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21 October 2017

The Ordinary Virtues combines powerful moral arguments with superb storytelling

Michael Ignatieff's book of essays explores “moral globalisation”.

By David Herman

Michael Ignatieff’s career falls into two halves. He is still best known here as a writer and broadcaster. During the 1980s and 1990s, he presented Channel 4’s Voices and BBC Two’s The Late Show and was a columnist for the Observer; his novel Scar Tissue was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize; and he wrote a number of other acclaimed books including The Russian Album and The Needs of Strangers. He was the embodiment of the era’s literary intellectual: liberal, cultured, smart.

In the mid-1990s, Ignatieff’s writing took a darker turn. He responded passionately to the savagery in Bosnia and Western intervention in Iraq and started exploring the new nationalism, human rights and how to reconcile the values of Enlightenment universalism with the emerging world of genocide and violence against minorities. Over the past two decades, this has been at the heart of his work, teaching at Toronto and Harvard universities and writing numerous books and articles about what he calls here “Moral Order in a Divided World”.

The Ordinary Virtues is a book of essays about “moral globalisation”. Globalisation is dividing us. British steelworkers and American car workers are fighting for their livelihoods against cheaper imports from Asia. Brexit and Trump’s election show how this is affecting our politics. We are living through a time of “explosive, disorienting, and destabilising change” that is turning our world upside down.

How do we make sense of this, and what kinds of values do we look to? In an increasingly divided world, do we “speak the same ethical language when we confront such issues as corruption and public trust, tolerance in multicultural cities, reconciliation after war and conflict, and resilience in times of uncertainty and danger”?

Ignatieff and a team from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs travelled in America, and from Rio and South Africa to Bosnia and Myanmar, to talk to ordinary people and see how questions about political morality look from street level. They explore 21st-century political ideas through the eyes of survivors of ethnic conflict in Bosnia, the poor in multicultural cities in North and South America and black people in South Africa after Mandela. We know what liberal academics think about different forms of conflict, but what about ordinary people from very different cultures? What kinds of virtues and institutions do we need in order to flourish at times of huge change and growing conflict?

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The essays fall into two groups. The best are on South Africa and Bosnia. Ignatieff combines powerful moral arguments with superb storytelling. There are unforgettable accounts of the massacres in the former Yugoslavia and how people try to live with memories of loss and – perhaps even harder – with neighbours who were among the perpetrators. He meets Shahida Rakmanovic, now in her fifties. Her husband was killed by a Serb paramilitary group 25 years ago. Her children left long ago but she has stayed. “If I’m the last Bosnian woman in this village, then they will not have won.”

He meets Sudbun Mujdzic. His father was shot by the Serbs, who threw his body down a well. He shows Ignatieff a field where a forensic team recently found a thousand bodies: “It has taken a year of patient DNA work to identify the mangled hair, teeth and bone tissue.” When the DNA samples are identified, people such as Mujdzic take the remains and give them a decent burial.

Ignatieff wrote about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, the heyday of post-apartheid optimism. He returns to South Africa almost 20 years on, when the questions seem darker and less hopeful. What does reconciliation mean, precisely? Does it mean “being reconciled to the facts of apartheid? Being reconciled with the perpetrators?” How do these questions sound under Jacob Zuma, with corruption prevalent and poverty and inequality still widespread? “South Africa was supposed to be different,” Ignatieff writes. Is it? And how do people live with their sense of disappointment?

Some of the other essays here are not as powerful. Ignatieff is less familiar with Rio, Los Angeles, Japan and Myanmar. Curiously, the Muslim world is almost entirely absent. It is no coincidence that the best pieces in this collection draw on his experiences of Bosnia and South Africa in the 1990s. The issues speak to him more powerfully. The personal stories, contrasting the past with the present, are more moving. They are also more extreme, and Ignatieff is particularly good on disillusion, contrasting Zuma with Mandela, and exploring the troubling legacy of Aung San Suu Kyi, as tens of thousands of Muslims flee for their lives from Myanmar.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Ordinary Virtues is the contrast between the hopes and aspirations of the 1990s and the realities of the early 21st century. What does this say about liberalism and about the debate between confident liberals such as Ignatieff and Steven Pinker and the darker visions of those such as John Gray? The liberal revolution, so optimistic about progress, democracy and human rights, is not looking great almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela. 

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World
Michael Ignatieff
Harvard University Press, 272pp, £22.95

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions