‘Beware of fashion, beware of orthodoxy, think for yourself’

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Prof. Michael Ignatieff implores graduates to maintain their independence of thought, during the Conferring Ceremony at the Badia Fiesolana on 15 June.

A quick glance at Michael Ignatieff’s CV paints a picture of a man not afraid to take on new challenges. The one-time leader of Canada’s Liberal Party has moved between academia, journalism, novel-writing and politics in a storied half-century career. Yet, despite everything he’s done to date, Ignatieff is only now taking on his most exacting role: President and Rector of the Central European University in Budapest. In doing so, he has become a figurehead of the battle for academic and intellectual freedom in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

CEU’s travails are well-known. Founded by George Soros in 1991, the university swiftly became a bastion of liberalism in a country that was fast throwing off the shackles of communism. Sitting, sleek and modern, a stone’s throw from the gothic grandeur of the Hungarian parliament, CEU quickly gained a glowing international reputation, seeming to symbolise Hungary’s turn towards the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet, for the best part of eighteen months, its very existence has come under threat from Orbán, whose government passed a higher education law setting stringent conditions under which the university must operate. Orbán was re-elected for a third time in April, after a fraught campaign in which he branded Soros a traitor for encouraging immigration to Hungary, and CEU remains in legal limbo.

Ignatieff is thus uniquely placed to discuss the turn towards authoritarianism in today’s politics. Addressing the Max Weber Programme’s June Conference on 15 June, Ignatieff suggested that we are ‘living through and assisting a new type of single-party regime’. Liberals, Ignatieff argued, have been guilty of believing that the arc of history was moving inexorably from closed societies towards open, from autocracy towards democracy. ‘History serves no master,’ he said. ‘Liberal constitutionalists like myself were susceptible to a certain type of narrative capture – from which we are now being reluctantly awakened.’

Liberal democracies have been put under ‘enormous strain’ by three events since the turn of the millennium, Ignatieff explained: the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US; the 2008 financial crash and the so-called migration ‘crisis’ in 2015. While those crises were ‘managed,’ Ignatieff believes they were not ‘surmounted’. Indeed, he claims, those three events caused citizens of western democracies to ask themselves who was to blame, and who was going to protect them now. Ignatieff believes that liberal democracies’ inability to come up with adequate responses to these questions prepared the grounds for new forms of authoritarianism in places as diverse as Poland and the Philippines.

In the process, the academic community – ‘us, folks’ – ‘have taken a tremendous whacking’, especially since 2008, Ignatieff pointed out. ‘[People are asking academics] why the hell didn’t you tell us the lights were flashing red? What the hell is social science for if you can’t predict a global economic meltdown? You tell us that the whole point of your knowledge is to predict, prevent and serve your societies – where the hell were you in 2007 and 2008?’

Those questions have become so pervasive that Michael Gove, a Conservative MP in the UK who spearheaded the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, claimed that voters have ‘had enough of experts’ in 2016. Have they? And, widening the lens, do academics bear some responsibility for liberal democracies’ current malaise?

While he stops short of pointing the finger at academics for precipitating today’s problems, Ignatieff does think that the ‘cosmopolitan knowledge elites’ could and indeed should have done more to foresee what was coming over the hill. ‘There are some troubling failures of prediction,’ he explained in an interview with EUI Times. ‘Nobody in their right mind would blame economists for the recurring instability of late capitalism but, God almighty, we could have understood and predicted some of the adverse consequences a bit better.’

Does that place the onus on the academic community to take a leading role in turning back the authoritarian tide? Institutions like the EUI have done a ‘terrific job’ in explaining the ‘authoritarian turn’ away from liberal democracy in post-communist societies, Ignatieff says. Yet, while he doubts that academics alone can turn the tide, if they don’t provide the understanding of the deep-rooted causes, ‘we’ll address symptoms’ rather than causes. ‘You can’t reverse what you don’t understand,’ Ignatieff reasons, ‘and understanding is vital to making public policy happen.’

The Institute’s latest batch of graduates hold aloft their diplomas.

That lesson will undoubtedly be heeded by the EUI’s latest batch of graduates, who received their degrees during the Institute’s twentieth Conferring Ceremony on 15 June. Ignatieff delivered the keynote address, which focussed heavily on academic freedom and the importance of intellectual independence.

‘It’s hard to think for yourself,’ Ignatieff later explained. ‘I was pleading with [the graduates] to beware of orthodoxy, beware of fashion, beware of the discourses that sweep through academia and cause everybody to think the same way. We like to think of universities as centres of contrarian and oppositional thought but, really, universities are buffeted by conformism.’

‘I myself have found it extremely difficult to think for myself at all stages of my life,’ he continued. ‘Don’t be discouraged. It’s difficult, but it’s the job – it’s what your Ph.D. is for. Not to mouth orthodoxies for the rest of your life, but to use what you’ve learned to notice that the theory and the facts don’t always fit. Sometimes you’ve gotta find a better theory – because the facts aren’t going away.’