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Alumni of global influence – interview with Michael Ignatieff

Virtues of Liberal Democracies

Michael Ignatieff standing in front of a Canadian flag

Author and former leader of the Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff.

Author and former leader of the Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (BA History) was recently appointed President and Rector of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, where he continues to take up the challenge of engaging society in discourse on liberal democracies. Ignatieff is a distinguished fellow affiliated with U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and a Member of the Order of Canada. His upcoming book about ‘ordinary virtues’ highlights the resilience of such virtues in the face of corruption, violence and political conflict in the public sphere. Arts & Science interviewed Ignatieff to learn more about his work as a human rights scholar and how political participation has never been more vital than today for good governance.

You studied history as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. What was a seminal experience for you from that time?

Helping to organize the first international teach-in in the fall of 1965 was an unforgettable experience. At the height of the Vietnam War, we filled Varsity Arena for three days of passionate debate on intervention, foreign policy and war, and we succeeded in bringing together American defenders and critics of the Vietnam War as well as representatives from North Vietnam. I was 18 years old and I felt at the centre of things.

I also remember Carl Berger’s seminar on Canadian intellectual history and Frank Cunningham’s introduction to philosophy. Wonderful teachers.

Recently, you were appointed the president and rector of the CEU. CEU has a commitment to resolve differences through debate; as well as it offers a rare mix of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures that allow for a unique environment to examine open societies. Why did you take up the challenge to lead this university at this time?

The CEU is a unique institution. It has 1,500 MA and Phd students from 117 countries, faculty from 51 countries, and English language instruction in the humanities and social sciences. It is situated in a wonderful city, an institution of liberal learning in the midst of a country whose leadership is committed to creating what they call an ‘illiberal democracy’. I felt this was a challenge that called on everything I’ve done up to that point. Besides, my wife, Zsuzsanna, is Hungarian, so it brought her home.

What have you learned about leadership in the public realm through your experience as an MP and as the leader of the official opposition in Canada?

Liberal democracies are fragile. Their survival depends on virtues that can be easily lost. Citizens need to show up and vote; they need to pay attention and hold their leaders to account; politicians need to stay honest and respect the complex balance of institutions that keeps us free; and we all have to keep finding common ground across the differences of language, class, race, religion and region that make us who we are.

As a human rights scholar, what do you envision in terms of future Canadian domestic and/or foreign policies?

We seem to be headed into a world more hostile to the values which make our federation work: tolerance of differences, common respect for rights, compromise and moderation in our political bargaining. In a hostile world, we are most useful as a successful working example of ‘peace, order and good government’ in action at home. Overseas, we need to back fine words about our values with the willingness to follow through with robust, clear and decisive action.

You’re the author of The Needs of Strangers and Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, and they both have the theme of what it means to be a politically engaged citizen. What is the major lesson that citizens can draw from both books?

In many countries in the world, politics is a matter of life and death. It’s the game that determines whether you live or die, advance or fall back, gain or lose everything. Canada is one of the few places in the world where who wins in politics doesn’t determine who wins every other competition for status, power or economic advancement.

This makes Canada a very privileged place in the world, but it comes with a cost. People disengage from politics because they don’t think it matters who runs Ottawa or even their provincial or municipal capital. Yet politics matters hugely: who controls power controls the public narrative as well as public expenditure and public appointments. When citizens stay home, the political battle becomes monopolized by the hard core professionals, and inevitably, they serve their own interests rather than the public’s. Our politics works best when citizens are active, vocal, impatient with their leaders and always demanding the best from their politicians.

You have an upcoming book about ‘ordinary virtues’ such as trust, tolerance, reconciliation, forgiveness and resilience that are valued by local communities. What else can you share with us about the book?

Ordinary virtues are the moral operating system of our daily lives. We all need a social order where we can count on the trust, forbearance and occasionally even the kindness of strangers. My book took me to six countries — Bosnia, Burma, Brazil, South Africa, the US and Japan — to study how these ordinary virtues operate in daily life, and how they are sustained and reproduced in the face of corruption, violence and political conflict in the public sphere.