Michael Ignatieff’s Nouveau Modesty
The Ordinary Virtues epitomizes a career defined by ironies
In his lacerating novel Scar Tissue (1993), which was shortlisted for the Booker and Whitbread awards, Michael Ignatieff offers an intimate portrayal of losing his mother to Alzheimer’s disease. The novel’s characters are fictionalized, but the thoughts, reflections, and locutions are unmistakably Ignatieff’s. He represents Alzheimer’s as a form of death in life, a curse that is genetic in origin but metaphysical in meaning. Ignatieff imagines the accumulation of amyloid plaques, the “dark starbursts of scar tissue” in the brain, as a familial bequest: “I have seen the inheritance,” he writes, “the family silver.” And he imagines how the disease will eventually come for him, too:
I know that at the very last moment, when everything I ever knew has been effaced from my mind, when pure vacancy has taken possession of me, then light of the purest whiteness will stream in through my eyes into the radiant and empty plain of my mind. Then I will be face to face at last with a pure and heartless reality beyond anything a living soul can possibly imagine.
The story of Michael Ignatieff’s career, as told by his immense literary output—sixteen non-fiction books and three novels—is the tale of a political philosopher who was never entirely at home in political philosophy, who instead wanted to see his ideas play out in the world, and sometimes even onscreen. His two produced screenplays—one, an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, features Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler; the other, 1919, starring Paul Scofield and Colin Firth, brings two of Sigmund Freud’s former patients together to commiserate about their treatment after 65 years—represent an enduring side-interest in European intellectual history. Ignatieff currently serves as president and rector of the Central European University in Budapest.
But, from another angle, Michael Ignatieff’s primary concern has always been memory—personal, familial, and cultural—and its potential loss. In works like Scar Tissue and The Russian Album—his Governor General’s Award-winning family memoir tracing the history of his grandfather, a minister to Russia’s Czar Nicholas II, and his great-grandfather, Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, a ruthless Russian minister of the interior—Ignatieff’s preoccupation with memory is central. Yet even his more academic interests are infused with a desire to conserve elements of the liberal democratic tradition he values. His biography Isaiah Berlin: A Life, considered by many to be his strongest achievement, is fueled by an impulse to record not only the ideas of the pre-eminent liberal thinker but also, in some more visceral way, the embodied life of the man himself: his rapid speech (“the despair of typists and stenographers,” Ignatieff recalls), his self-deprecating charm (the way he would describe himself as an “intellectual taxi; people flag me down and give me destinations and off I go”), his oddly endearing hypochondria (“students remember him conducting tutorials from his bed, the covers scattered with books, papers, cups of tea and biscuits”). Berlin’s vivid life in these pages is testament to what Vladimir Nabokov called “the refuge of art,” and Ignatieff tacitly agrees that it is the only immortality we may share.
Ignatieff’s writing on democracy and human rights feels motivated by a similar sense of historical obligation, to transcribe and document these precarious achievements, and to preserve our common ideals against the forces—apocalyptic terrorism, nuclear destruction, environmental catastrophe—threatening to efface them. Ignatieff is, of course, preternaturally ambitious and self-confident, and he expects his work to survive. At times, particularly when writing about facets of postwar liberal theory, he seems to be writing for a reader living hundreds of years in the future. In Scar Tissue, Ignatieff explicitly equates the purpose of his writing with the “time capsules” once assigned to school children. And buried within the time capsule that constitutes Ignatieff’s body of work we find personal mementos and familial recollections, alongside many other ancestral recipes and formulas that belong to all of us: theories of democracy, liberalism, human rights, and political freedom. For Ignatieff, these ideas represent the core of our common inheritance: the real family silver. “Memory is the only afterlife I have ever believed in,” Ignatieff has written. “But the forgetting inside us cannot be stopped. We are programmed to betray.”
The origins of Michael Ignatieff’s latest book, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, lie in an inheritance of a different sort. In 1914, Andrew Carnegie donated $2 million to endow the Church Peace Union. That Union, which brought Jewish leaders together with those from eleven different Christian sects, was given one job: end war. Not any particular war, but war in general. “We all feel,” Carnegie said at the gathering of trustees, “that the killing of man by man in battle is barbaric and negatives our claim to civilization. This crime we wish to banish from the Earth.” Violence had proven useful for Carnegie at least once in his career: in an 1892 episode that Ignatieff does not address, Carnegie’s business partner, Henry Clay Frick, dispatched 300 Pinkerton detectives to break a strike at one of Carnegie’s steel mills, resulting in one of the bloodiest conflicts in U.S. labour history. By 1914, however, Carnegie—who had gone on to become one of America’s greatest cultural benefactors—believed that violence was not only undesirable but that world peace was within grasp: so confident was Carnegie in this goal that his endowment speech to the Church Peace Union quickly turned to how they should use the money after the matter of world peace had been settled. Specifically, they were to direct the remaining money to the “deserving poor”—that is, those who “have not themselves to blame for their poverty.”
Carnegie’s anti-war initiative was a nice idea, though the timing could have been better: four months later, Franz Ferdinand’s royal car made what had to be the most momentous wrong turn in human history, bringing the Austrian archduke within pistol range of a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. The resulting chain reaction of wars defined our history for a century.
Carnegie’s bequest, meanwhile, kept on accruing interest. By the time the organization (now called the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs) was preparing for its centenary, Ignatieff, its centennial chair, suggested that the council “take ethics out of the seminar room” to consider how it shapes decisions around the globe. The result is The Ordinary Virtues, a book interested in the interrelationship between globalization and ethics. The material consequences of globalization are comparatively easy to track, as people, jobs, dollars, and products circulate around the globe. By the time the assortment of sapphire crystal, semiconductors, and other rare earth minerals are assembled into your iPhone, the device has travelled 800,000 kilometres. But what impact has globalization wrought on the immaterial systems, the values and ethics, which hold communities together? Are disparate human societies coming to speak a shared language of global ethics, or is the shock of globalization retrenching tribal divisions? Ignatieff’s purpose here is to question “whether moral globalization, in particular the spread of human rights, has changed the ordinary virtues, whether the new global ethics of our time have made people more tolerant, trusting, and assertive of their rights in daily life.”
That’s a worthwhile and fascinating question; Ignatieff’s analysis, though, is rooted in several loaded assumptions about contemporary globalization, starting with his belief that the phenomenon is fundamentally “post-imperial” in nature: “For all the loose talk about neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism in our day, for the first time since the 1490s no imperial power dominates the global economy.” Instead, all nations now fight it out in the global “cash nexus,” a situation in which nation states themselves have ceased to be primary actors, and can no longer ignore the voices of their own citizenry. Thus, globalization, he argues, has helped facilitate the widespread acceptance of the discourse of human rights. While asymmetries of power persist, we have accepted equality of voice as a normative value around the world. As a corollary, Ignatieff speaks of systemic racist oppression in the past tense: “As late as the mid-twentieth century,” he says, “hierarchies of voice still privileged whites over blacks…[and] imperial holders of power over their colonial subjects.” While Ignatieff is here outlining a theoretical apparatus, critics of globalization will question the extent to which this theory reflects the phenomenon’s lived reality.
Ignatieff implies a similarly sanguine view regarding other well-known sticking points for globalization’s critics, including unfair labour practices and the steep environmental costs of global profit: players in the global economy face “unprecedented regulatory pressure from states, vigilant monitoring by UN bodies, and constant contestation by global civil society movements and the consumer.” Ignatieff is surely aware that critics on the left will view these assumptions as naked justifications for neo-imperialist capitalist hegemony, while those on the right will frame them as the basis of a self-serving fairy tale for Davos jet-setters. Ignatieff himself sees them as simply reflecting the way things are. Let others debate the relative merits or shortcomings of globalization; Ignatieff treats it as the sine qua non for any mature discussion of the book’s more explicit interests.
Those interests lie in what Ignatieff calls the “ordinary virtues.” The ordinary virtues are not “values,” which are culturally inherited, but something deeper: a sort of evolutionary operating system that governs human interaction and keeps us within certain moral parameters. These virtues—“trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resilience”—are “ordinary” in the sense that they are quotidian and unheroic, as well as unreflexive and unconscious. The domain of the ordinary virtues represents, for Ignatieff, a sort of ethical substructure upon which more deliberate, formalized moral operations depend. To investigate the universality of these ordinary virtues, and to examine their relationship to globalization and the discourse of human rights, Ignatieff “set off on a journey of moral discovery that was to take us, over the next three years, to four continents.”
If that statement sounds like the voiceover script for a movie trailer, that’s because The Ordinary Virtues is what we might charitably call “high concept.” Having established his ordinary virtues, Ignatieff, along with his field team, visits various exotic and far-flung locales—south central Los Angeles, New York City’s Queens, Brazil, Bosnia, Myanmar, Japan, South Africa—to test his hypothesis and see how the virtues play out “on the ground,” so to speak, close to where conflicts really start. While undoubtedly sincere in his intentions, Ignatieff occasionally strikes the reader as something akin to a 19th-century ethnographic anthropologist, setting off to probe the moral habits of the natives. The book thus introduces us to Zimbabweans living in shantytowns, Brazilians in favelas, Japanese farmers, and former gang leaders in Los Angeles. Do such people believe in human rights? Does their virtue resemble our own? Do all humans function according to a universal operating system of shared virtues? The very attempt to ask such questions—never mind answer them in a culturally nuanced and sensitive fashion—will strike some readers as hopelessly quixotic. (Come, reader: let’s spend a few days among these people, and then draw some generalizations.) And, admittedly the results are mixed.
Ignatieff’s first moral expedition finds him in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood of Queens, an entry point for many of the poorest immigrants in America. He notes the racial makeup of the neighbourhood, and points out that despite the apparent diversity (there are Jamaicans, Chinese, Hondurans, Dominicans, Nepalis, and Orthodox Jews), each racial group tends to stick to their own. (Ignatieff emphasizes this note throughout: the most successful diversity, he suspects, also involves segregation. Multiculturalism involves groups living parallel, but not deeply enmeshed, lives.) Ignatieff describes what he sees on the streets (signs in English, Spanish, and Urdu), provides basic statistics (47 percent of Queens residents were born abroad, for instance) and a smattering of history (America’s policy leaders would never have envisioned their multicultural future when they struck down the race-based immigration restrictions, he observes), and does a limited amount of reporting. He then gets back on the subway, “after three days of walking the streets of Jackson Heights and talking to everybody I could,” and reflects upon what he saw.
Ignatieff is capable of forging some genuinely interesting connections between the places he visits and the liberal political ideas that are his métier. His elegant sentences are always a pleasure to read, and much of the ethnographic reportage works as a species of literary travel writing. At times, such as when he describes how the decision to pursue higher education can be difficult for first-generation immigrants in Los Angeles—for whom a university education might partially alienate them from their families—Ignatieff writes perceptively and sympathetically about cultural experiences radically different from his own. At others, such as when he reports “fairness…is a continual site of contestation between the police and community groups,” the book merely states the obvious.
But there is no escaping the fact that the book’s seven field studies simply cannot carry the weight of an analysis of how globalization has impacted the manifestation of virtue in ground-level conflicts across the globe. Moreover, The Ordinary Virtues presents the reader with a minor reprise of major issues that have emerged from Ignatieff’s work during the past 15 years—much of which has attempted to take his brand of liberal democratic thinking “out of the seminar room.” In this case, to his credit, Ignatieff was clear about the limitations of the approach from the start. His team would only travel to locations where the Carnegie Council’s global fellows could serve as facilitators. That’s understandable, but the resulting book, and the voices it contains, seems highly determined by the institutional necessities that provided its subject matter. The book is circumscribed by its institutional demands, and readers may wonder if the author is not operating as a different sort of “intellectual taxi” (in Isaiah Berlin’s phrase) as he shuttles between appointments made by the council. One may be tempted to wonder why a writer of his status would make such compromises. But Ignatieff has always been more comfortable working within institutional power norms than standing outside with a placard, protesting them.
More broadly, The Ordinary Virtues involves a shift in emphasis within the terms of Ignatieff’s liberalism, particularly with regard to his treatment of human rights. Those inalienable rights, which once seemed to form the bedrock of his thought, are demoted in The Ordinary Virtues to an “elite discourse,” one thinly distributed through academics and NGOs throughout the world. It’s not that Ignatieff’s belief in human rights has diminished, but that he now concedes that most people, when confronted with urgent ethical choices, don’t consult UN declarations or grandiose, abstract formulations. “Tolerance,” “multiculturalism,” “human rights”—these ideas sound good on paper, but they rarely enter into concrete decisions made by individual actors. Instead, Ignatieff argues, ethically charged interactions proceed according to the “subliminal operating system” of those involved. For example, Ignatieff writes, most people do not
construe tolerance as an obligation, as a proposition they were obliged to respect with all people. It was determined by the person in question, the situation, the history they had managed to create with each other. Tolerance was not a universal value, just a workaday social practice. It was an ordinary virtue, fragile, contingent, easily damaged by violence, police brutality, or crime, dependent for its survival upon nothing more than its humble reproduction in daily life.
The ordinary virtues, in short, cannot be legislated into existence. The best that societies can do is foster stable institutions that allow for our natural operating systems to replicate themselves, meme-like, through quotidian interactions. Our ethical operating systems are not top-down impositions, but bottom-up manifestations of a shared moral nature. Ignatieff cites Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) as a canonical formulation of the idea that each individual possesses the capacity to feel sympathy, pity, and compassion for others—“when we either see it,” Smith writes, “or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner”—a natural sympathy that forms the ethical substrate of the ordinary virtues.
Ignatieff has long espoused some version of Isaiah Berlin’s “negative liberty”: the idea that responsibilities of the liberal state lie in eliminating obstacles to individual freedom, rather than in guaranteeing their provision. Nonetheless, his writing in the lead-up to the Iraq war served as an important intellectual justification for the enforcement of positive liberty in the global arena. In a January 2003 cover story for the New York Times Magazine entitled “The American empire; the burden,” later expanded into the book Empire Lite, Ignatieff framed the liberal argument for the military invasion and forced democratization of Iraq. While Americans were understandably wary of the “empire” label, and correct to assume that the demands of empire existed in opposition to its republican ideals, Ignatieff argued that the U.S. should embrace its imperial destiny. He imagined the U.S. as “an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”
Despite its occasional rhetorical enthusiasm for American military might, Ignatieff’s essay was by no means an unthinking war cry: he called upon American leadership to heed the lessons of Vietnam (and, more distantly, Rome), and framed the decision to invade Iraq as a choice between two evils. Instead, it was read as the thinking man’s war cry—an argument that provided a serious academic imprimatur to many of the standard George W. Bush-era justifications for the invasion: the supposed weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons), Saddam Hussein’s sponsorship of terror, and the utopian possibilities of a fully democratic Middle East. Obviously, Ignatieff could not have foreseen the scope of the disaster that followed, nor was his own contribution to the pro-war corpus unique even among liberal intellectuals (whose ranks included Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, and Christopher Hitchens), who had made the case for war palatable among the ostensibly left-leaning centre.
Ignatieff was by no means the Iraq war’s Henry Kissinger. But he did provide, in The Lesser Evil (2004), perhaps the most cogent intellectual framework for some of the most illiberal aspects of the “forever war” in which we are still enmeshed. The book’s basic argument is that liberal democratic states must be prepared to sacrifice some of their civil liberties if they expect to win the war on terror. Again, Ignatieff cannot be accused of simplification; nor does he mince words: torture, extraordinary rendition, targeted assassinations, and the suppression of civil liberties are, in no uncertain terms, “evil.” But such tactics may also be necessary, he argues, if liberal democracies are to survive the threat posed by Islamist terror. The fundamental moral distinction, he claims, lies in the fact that while agents of pure evil wield political violence for their own nihilistic purposes, liberal democracies reluctantly embrace such tactics for the preservation of their citizens’ safety and human rights.
What is most stunning about this argument for today’s reader is Ignatieff’s faith, at least at that time, in liberal democratic institutions to put the genie back in the bottle. “Democracies have shown themselves capable of keeping the secret exercise of power under control,” Ignatieff states. The Lesser Evil remains one of the most eloquent and intellectual public justifications for the suspension of civil rights in a state of emergency. In practice, this amounted to a validation of the Patriot Act, which provided expanded powers of surveillance to the National Security Agency, authorized the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without charge or trial, and the increased presidential authority to launch drone attacks that have killed American citizens (and countless others) abroad. The issue was not, as some of his critics on the left asserted, that Ignatieff had joined the ranks of the neoconservatives, but that he had marshalled the language of democratic freedom and human rights to help build a case that ultimately led to the erosion of those very ideals. The extent to which Ignatieff would recognize this is unclear. In “Getting Iraq wrong,” a 2007 essay that appeared to be a quasi-mea culpa, Ignatieff claimed that even many of those who were “right” about Iraq were still technically wrong, since the source of their right thinking had been ideological dogma and not analytical judgment.
Public intellectuals, and especially academics, often think of their raison (and defend the institution of tenure) in terms of speaking “truth to power”: that is, exposing the gap between the rhetorical ideals of our democratically elected politicians and their actual behaviour. Ignatieff devoted his years at Harvard to the opposite aim, creating an intellectual framework for those in power and offering public justifications for the curtailment of civil liberties. As the author of Virtual War and an architect of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s The Responsibility to Protect, Ignatieff was among the preeminent scholars of human rights-based military interventionism and nation-building in the early stages of a war that would cost (according to the Lancet) 650,000 lives. Of course, by this time, the gap between Ignatieff’s “academic” and “political” profiles had all but closed. Six months after the publication of The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff received a fateful visit from “the men in black.” As he relates in Fire and Ashes, his political memoir, these men—Alfred Apps, Dan Brock, and Ian Davey, three Canadian Liberal operatives who felt that the federal party was headed for an electoral train wreck under Paul Martin—had come to make an astonishing proposition. Their intention, they said, was to make Ignatieff the next prime minister of Canada. Ignatieff had found a placard he was comfortable waving.
The rest of the story is a matter of recent public record. In a remarkably short span of time, Ignatieff rose within the Liberal ranks to defeat his old roommate Bob Rae for the party’s leadership. Perhaps his most consequential act as leader of the opposition was the decision not to seize the prime ministership by forming a coalition between the NDP and the Bloc Québécois: Ignatieff wanted to win an honest mandate from Canadians.
He never would. The Liberal platform that lost in 2011 was not drastically dissimilar from the one that won in 2015: Ignatieff’s party ran on increased spending for the middle class (branded the “Family Pack,” which sounded like something sold at Pizza Pizza, and never failed to sound inauthentic coming from the erstwhile Carr professor of human rights policy), to be offset by ending corporate tax breaks. The frequent rap against Ignatieff the politician is that he lacked the common touch. Doubtless, the campaign was also badly hurt by the rise of Jack Layton’s “Orange Crush,” and Ignatieff himself proved to be eminently vulnerable to Conservative attack ads. While “Just not ready” didn’t land with voters in 2015, “Just visiting” and “He didn’t come back for you” proved deadly. Whether the attacks had any basis in truth was beside the point: they seemed true to Canadians, who handed the Liberals their worst electoral loss in a generation. The election reduced the Liberals’ total seats from 77 to 34; in a final indignity (or blessing), Ignatieff lost his own riding to the little-known Conservative Bernard Trottier.
The Ordinary Virtues, read through the lens of the recent history that produced it, clarifies some of the key ironies that have defined Ignatieff’s career. Here, again, is the professor bent on leaving the seminar room, with a book whose intellectual seriousness is compromised by institutional conformity—in this case, by bending an argument about the nature of virtue to fit the chassis of a project built for the Carnegie Council. Here is the former politician, widely rebuked for his inability to connect with ordinary people, making the case for ordinary virtue, whose motto he presents in bumper-sticker format: “Take people one at a time,” he writes. Here is the philosopher of human rights concluding that, in real life, human rights, while rhetorically accepted, don’t register in actual moral decisions: “Doctrine, dogma, formal teaching, and generalized rules have become less salient to moral decision making itself.” Here is the theorist of humanitarian interventionism arguing that states should simply get out of the way and let individuals sort things out for themselves.
Ignatieff’s newfound arguments against the pre-eminence of the state—a notable shift from the author who celebrated the “awesome” power of empire lite—do not entail a rejection of his faith in institutions. Rather, the locus of those institutions has shifted. Early in the book, in what might strike readers as an unremarkable sentence in praise of Andrew Carnegie, Ignatieff wonders: “Without Carnegie, would there be a Gates, a Buffett, a Soros, and the gigantic philanthropic enterprises of our era?” George Soros, as you may recall, is the hedge fund manager and philanthropist who endowed Central European University (Ignatieff’s current professional home) with more than $450 million. It would seem that Soros-style philanthropy has, in Ignatieff’s affections, replaced an institutional commitment to aggressive, western-backed nation-building projects. Ignatieff has found a new cause, but the relationship remains essentially the same: Ignatieff’s “realist” (i.e., uncritical) assumptions about globalization replicate and defend the official viewpoint of a benevolent philanthropic class whose financial munificence and good works are nonetheless profoundly implicated in maintaining the global economic status quo. The moral foundations of The Ordinary Virtues—and its obeisance toward globalization and global capital—doesn’t radically revise the sentiments Carnegie himself outlined in “Wealth” (1889) and The Empire of Business (1902).
Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Michael Ignatieff’s changing institutional affiliations represent a cynical attachment to those institutions. Rather, they emerge from a sincere institutionalism, an authentic belief in the power of liberalism to promote good in the world. Ignatieff no longer writes in favour of western military interventionism. (Who does?) Alongside his own worldly ambition, his writing has always been motivated by a desire to defend, for posterity, the social wisdom of liberal democracy. In his ongoing mission of memorialization, Ignatieff has added the ordinary virtues to our collective time capsule. We should earnestly hope, with Ignatieff, that these ideals will prove useful in another age, while simultaneously heeding the prophetic and haunting words from Scar Tissue: “We are programmed to betray.”