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Michael Ignatieff, professor at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and former Liberal Party leader, sits in his former parliamentary chair at his office at Massey College in Toronto on Sept. 28, 2012. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Michael Ignatieff, professor at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and former Liberal Party leader, sits in his former parliamentary chair at his office at Massey College in Toronto on Sept. 28, 2012.

(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Michael Ignatieff’s wise reflections Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff, the former federal Liberal leader, gave quite a wise (and sometimes self-depreciating) lecture at Stanford University in the middle of October, about the balancing of truthfulness and partisanship in politics. Although commentators on Twitter have mostly emphasized – often with mockery – his warning of a possible descent of democracy into fascism, he was not actually predicting a shift in the Western world to regimes like those of Hitler and Mussolini.

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Fascism was always a loose term; Mussolini, who coined it, designed the word for his manipulative propaganda. But Mr. Ignatieff was right to pinpoint the thought of the one serious Nazi political philosopher, Carl Schmitt. (Martin Heidegger was a major philosopher and, like Schmitt, a Nazi party member, but he was not a political thinker in any normally recognizable sense.) Schmitt taught that politics is essentially about doing good to friends and harming enemies – which was a proposed definition of justice specifically rejected early on in Plato’s Republic. Mr. Ignatieff pointed to the same concept in Lenin, who said politics is all about who will be the hammer and who will be the anvil. The extreme left and the extreme right converge.

He was not being unduly high-minded. He explicitly recognized there is a place for the friends-enemies dichotomy in international relations, in other words, for war. His argument is that there is no place for treating anyone as an enemy in domestic politics, because that amounts to warfare, to trying to extirpate the opposing party; on the other hand, there are and should be adversaries. His lecture was not merely an uplifting plea for more politeness; on the contrary, he said that politicians should often denounce each other in Parliament, but he praised “the old days,” when “adversaries in politics used to drink and dine together.” Adversaries should try to defeat each other, but not to destroy each other.

At the outset, Mr. Ignatieff said he had been foolish to try to be both a politician and a professor (he did not mention his life as journalist) but his experience as the leader of a political party has clearly borne fruit in valuable thoughts on how to accommodate moral principles and partisan practicality.

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