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.

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