The Chronicle Review

The Would-Be Philosopher-King

Rene Johnston, Toronto Star, Getty images

Michael Ignatieff left Harvard and reinvented himself as a politician. A surreal rise and dizzying fall ensued. Here he gives a speech to Canada’s Liberal Party.
November 04, 2013

On the night of May 2, 2011, Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, was huddled in a Toronto hotel suite to await election results. It was nearly six years since he had left Harvard University and, at the age of 58, transformed himself into a politician, despite having no proven political skills and living outside his native Canada for the previous 30 years.

A historian by training, Ignatieff is something of a serial self-reinventor. He jettisoned a career in academe in the mid-1980s and became, by turns, a screenwriter, essayist, columnist, memoirist, BBC television host, biographer of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Booker shortlisted novelist (Scar Tissue), war correspondent, and authority on ethics and international affairs. For 16 years he was that rarest of things, a nonacademic public intellectual—or as the Oxford political philosopher Alan Ryan once described him, a "public moralist." Then, in 2000, Harvard beckoned—"picked me out of a lineup," he says, to become a professor of human rights at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. His success looked effortless.

So it was both surprising, and not, that Ignatieff quickly climbed to the heights of Canadian politics. By 2009 he was a member of Parliament from Etobicoke-Lakeshore, in Ontario, and leader of the opposition Liberal Party. That same year, Foreign Policy magazine named him a "top global thinker" for proving that "not all academics are irrelevant." His face became ubiquitous in Canada; a Facebook page devoted just to his dark, ever-arched eyebrows attracted 15,000 friends. A headline in The New York Times declared: "A Literary Man About Town May Be Canada's Next Prime Minister."

Ever since Socrates spoke of philosopher-kings, the relationship between intellectuals and power has been vexed. Socrates calls his ideal a "dream," a reminder, according to Mark Lilla, of Columbia University, of "how unlikely it is that the philosophical life and the demands of politics can ever be made to coincide." It is especially rare to see someone like Ignatieff—a serious writer and thinker—leap from arguing about ideas to canvassing for votes. Friends and family cautioned against the move. And you did have to wonder: Would Canada really elect a lofty intellectual?

A photograph from early on election night shows Ignatieff and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, sitting on a hotel sofa. She holds a glass of wine, he smiles; they look relaxed. A few hours later, Ignatieff emerged to face the cameras. The smile was gone. The Liberal Party had been trounced. Ignatieff had lost his own seat in Parliament. Words like "unprecedented" and "humiliation" were bandied about. "Democracy teaches hard lessons," Ignatieff said, looking ashen.

He quit politics the following day, moving out of the official residence of the opposition leader, a 34-room mansion in Ottawa with chef and housekeeper, and back into the couple's one-bedroom apartment in Toronto. His fall was unusually precipitous: One day he had an airplane, security detail, staff of 100, car and driver, and a political future. The next day he had a battered reputation, no job, and no pension. A sense of gloom set in, which he writes about in a memoir, Fire and Ashes, published this month by Harvard University Press.

"I had sacrificed my standing as a writer and thinker to enter politics, and now that I had been defeated, I had lost my standing as a politician. Defeat invalidated me as a politician but also as a writer and thinker. ... I wondered whether I was much use to anybody."

Fire and Ashes is at times self-flagellating and self-exculpatory, frank and evasive. Above all, it attempts to extract meaning from failure. The tone is more sorrowful than angry. Ignatieff casts himself as a fount of hard-won political wisdom who, despite having endured a bruising political education, remains a champion of the democratic process: "I've earned the right to praise a life that did not go so well for me."

On a humid morning in late August, I meet Ignatieff at his tidy apartment in the upscale Toronto neighborhood of Yorkville. He retains the good looks that once made him a highbrow heartthrob in Britain. As we talk in his living room, he leans back into a black-leather sofa and tucks one arm behind his head. He speaks slowly and has the slightly melancholy disposition of a man who has been to the mountaintop and now must content himself with life among mortals. When he says, "I have zero illusions about my influence" and "Public intellectuals are just not very important," it doesn't feel like false modesty.

"Politics is adversarial, and it is an experience of adversity, that's why it's so compelling," he says near the start of our conversation. "It's a theater where something ultimate is risked, something ultimate can be gained, and for 2,000 years, we've been trying to understand why people are crazy enough to go into it."

For Ignatieff, the craziness began one October night in 2004 when three men in dark suits arrived in Cambridge, Mass. Ignatieff calls them the "men in black." They were poobahs in the Liberal Party, then in power in Ottawa. Over dinner at the Charles Hotel, they made their pitch: Come home, run for Parliament, and, before long, prime minister. Ignatieff had two immediate reactions: (1) The proposal was preposterous. (2) He wouldn't say no.

Known as the "natural governing party," the Liberals have dominated Canadian politics for much of the past century; only two of its party leaders had failed to serve as prime minister. (Ignatieff would become the third.) But the Liberals were "heading for a train wreck," the men in black told Ignatieff. He could be the savior.

Ignatieff offers various explanations for his readiness to be swept up: patriotism, ambition, a longing for significance, familial obligation. All played a role, but perhaps none larger than hubris. "What's complicated about hubris is that if you knew what you were in for, you'd never do it," he says. "Blindness—and it was a moment of blindness—is the necessary condition for much human achievement."

He looks out the window onto his small balcony awash in sunlight. "So I'm divided between being glad that I was so hubristic and being appalled." He turns back to me. "I mean, who did I think I was?"

Etobicoke is an ethnically diverse, working-class suburb of Toronto, comprising street after street of modest, low-slung houses. Along its southern edge, hugging Lake Ontario, is a parliamentary district of about 120,000 people. The men in black saw it as a seat Ignatieff could win. In late 2005, they persuaded the 13-year incumbent member of Parliament, a Liberal, to resign her seat and endorse Ignatieff.

The nominating convention was held that November at an aging motor lodge called the Valhalla Inn. Ignatieff arrived straight from the airport, having taught a final class at Harvard that day. Hundreds of people were already packed into a ballroom. Some held signs that read "Iggy go home." Others wore George W. Bush masks and Guantánamo-style orange jumpsuits; they denounced Ignatieff for supporting the war in Iraq, for condoning torture.

Almost three years earlier, he'd reluctantly endorsed the war in an essay in The New York Times Magazine, wrapping his support inside a larger argument about America, which he described as something new in political science: "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."

That same year, 2003, Ignatieff delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. His topic was political ethics, specifically the question of how liberal societies can defeat illiberal enemies without forsaking liberal values. In his talk, later published as a book, The Lesser Evil (Princeton University Press, 2004) and excerpted in the Times magazine, Ignatieff called for an outright ban on torture but acknowledged the possible need for "acceptable degrees of coercive interrogation."

His stance drew a severe response. "Michael Ignatieff tells us how to do terrible things for a righteous cause and come away feeling good about it," began a Times review of the book by Ronald Steel, a professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Southern California. In a much-discussed essay for the magazine Index on Censorship, Conor Gearty, a professor of human-rights law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, blamed a "cerebral praetorian guard" of lawyers and intellectuals for (often unwittingly) making permissible the mistreatment of prisoners. Gearty described Ignatieff as "probably the most important figure to fall into this category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human-rights abuses."

At the Valhalla Inn, Ignatieff stared at the orange jumpsuits and the signs that read "Shame! Shame! Shame!" He wanted to explain that he opposed torture, that his words had been wrenched out of context. "I had yet to grasp that in politics, explanation always comes too late," he writes in Fire and Ashes. "You never explain, you never complain. If you're lucky, you just get your revenge." He carried the nomination for the seat.

The campaign was a 55-day door-to-door sprint. Ignatieff's pitch to voters went something like this: In a world of career politicians, he was the exception—unslick, uncoached, unabashedly learned. "I was a Harvard intellectual come home," he says. "That was the idea." But it's a tricky business to turn a decades-long absence into an asset, to translate bookish prestige into popular appeal.

For starters, he didn't look people in the eye, which made him appear aloof and gave fodder to those who dismissed him as "egalitarian enough to talk down to everyone," as one columnist put it. He was also long-winded. An adviser was quoted in Maclean's magazine saying, "I told him, I'm going to kick you in the nuts if you give a profound answer to 'How are you?' The answer is 'Fine.'" A staffer was assigned to rein in the candidate's loquaciousness. Ignatieff can still feel her tug on his sleeve, a phantom sensation from a former life.

In mid-January 2006, two weeks before the election, the polls showed a tight race. At a rally in Etobicoke, the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, implored the crowd to "Send Ignatieff back to Harvard." But Ignatieff won the seat, although the Liberal Party lost its majority in Parliament. The search was on for a new leader. Ignatieff, who had yet to serve a single day in Parliament, was pronounced the front-runner. The race for opposition leader would play out on a national stage: nine months, six time zones, five regions, two languages. Ignatieff would need to raise a few million dollars. The media scrutiny would be intense. "The pressure kept mounting," Ignatieff says. "It was a real, real baptism by fire."

Ignatieff describes politics as a world of "lunatic literal-mindedness," where "calling a fact a fact can be the equivalent of pulling a pin out of a hand grenade." He tightened up, became more guarded, more conventional. He began to think of his public persona as a slightly stilted doppelgänger clad in meticulously tailored suits. "The role began to take me over," he says. "I got better at the game and less good at being myself."

Certain behaviors became compulsive. "I recall sitting in the front of the airplane cabin—we flew commercial—and as people went by, I would do a poll, without being able to stop myself," he says, shaking his head in amazement. "I spent all my time polling strangers' faces."

The neediness for approval came at a cost. In Fire and Ashes he writes: "I had no idea how completely this ongoing, minute-by-minute scrutiny by my fellow citizens would take me over and begin to shape my sense of my own worth."

As Ignatieff traversed the country peddling his story—the prodigal's return—the news media told other stories. The coverage tended to have a quizzical tone. "Who is Michael Ignatieff really?" The Globe and Mail asked, and devoted many thousands of words to finding out. The reporter quoted an Ignatieff childhood friend as saying, "Michael is like an iceberg, nine-tenths below the surface."

Much was made of Ignatieff's prominent family—which makes sense because he has made much of his family. He is the author of two memoirs. The Russian Album, published in 1987, is a masterly account of his father's family's aristocratic roots in czarist Russia and what befell them after the 1917 revolution. A companion volume about his mother's family was in the works when the men in black appeared, in 2004. That book, True Patriot Love, was published in 2009, and perhaps inevitably it reads more like a campaign document than a work of literary journalism.

True Patriot Love begins with the story of his grandfather George Monro Grant, a practical-minded Presbyterian minister and college president with wanderlust and no fingers on his right hand. In 1872 he became one of the first Canadians to travel across the continent, and wrote an account of that journey that became an influential early declaration of Canadian national ambition.

Another chapter is devoted to one of Ignatieff's uncles, George Parkin Grant, a political philosopher best known for his 1965 book Lament for a Nation, a ringing indictment of the Liberal establishment for turning Canada into a colony of America. Ignatieff's father, George, was a pillar of that establishment, a renowned diplomat, ambassador to the United Nations and, late in life, chancellor of the University of Toronto. When George died, in 1989, The Toronto Sun mourned the passing of "Canada's true renaissance man."

Ignatieff writes movingly about the influence of his family in Fire and Ashes. "Politics was the big arena, the place where you lived a life of significance, where you measured up to the family imperatives. It was in the blood. I wanted it for them and so I wanted it for me." And while he dismisses talk of destiny, he acknowledges that his entry into politics triggered "a very, very strong welling up of ancestral emotions, which basically made me feel I was entitled to be this hubristic."

As the campaign for opposition leader wore on, the media spotlight intensified. Opponents' researchers—"ferrets," as Ignatieff calls them—went to work. He caught heat for having used pronouns like "we," "us," and "our" in a way that suggested he might once have thought of himself as an American. Classmates from Upper Canada College, an elite prep school, recalled how the young Ignatieff had strolled through the campus with copies of The Economist and Paris Match tucked under his arm. He was portrayed as overconfident, haughty, presumptuous. When he was 18, he won a public-speaking competition and a local reporter asked what he intended to do with his life. Ignatieff didn't hesitate: "I want to be prime minister."

First he went off to Harvard. He left six years later with a Ph.D. in history and a dim view of the place. "It thinks the sun shines out of its ass, and that means it isn't as good at what it does as it thinks it is," he said in a 1992 interview with the Canadian journalist Sandra Martin. The combination of sycophantic grad students and ego-larded professors, he said, was like the "court of the Manchu emperors."

After two years as an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia, he took up a research fellowship at King's College, in Cambridge, England, in 1978. His first book, A Just Measure of Pain: Penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution, 1780-1850 (Pantheon), was published that same year to positive reviews. The Needs of Strangers (Viking), a slim, novella-length rumination on solidarity and mutual obligation, was published in London in 1984 (and in America the following year). It earned Ignatieff more plaudits and cemented his reputation as a bright young thing. After his Cambridge fellowship ended, and he served a year as a visiting scholar at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, he decided to leave academe. "I've always wanted it both ways, to be of the academy but not claimed by the academy," he says, describing himself as a "New York Review kind of academic."

He made London his home, and over the next decade became known among smart-set Britons as a "teledon"—the sort of academically trained conversationalist who was once a staple on the BBC. He conducted lengthy interviews with the likes of Bruno Bettelheim, Susan Sontag, and Leszek Kolakowski. "The shows were so intellectual that the Geiger counter of audience research couldn't find a signal," Ignatieff says. "I loved it."

In 1990, the British edition of GQ placed him on the cover (in a pink suit) and declared him "Britain's most visible intellectual." The following year, Ignatieff released his first novel, Asya (Knopf), a historical melodrama set mostly in Russia. It flopped. Ignatieff was lampooned in the British press. (The Guardian: "Anyone trying to write an ambitious first novel might have written Asya, but only a fool would have published it.") In 1994 he wrote Scar Tissue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) a lightly fictionalized account of his mother's descent into Alzheimer's. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

By that time, Ignatieff had decamped to the post-Soviet conflict zones of Eastern Europe and refashioned himself into a war reporter and foreign-policy intellectual, publishing a series of books—Blood and Belonging (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), Warrior's Honor (Metropolitan Books, 1998), Virtual War (Henry Holt, 2000)—and a flurry of essays on nationalism and ethnic violence in publications including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic. The 90s were years of massacre and genocide—Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia—and Ignatieff emerged as a leading advocate of humanitarian intervention, especially NATO's 1999 air war in Kosovo. "Michael has been tremendously influential," says the writer David Rieff, who first met Ignatieff in Bosnia in the early 90s. "He is by far the most eloquent defender of human-rights-based interventions, of the necessity of a liberal global order backed up by military force."

Ignatieff arrived at Harvard, in the fall of 2000, to take up the directorship of the Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Around the same time, he began to work with the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a group of 12 scholars, politicians, and diplomats brought together to answer a question posed by Kofi Annan, who was secretary general of the United Nations: "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?"

The group's report, "Responsibility to Protect," elevated the obligation to defend persecuted peoples, even from their own governments, into a principle of international law. The 108-page document was sent to the printers in August 2001—a moment Ignatieff has called "the high-water mark of the humanitarian faith." The report was released a month or so later, as the World Trade Center still smoldered in lower Manhattan. Policy makers were now focused on protecting citizens at home, not civilians abroad.

Ignatieff, too, shifted focus. "What we are up against is apocalyptic nihilism," he wrote in The Guardian a few weeks after September 11. "Those honest souls who believe the terrorists' hatreds must be understood, and that what they hate must be changed so that they will hate no more, do not understand terrorists."

Jeanne Morefield is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection, forthcoming in February from Oxford University Press. She devotes a chapter to Ignatieff and sees 9/11 as a turning point in his thinking. His earlier work was suffused with empathy, but "he was now unwilling to even try to understand those whose views he finds morally repugnant," she says. "Instead, he started using words like 'evil,' and portrayed everything as black and white."

In essay after essay—Ignatieff's byline was inescapable in the years after 9/11—he warned about the threat of chaos and the need for tough choices. In time, however, he came to believe that some tough choices were bad choices. "The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion." Thus began an essay that Ignatieff, by then a politician, published in the Times magazine in 2007. The title: "Getting Iraq Wrong."

He explained his flawed judgment, in part, as a pitfall of intellectual life. Professors have the luxury of toying with big ideas whether they are valid or not. But politicians, Ignatieff wrote, "cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be. They must see Iraq—or anywhere else—as it is." Borrowing an idea from Isaiah Berlin, he called this talent "a sense of reality," and added that it "doesn't always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what's what than Nobel Prize winners."

Ignatieff's pose as a populist, battered-but-wiser, hard-bitten pol came in for ridicule. Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, dismissed it as a "long, woolly, pompous pseudo-confession." Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School, told me it is "a very weak piece, the weakest I've seen Michael write." Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, calls it "clearly anti-intellectual" and explains to me that Ignatieff's motivation was very likely twofold. "First, he had to counteract any perceived association with the Bush administration's foreign policy if he was going to succeed in Canadian politics. Second, he was trying desperately to position himself as a man of the people. But he's an aristocrat, a social and intellectual aristocrat."

When I raise the issue of anti-intellectualism with Ignatieff, he seems surprised. "That's interesting," he says, and thinks it over for a while. "Political life can make you extremely contemptuous of the world of books," he finally says. "That's all just theory. We're the people who have the serious existential burdens, the people making decisions. There is a very strong anti-intellectual bias among the men and women of action. It can take you over."

In early December 2006, the Liberal Party gathered in Montreal to elect a leader. The proceedings had a soap-opera-like quality; one of Ignatieff's rivals, Bob Rae, had been a close childhood friend. Ignatieff led on the first two ballots but slipped behind on the third. When Rae, who had been eliminated, refused to release his delegates to his old friend, Ignatieff was sunk. Stéphane Dion—Quebecer, former academic, longtime politician—was elected opposition leader.

A few days later, David T. Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School, called Ignatieff to offer him his job back. "I experienced that as a moral dilemma," Ignatieff tells me. "I'd just been elected to Parliament. I'd put my name on a ballot. I thought, you can't get elected and then 10 months later walk out." He would wait his turn to become leader. It came a mere two years later—and with it, a fresh barrage of negative advertising. "Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting" intoned one television spot; "Michael Ignatieff. He Didn't Come Back for You," declared another. "I couldn't turn on the Oscars without seeing my face in the commercial breaks. I couldn't watch the Super Bowl without being told that I was 'just visiting'"—a phrase that sticks like an epitaph to his moribund political career.

What most irked Ignatieff about the ads is that they didn't question his policies, they questioned his good faith, and he wasn't used to having his credibility challenged. "I walked out of the academy, where people listened to me, and into a world where nobody believed a word I said. There were days when I felt like a bear in a cage being poked with sticks. I thought, What is this? I'm 58 years old. I've written all these damn books. I'm not a fool. Why am I constantly being forced to defend myself? It's undignified. It's stupid. It's vulgar. I hate it."

When Ignatieff talks about his time in politics, he often uses the language of sports: He was "in the game," "off the sidelines," "in the battle." Now he is very much out of the battle. He describes defeat as more painful than embarrassing. He dwells on the things he won't accomplish, the policies he won't enact to make higher education more affordable or publicly funded health care more accessible or to revitalize federal investment in science and technology. "He would have every reason to be bitter," says Kingwell. "He really did get biffed around."

He's learned to cope, in part, by becoming a student of political failure, rereading Machiavelli, Burke, Mill, Tocqueville, and Weber. We discuss life after politics over lunch at Dynasty Chinese Cuisine, a dim-sum joint not far from his apartment. His days used to be spent managing a rowdy parliamentary caucus, debating budgets and war and peace, and plotting his political future. Now he must content himself with his writing and his students. (He is on the faculty of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and back at the Kennedy School.) Between sips of Tsingtao beer and bites of eggplant, shrimp, dumplings, and a mystery dish that Ignatieff boldly samples and declares "some kind of meat," he says he is gratified—"as full of beans as ever now that I've had to reinvent myself again." He's also made peace with life inside the academy. "I understand better its traditional function, which is to maintain the canon." He spears a piece of meat with his chopsticks. "I believe in the canon. I want to teach The Prince as long as people will have me."

After lunch we walk to the university campus. As we make our way through Yorkville, I expect gawkers to take note of the former politician. After all, his face must be one of the better-known mugs in Canada. But aside from a few upturned heads when we entered the restaurant, no passers-by register his presence—a testament to Canadian reserve, sure, but also to the fact that, as Ignatieff puts it in Fire and Ashes, "there is nothing so ex as an ex-politician."

Evan R. Goldstein is managing editor of The Chronicle Review.