Michael Ignatieff: Liberalism has been weakened by its bloodless cosmopolitanism

In this conversation, RevDem editor Michał Matlak speaks with Michael Ignatieff about his recent book On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (Macmillan, 2021), a series of portraits of writers, artists, and musicians searching for consolation. Ignatieff shows how, throughout history, people in very difficult life situations have looked to arts, philosophy, and religion to regain hope. The book reconstructs the moments when these figures found the courage to face their fate and find hope. One of the arguments in On Consolation is that we can revive these traditions of consolation and they can still help us. In this conversation, Ignatieff and Matlak discuss the role of religion in the modern world, whether conservative liberalism is possible today, cancel culture, the (im)possibility of European integration, and much more.

Michał Matlak: Do you have the feeling that consolation is something we don’t discuss enough – that there is a need to come back to this philosophical but also real-life problem?

Michael Ignatieff: I think we don’t talk about consolation enough. I think consolation is a word that feels very old-fashioned; it seems to have slipped out of our vocabulary. We’ve also politicized everything – every question is now a political question, and I’m interested in consolation because it’s in the borderlands. 

It’s an interesting concept to me for two reasons. First, it’s at the edge of what can properly be called political, and it calls into question our politicization of everything. Secondly, it’s an area where words fail us. Every time you try to console someone who has suffered a terrible loss, you have a terrible feeling that there’s nothing you can say. I’m very interested in the ways in which consolation takes us to the limits and the end of language, and so I’ve written some portraits of people who pushed language to the edge of what it can do to console themselves and to console others.

The first two portraits from the book are very deep descriptions of the Book of Job and then Paul’s Epistles. This is something that is not so usual for liberals, who are often seen as people not interested in religion. You’ve just said that you are against the politicization of everything, so probably that’s part of the answer, but I’d like to ask whether you’d go a step further and say that we need to rethink our relationship with religion, including even those of us who don’t believe in God?

I do think we always have to rethink our relationship with religion. I’m not personally religious, but there’s no question, historically, when you look at its genesis as an idea, that liberalism is centrally concerned with putting religion in its place – that is, to take the poisonous hatred of religion out of politics, and to find some modus vivendi. The problem of establishing doctrines of toleration between competing visions of Christian truth was central to the project of liberalism. Locke’s letter on toleration, which I was teaching this week, is the classic statement of that. So, liberalism from the beginning has been saying we have to deal with religion because it’s such an explosive source of human division, and a source of torment and oppression. 

Then, obviously, in the 18th century in America you have an explosion of confessional beliefs, and the problem there is to create a republic in which a whole bunch of different Protestants and Catholics can live together and not blow the republic up. So American liberalism is built upon the disestablishment of religion, separating religion and state in such a way that you can create a purely secular space for political argument. But what’s so interesting is that religious claims keep pressing themselves into the political debate. 

You only have to look at the abortion issue in the United States, for example, or a number of other issues in European societies, to see the explosive nature of some religious claims in politics. 

Religions often claim that these are table-clearing arguments. That is, because they are divinely true, when I put them on the table in the political discussion, that’s the end of the discussion as far as I’m concerned as a religious person. And the liberal problem with that is there are no table-clearing arguments in politics. It’s a matter of discussion and debate, and assessing as best you can, and it is a fallible process that is purely human.

That is the liberal vision of how to deal with political dissent. But it’s under constant strain from religious groups and from ideologically doctrinaire groups that treat their politics as if it were a religion, a sort of secular religion, and that’s a constant danger from the liberal point of view. So yes, liberalism was established in dialogue to try to keep religion from poisoning politics and exploding political systems.

But, at the same time, you show – and here probably we move away from politics – that those religious insights can still be inspiring, even for a person like you who is a non-believer. Could tell us a little bit more about that aspect? How can religion be inspiring for a non-believer? 

I think one example would be the Psalms. There are 150 of them and they’re written by people we don’t know. But they’re among the most unfailingly realistic descriptions of what it’s like to be lonely, to be despairing, to be frightened. And so, what’s consoling about that is that, if you’re in those states of mind, you feel a kindred spirit. You feel that someone out there in the past understands what you’re going through, which is why the Psalms have been read by believers and non-believers alike for more than 2,000 years. 

While I’m a secular person, it’s crazy for us not to make use of every single piece of humanity we can find, and there’s plenty of human wisdom in the Psalms, in the Gospels, and in the Acts of the Apostles, and I think that there’s a kind of way in which secularism enfeebles itself by saying “we have nothing to learn from religious traditions.”

Religious traditions – Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc –are enormous sources of wisdom about what it is to be a human being, and we can’t afford not to use all of that.

Speaking of your relationship with religion, you wrote that your father took you to the Orthodox Church in Canada. That’s one of the sources of your identity, and the other is more intellectual, linked to the writings of David Hume on religion. How has your relationship with religion evolved over time? Did it change? Were you sometimes closer to religion and then at other times further away, or was it constant throughout your life?

My father was religious because he was a Russian émigré, and the church in exile was a great consolation, as churches, mosques, and temples are consolation to people who have lost their homes. You go to the church because it reminds you of home, and you can speak your native language and worship as you did when you were a child. This was very comforting and consoling to my father. I was impressed and moved by it. The difficulty is that I don’t speak Russian, and I certainly don’t speak Old Church Slavonic, so it was all kind of mysterious to me. But my first, primal experience of religious faith was going to church with my dad. My mother, on the other hand, was what my father would call a “godless republican.” She didn’t have religious faith. So, I grew up in a divided household in that sense. 

When I was 18 and an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, I read Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which had a really devastating effect. I can still remember just watching this great mind slicing through religious doctrine with his rationalist razor and leaving it in ribbons. 

Then, much later in my life, I began to discover – and I talk about this in my book – how strong the revolt against consolation was in the creation of the socialist and Marxist traditions. 

I mean, these are traditions that say we’ve got to build heaven on earth, not in the afterlife, and that the consolations of the afterlife keep the working class enslaved. These traditions of trying to build justice on earth are very noble ones. They are very strong, and the liberal tradition is part of that, so I think there was a period in my life when I felt that if you do politics, it should be the politics of building justice here on earth.

Later in life I think I’ve begun to have a slightly different view of religion, which is really that my doubts, or my questions, or my difficulties, that I began with reading Hume are kind of irrelevant really. I mean, who am I? What do I know? I feel as you get older, you become a little more humble about what you can securely know. And I think I’m more open now to some of the religious traditions than I was before. That is possibly an effect of aging. 

As a Pole, I’m obviously interested in Czesław Miłosz, whom you write about in the epilogue to the book. Was religion a subject in your conversations with him, or not really? 

I had two conversations with Czesław Miłosz, one on camera for the BBC in the 1990s – he was in North Carolina for a year – and then a conversation in 1998, I think, when he was just about to end his long period in Berkeley and move back to Krakow. We didn’t, to my knowledge, talk much about religion. But one of the reasons I love him as a poet was just the beauty of his language, which I can only read in English, but also his spiritual depth. He was clearly deeply Catholic, but in a way that I thought enlarged his human imagination enormously. The religious side of Miłosz was not something I talked about with him, but it was a part of him that I greatly admired, mostly because it was so non-doctrinal. It was so non-rigid, and so much a part of opening him up to the world and making him a finer poet.

Can cultural tradition inspire democracies? Does liberalism grasp this relationship?

There’s no question that it can. I think when Poles fought for political freedom in the 1970s, 1980’s, and 1990s, and during the most recent episode, they fought as Poles. They didn’t fight as abstract human beings. They fought for a Catholic Poland, a workers Poland, a Poland that is safe from Russian domination, a free Poland, but their idea of freedom was specifically Polish, cast in the history of Poland. 

I think liberalism has been weakened by its kind of bloodless cosmopolitanism. I am a Canadian liberal – I’m not an American liberal, I’m not a British liberal, I’m not a French liberal. I’m a Canadian liberal. I could go on about what that means, but it’s framed by the national traditions of my country, its geography, and its place next door to the United States.

I think that in terms of allegiance, which is where your question is going, I don’t think we believe in democracy in the abstract. I don’t think we believe in liberalism in the abstract. We believe in our democracy. That is, the democracy that issues from our traditions. We fight for and defend what is ours.

That’s why, I learned that also I think from Isaiah Berlin, all ideas of democratic freedom are tightly linked to the specific national traditions that gave them issue. Israelis fight for a very particular vision of democracy, which is part of their historical tradition and is to be respected as such.

What is the difference between conservatives and liberals in this respect?

The disagreement that a liberal would have with a conservative about this issue is not that national traditions don’t matter, but that national traditions are a permanent argument. “What is the national tradition?” is the question a liberal asks. A conservative says “well, it’s all settled. It’s throne, flag, altar, it’s the Catholic church,” or whatever it is, and a liberal thinks, “well, no, the debate about what the past means to us and what loyalties we derive from the past is an ongoing one in society, and the purpose of democratic freedom is for us to have an active and energetic debate about what the nation means, what the traditions mean, and how they should be served in modernity.” 

I’m a conservative liberal in a certain sense, but I am in very sharp disagreement with conservatives about the idea of tradition, which I don’t think is stable, and about which there is an ongoing debate, through which it is constantly renewed.

Can conservative liberalism still be inspiring today in the age of conservative populism? In the 1990s, conservative liberalism was a popular ideology; the idea then was very simple and at times straightforward – it was conservatism in the moral sphere and liberalism or neoliberalism in the economic sphere. But now, of course, it is very different. When we think of conservative liberalism, it is rather in the sense of a debate between two major intellectual traditions that meet, for example, in the area of respect for institutions and the rule of law. Do you think conservative liberalism can inspire that for democrats?

Well, I think there’s a fracture between the liberal conservative traditions. The conservative liberalism you talk about in the 1990s is no longer possible, given the polarization that’s occurred, and we need to understand why that has happened. I think that on the liberal side the driver to the left has been inequality. You look at the statistics that show that the upward trend of inequality is fracturing our belief, or testing our belief, that we want to limit the intrusions of the state upon incomes because we don’t want to infringe on people’s freedom. So, that’s pushing us to the left.

What’s pushing the conservatives to the right is a much more complicated question. I think the conservatives were much more in the center in the post-war period. While the liberals were not very generous about the conservative tradition, the post-war welfare states that we all signed up to were very much created by conservatives. It was the Conservative governments in Britain who sustained and developed what the Labour party did after 1945. It was the conservative CDU in Germany, and the De Gasperi Christian Socialists in Italy, who rebuilt these economies after the Second World War.These are great conservative figures that any liberal ought to respect. 

What has happened now at the far-right end of conservatism in Europe and the United States is that it is at the edge of being constitutional.

There’s a kind of insurgent conservatism now, which is challenging the constitutional order directly in the United States and indirectly in Germany through the AfD. The problem with them is not that they’re conservative, the problem is that they’re not constitutional, by which I mean that they are flirting with violence. And this is something that was very clearly viewed with horror in the post-war conservative tradition that learned from Nazism.

We’ve been pushed left, they’ve been pushed right, and the dialogue that I think was so productive between liberals and conservatives has fragmented. And the cost is the quality of our institutions. The meeting point between a liberal and conservative is always a belief that we disagree about what these institutions are for and what they should do, but we really think that institutions matter. Constitutions matter. Parliaments matter. The constitutional balance between the courts, the parliament, and the executive matters. We want to sustain and build institutions that sustain the loyalty of our people. That was the centrist consensus. And then we argue about what those institutions should do, but our institutions are incredibly much weaker than they were when I was a young man. Most parliaments around the world are empty shells. This institutional weakness – caused, I think, by polarization – is a source of great concern.

An empty shell, meaning nothing important is happening there, or that they are void of ideas?

Power has been concentrated in the hands of prime minister’s offices and president’s offices everywhere. The deliberative representative functions of democracy are weakened everywhere. That’s causing political alienation across the globe. People elect people, and then they go to these parliaments where they sit and chatter, and they have a feeling that the linkage that representation provides between the people and their institutions has often broken down.

The list of authors you write about in your book is rather white, male, and European. Why is that?

Well, in terms of the list of people that went into my own book, I think I certainly could have put more women in. Although women, I hasten to add, are extremely important in the book. Anna Akhmatova is an important woman within it, and the book ends with Cicely Saunders, another titanic woman… But I think it’s fair to criticize the book for not being as representative as it could be. This was a very personal selection of books and works that have deeply influenced me, and I think the book can be criticized for not thinking more about the gendered character of consolation. I think about it in one essay about Cicero, pointing out that men are supposed to be masculine or restrained and never cry, and lamentation is left to women. The point I make is that that’s crippling for men, as it turns out. 

But much more could be said about the gendered aspects of consolation, and I don’t speak to the incredibly powerful sources of consolation that can be found in other traditions outside Europe. I also don’t speak about the traditions of consolation that have affected me, which come out of the Black American experience and the experience of slavery. If you think about the American popular music in the 20th century that I grew up with, it’s written out of the gospel and blues traditions – these are massively important traditions of consolation, and I just didn’t write about them. But the fact that I didn’t write about them doesn’t mean I denigrate them. 

What’s your take on “cancel culture”? Do you sympathize with the movement?

I used to run a university and I had some unpleasant experiences, frankly, with students walking out of speeches that they decided they didn’t want to hear, because they felt that the speaker didn’t respect their point of view or didn’t respect their identities. I thought that was wrong and said it was wrong at the time, and would say it in every venue –  university has to be a place where you listen to stuff you don’t want to listen to. Students who feel that the only way they can defend their identities and their position is to not listen to something seems to me to be not understanding what a democracy is about.

But if you stand back from the so-called cancel culture thing, I think universities will get through this just fine and recover their nerve and defend the right of people to say unpopular things. But I think we shouldn’t get too excited about all that. I think that it’s extremely important for us as teachers to be very careful not to turn our classrooms into ideological schools of conformity. Liberals are sometimes rightly accused of using their classrooms to basically say there’s only one true faith – liberalism – and that is a total misuse of a professor’s role and authority, and CEU needs to stand up against that.

From a bigger historical point of view, something magnificent is going on. When I was a 21 year old student at the University of Toronto, most of my class looked like me. If you fast forward to now, 60 years later, the same incoming class in 2021 represents the whole world. Every race, every gender, every sexual orientation is now represented in our universities. And this is a massively positive development. We see some of this at CEU itself, where our classrooms are incredibly diverse. 

People have come into the conversation who 50 or 60 years ago were excluded, and they are making claims that their experiences, their identities, and their lives be incorporated into the curriculum, and represented in discussions. This is producing a lot of attention and controversy. What history do we teach? Whose history are we talking about here? Those kinds of questions, particularly in a history department, are alive and vigorous, and they should be conducted.

What we don’t want to do is cancel and silence each other. If black members of our community feel that their history is not represented, then we must do something about that. This goes back to my earlier point that I’m a deep believer in a liberalism and a democracy anchored in specific national traditions, but also anchored in a debate about what those traditions mean and whose traditions we’re talking about. 

Many of the authors you write about are important European thinkers. Don’t you think that culture should, and it could, play a bigger role in the process of European integration? Is culture something the European Union is forgetting about?

I’m very skeptical of this ideological use of European culture to pull us all together in some false project at high altitude. It produces a lot of empty verbiage and doesn’t understand what culture is. Culture is what makes you cry. Culture is what moves you to tears. And that is always national and located in a specific language and culture. It must be respected as such.

I think that we’ve got to be nuanced about this. We’ve got to be much more respectful of how specifically national a figure, for example, like Goethe is – Germany promotes Goethe as kind of the universal German around the world. There are all these Goethe institutes, but Goethe remains fundamentally a master of a specific language and a specific time and place. I think you can only love and respect these folks when you restore them to their national cultures. 

Part of the cultural reality of Europe is microscopic. I mean, you can keep walking into parts of Europe which, despite globalization, despite the European project, are complete little islands of cultural specificity, which I think is what’s wonderful about Europe. 

But on the other hand, your country – Canada – is a state of two languages. I know that it caused problems, and from time to time it’s probably still a source of conflict. But on the other hand, you managed to create a strong political identity rooted in two languages. I see the difference between two and 28, of course, but still there is a certain political Canadian identity.

Yes, but the argument about what that identity is, and how much a Québécois is a Canadian, is an eternal argument. When I was in the Canadian parliament, I spoke French half of the time. The liberalism that is specifically Canadian understands that we must respect difference. We will not survive as a political community unless we respect linguistic, national, and historical differences and try to create a common culture together. But it can’t be a culture that minimizes the sheer force of these differences. They are moments when Quebec says, “no, we don’t see it this way.” 

That’s taught me, as a liberal, an enormous respect for national difference, because it’s inscribed in the heart of our federation, and you can’t run a liberal democratic community without respect for these differences, and then respect for the federal institutions which give these cultural and linguistic differences the power to defend themselves. This is about power. 

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos and Oliver Garner

Michael Ignatieff was until recently the Director of Central European University in Budapest. He stepped down at the end of July 2021 and stayed as a professor in the History Department. Before coming to Budapest, Professor Ignatieff was, among others, leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, a professor at Harvard University, Centennial Chair at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs in New York. He’s the author of 20 books. 

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