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.”
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.”
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