military hegemony to pay "decent respect to the opinions of mankind?" I don't know. When the smoke of battle lifts, those who support the war will survey a battle zone that will include the ruins of the multilateral political order created in 1945.

Equivocating is not a habit that has served Ignatieff well as a politician. Since entering politics he has seemed muddled on policies domestic and foreign. But Liberals can hardly argue that he didn't warn them. After all he's been doing it for years, and the evidence, in hundreds of articles and a good many books, is all available at your local library.

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