Tony Judt on Michael Ignatieff and nationalism -

Tony Judt on Michael Ignatieff and nationalism


The death of Tony Judt last Friday, at just 62, of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease, is sad news for legions of readers who read his books to understand 20th century Europe and his articles in the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere, to sharpen their perspective on the what’s happening out there in the world.

One could point with enthusiasm to almost anything he wrote. But of recent pieces, I found “Ill Fares the Land,” his indictment of materialism and inequality, especially in the U.S. and UK, a pulse-speeding read. He didn’t address Canada specifically, not surprisingly, but the questions he raised should trouble citizens in any rich Western nation.

It will seem hopelessly parochial to reduce a reflection on Judt to what he had to say about a fellow public intellectual, Michael Ignatieff. But for those of us caught up in Canadian politics, it’s too tempting not to at least glance in that direction.

I’m not thinking so much of how Judt, when he denounced the cluster of prominent liberal thinkers who backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, lumped Ignatieff in with the likes of Leon Wieseltier and David Remnick as George W. Bush’s “useful idiots.”

Rather, I’m casting my mind back to 1994, to when Judt published an omnibus review of a half-dozen key books on nationalism, which had then reemerged as a such a pressing subject in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He found Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism a compelling chronicle, calling it a “beautifully written and often moving book.”

In particular, Judt admired the journalistic discipline in the way Ignatieff “confine[d] himself for the most part to description, with only brief excursions into historical background or social theory.” Rereading the review, I’m struck by how astute Judt is in picking up on the personal tone of Ignatieff’s chapter on Québécois nationalism:

“Ignatieff was born in Canada and he uses his local knowledge, and the interviews he conducted there, to illustrate an important point. Québécois today have few of the grievances expressed thirty years ago, when the region was economically depressed and its language and culture in decline. The educated francophone population is no longer so afraid of losing its children to an English-speaking world—less so than the French themselves, it would seem. And yet nationalism in Quebec is a very real thing, drawing on past grievances that, as Ignatieff writes, ‘do not cease to be actual, just because they are in the past.’”

As a European specialist, Judt might have been expected to focus on Blood and Belonging’s chapters on, say, Bosnia or Northern Ireland. But it was typical of his intellectual agility that he readily grasped how Quebec presented a universally intriguing case study in ethnic nationalism’s tenacity even in a benign, liberal context.

And it’s interesting to be reminded by Judt of what a compelling writer Ignatieff was, particularly when he was reporting rather than theorizing. That’s worth keeping this in mind as we continue to try to figure out the current Liberal leader: he wasn’t ever really a classic ivory-tower type. As Judt noted, his gift as an author was for talking to people, taking in situations, figuring out what mattered, and then putting it all into words. Not a bad skill set for a politician.

But that’s Canadian politics and I started out wanting to write something about the passing of a wonderful voice in prose. Maybe I can construe a tribute out of my digression.  Tony Judt was so good that, on reading him, one could never be sure from which direction the rush of stimulation would flow. Only that it would.


Tony Judt on Michael Ignatieff and nationalism

  1. "To understand the depths to which we have fallen, we must first appreciate the scale of the changes that have overtaken us. From the late nineteenth century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services, and guarantees against acute misfortune, modern democracies were shedding extremes of wealth and poverty."

    You are killing me today, Geddes. First your article about academics who have ego issues because few care what they think and now this link to " …. his indictment of materialism and inequality, especially in the U.S. and UK, a pulse-speeding read. "

    I wonder what Judt liked best about the 1970's – was it the two recessions, stagflation, wage and price controls, Winter of Discontent, the two energy crisis or the huge increases in violent crime, divorce, drug use ….?

    And Judt, and many others apparently, would like to return to that era all so that average person could make 60 times less than GM CEO instead of nine hundred times less than make now. Very few working class people who were alive for 1970s would choose to go back to that era.

    What Judt, and many others, forget to mention is that the past 30 years have seen an astonishing amount of wealth created which lets governments pay for all the programs lefties are enamored with. Poor people in Western World have never had it so good.

    • In the 1970s it was easier to afford a university education. Rightwingers have made it more difficult for all but the wealthy elite special interest group (to re-purpose some of the rightwingers' jargon).

      • FYI: tuition has risen under NDP governments as much as "right-wing" governments.

        • I don't believe that's true. Gary Doer held tuition steady throughout his time as premier, paying through the nose and leaving his universities underfunded as a result, finally consenting to only very modest increases near the end of his tenure. The policy cost a mint and probably beggared budgets for other government files, but he stuck with it. That's my quite strong recollection. Not sure what happened elsewhere…..(pause) oops, now I am:

          I actually think the Doer/Clark tuition policy was wrongheaded, but that's a discussion for another day. They did stick with it.

          • Ah, noted. My perception is skewed, perhaps as a result of being from Ontario, where the NDP government of the '90s certainly did not fit that pattern.

            (That all said, I actually agree with Bob Rae on tuition, which is that a focus on freezing tuition doesn't help people who can't afford it already and only starves universities of the help they need…)

    • I don't where your comments regarding the 1970s and Tony Judt are coming from.. Coincidently, today's Guardian had a fantastic obit for Judt.
      ( that included this:

      On the other, his judgments could be pointed: the 1970s was intellectually the bleakest decade of the century: structuralism and deconstructionism came to the fore because their "inherently difficult vocabulary had achieved a level of expressive opacity that proved irresistibly appealing to a new generation of students and their teachers"

      Which I'm sure is a sentiment you can agree with.

      Judt was a first class intellect whose evolving world-view(s) could not be pigeon-holed into left or right.. Perhaps Geddes might have written more on Judt and less Ignatieff, but your (implied) suggestion that he was just another lefty-intellectual who longed for strong unions and big-state-ism, is off-base, and actually quite offensive.

      • First line should be:
        I don't know where your comments regarding the 1970s and Tony Judt are coming from

    • Have to agree about the article on the "experts". Citing Neil Boyd, who's about as left as they come, and who doesn't understand the central place of retribution, or justice, in a criminal justice system, and then expectiing readers to take it seriously, is expecting far too much. We're not in the 1960's anymore for pete's sake.

      Geddes, continue in that vein and the people of Red Lake, good folk all, will disown you.

      • Jarhead on patrol; able to label someone with deep thoughts as 'left' just because he didn't like one or some of their thoughts, didn't understand them and prefers to coddle the idea that gut impulse is all one needs to dictate who should get the earth's riches… We're not in the 1950s either, but don't let that stop you.

        • Boyd is a throwback to the 1960's when rehabilitation of offenders was all the rage. Only rehabilitation of offenders, though laudable, is not the purpose of the justice system. The criminal justice sytem exists to render justice to offender, victims of crime and society as a whole.

          The idea that you can replace justice, or retribution with rehabilitation always was a very naive idea. The pendulum swung too far towards rehabilitation of offenders and the victims of crime and just punishment of offenders became a mere afterthought. The pendum's now swinging back,

          leaving Boyd and his ilk on the outside looking in. This ain't 1969, the mud has long dried up in the fields of Woodstock.

          And the pipe dreams have given way to the reality that people want justice – a world where the punishment fits the crime.

          A concept that experts seem to have trouble wrapping there heads around.

          Which is why we need pay them little heed.

          • Um, Jarrid, once again you are staggeringly wrong.

            Leaving aside for a moment the ancient history of correction and rehabilitation in any societies, the concept of "rehabilitation" and "penance" was all the rage in the early 1800s, not the 1960s as you assert. Eastern State (USA) and Millbank and Pentonville (UK) were prisons designed to reform and educate prisoners so they would become useful workers and citizens. Prior to this, transportation (exile) and execution were the main means of dealing with offenders (other than debtors). The end of penal colonies and the needs of the industrial revolution necessitated this change as much as any emergence of a sense of societies responsibilities for its own offenders.

            In your knee-jerk jerkism and desire to blame all of the world's ills on the 1960s, you have once again proven that angry partisans don't care about facts, only volume.

            I think it's appropriate to assign to you some remedial homework. Why not start with "A Just Measure of Pain" by one M. Ignatieff?

          • You really have no idea about anything, do you.

      • ????????? Huh?


  2. He may not be classic ivory-tower type but he's still a just-visiting, latte-sipping Upper Canada College/U of T educated, Harvard teaching egghead that's only in it for himself. Right? There's no other explanation. Right?

    • Yeah. He's just your average UCC boy, graduated into the family stock broking firm/ bank, bought a fancy house in Rosedale and settled in for a lifetime of summer weekends gazing out over Georgian Bay.

      Oh wait. No. Instead he transformed himself into a public intellectual, in the UK. Doing travel-documentaries about war zones for the BBC. What did Harper do? Get an MA from the University of Calgary and became a professional politician.

      I thought Geddes article was spot on. I saw Ignatieff lecture at the LSE on his Warrior book. Firstly, he is a great lecturer precisely because he isn't a professor type. Secondly, in the wider security studies community at that time, Ignatieff was either derided (mostly by uber-pretentious graduate students), or ignored (by most profs). Undergraduates loved him. Mainly because he filled his lectures with stories about real people. But he wasn't doing academic-type work. He wasn't a Kenneth Waltz designing a theory of international relations. He was doing long-form journalistic analysis, plus travelogue. He was story-telling. And it was great stuff.

  3. Wages have remained pretty stagnant, and manufacturing has gone downhill for years. The only thing that's helped is trade.

    And look where we've ended up …biggest deficit in history, a structural deficit, and still a huge debt.

    • Well, things were going in a different direction until about Jan. 2006, I seem to recall…

      • Yeah well….votes have consequences….and Canada is paying them…bigtime

        • my vote cancels out y'all's

  4. Ignatieff is an exceptionally rare writer. He's experienced high levels of success writing as an academic, a journalist, a theorist and even in fiction. Many point to Blood and Belonging as a major influence, which it was, as it sent waves through academia and, at the same time, resonated with lay readers. His writings on the life of Singer also remains seminal. It is often overlooked, but his earliest work, a Just Measure of Pain, quite literally shook the foundations of criminology and political economy. I remember how huge an impression it made on my criminology professors as an undergrad … and on a host of faculty when I was a grad student. It's worth a read.

  5. "… as we continue to try to figure out the current Liberal leader: "

    What's to figure out ? He's a diletante, just dabbling in politics. He's got one of the worst attendance, and voting records in the House. He's not much familiar with Bills going through the legislative process.
    He advocates any particular policy for a few months at best (remember EI-360 ?)

    I'll give him one thing–he's good at memorizing Donolo's talking points, and then repeating them in both languages.

    • So, this is your daily attack garbage – obviously you don't even understand the article.


      • I quoted something from the article, and commented on it.

        I must have missed Maclean's "instructions" that we can ONLY comment on the whole article.

        There is very little yet to "figure out" about Iggy in his new job as LIBERAL LEADER. I could care less about his previous lives. Others may be mystified, or waiting for more, but after 18 months on his latest job, he's pretty well showed me all he's got to offer.

        • Good grief, you quoted one sentence as a vehicle to spew out your daily partisan attack crud. Who the hell to you think you're fooling.

        • He's from Calgary so he thinks in fragments. Or not at all.

  6. It would help a great deal if posters knew something about Tony Judt, and them perhaps they could talk about him instead of campaigning.

  7. Judt – via Mr. Geddes – precisely point / counterpointed Mr. Ignatieff's strengths and his weaknesses.
    Strengths – when given the time to think and analyze – and with his personal biases subdued – he can produce some compelling papers and books.
    Weaknesses – when he is on the wrong side of an argument – he will test where the wind is going – and become a revisionist on his previous thoughts – not very convincingly IMO. Has to make one wonder about his inner compass and fundamental principles.

  8. This is quite amazing, Mario Laguë is killed in the worst way possible and the Mainstream Media does not disclose ANY of the details.

    Is it possible to be any more incompetent than that?

    Thank God, the truth is not entirely ignored.

    It's time for a new Administration. Mario Laguë was the only Communications Director in Canada who was worth listening to and HIS message lives !

  9. I honestly believe that if you kill somebody on the road and it's your fault, it is MURDER !

    Please change the law, so that we do not have to grant people a license to kill.