Is There a Place for Intellectuals in Politics?

Two public intellectuals - environmental writer Bill McKibben and Harvard prof Michael Ignatieff - recount leaving the ivory tower to try their luck in the high-stakes world of international politics; The results were very different.

Shefa Siegel
Shefa Siegel
Shefa Siegel
Shefa Siegel

Fire & Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff

Harvard University Press / Random House Canada,224 pages, $24.95 / CDN$ 29.95

Oil & Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, by Bill McKibben

Times Books, 272 pages, $26

“Rubashov yearned to work again in a quiet library with green lamps …”

- Arthur Koestler, “Darkness at Noon”

Even if buried deep inside them, most intellectuals harbor fantasies of one day being sprung from rooms of fiddling dons and summoned to summits or sent on missions, like Leonard Cohen’s musical alter ego, the “Field Commander,” who is “wounded in the line of duty, parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties, while urging Fidel Castro to abandon fields and castles.” For Cohen, a celebrated American musician and writer who twice attempted to enlist as a soldier (first in Cuba and later Israel in 1973), the impulse is to transcend humdrum “waiting rooms” and “ticket lines.”

A “longing for significance” is one of the phrases chosen by Michael Ignatieff in his “Fire and Ashes,” a memoir of his six-year odyssey from public intellectual to political prominence and back again. Almost by definition, the “Field Commander” fantasy anticipates success; but what if instead the adventure proves an epic of defeat?

In 2004, Ignatieff, a Canadian writer best known for his journalism on ethnic war and human rights, was teaching political ethics at Harvard University when a faction of Canada’s 150-year-old Liberal Party asked him to front a movement to unseat its then-leader and Prime Minister of Canada Paul Martin. The party had been in power more than a decade, but, relying on its identity as Canada’s “natural governing party,” it had become increasingly insular, entitled and aloof. It was not hard to imagine the charismatic Ignatieff making the transition from professor to prime minister in five years.

Seismic political shifts led the Liberals to lose power just as Ignatieff was elected as a backbencher, and a mere three years later he was opposition leader, only to become the face of a historic trouncing at the hands of the Conservative Party in the 2011 federal election. Defeat gutted the Liberals and immolated Ignatieff’s reputation, making him just the third leader in party history not to become premier. The morning after the election, having lost not only the vote but also his own parliamentary seat, Ignatieff was out of politics. “It turns out there is nothing so ex as an ex-politician, especially a defeated one,” Ignatieff writes. “Your phone goes dead … Defeat invalidated me as a politician but also as a writer and thinker.”

Emotionally candid and humble, Ignatieff provides unadorned glimpses of political life, in which the art of dissimulation collides with the intellectual’s impulse for truth. He confesses that hubris led him to miscast himself as a political leader and that his failure was linked to an existential uncertainty about why — and for whom — he wanted to be prime minister. This uncertainty was shrewdly exploited by his Conservative opponents, who portrayed him as a selfish dilettante rather than a legitimate public servant.

Ignatieff admits to being unprepared for these realities, especially for learning that truth never gets its moment. Other things shock him: the vengeful defiance of friends-turned-rivals; the gulf between disaffected citizens and cynical politicians, and the ruling Conservatives’ ability to persuade Canadians their economy was not suffering like that of the United States after the 2008 financial crisis. Ignatieff reserves his most intense criticism for himself but also acknowledges the Liberals’ alarming state of decay. “We were still the most successful party of government in the democratic world,” he writes. “What I didn’t grasp was that a great franchise had reached the end of the road.”

A different kind of leader

Around the time Ignatieff was entering party politics, another public intellectual, American environmental writer Bill McKibben, was embarking on a different kind of political adventure. Like Ignatieff, McKibben has Harvard roots and connections to elite East Coast magazines and publishing houses. In 1989, while just in his 20s and working as a staff writer at the New Yorker, McKibben wrote “The End of Nature,” the first popular book about climate change and among the 20th century’s most important environmental books.

Those were heady days for environmentalists, when it seemed like scientific clarity and international treaties would moderate irrational expansion of fossil fuel consumption. As this optimism declined in the 1990s and was buried under President George W. Bush, McKibben gradually concluded that his role as a popularizer was no longer enough. Together with students from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was teaching courses on social movements, McKibben founded, a wonky name that referred to the tolerable limit of carbon (350 parts per million) in the atmosphere. The organization proved anything but wonky, promoting movement building and nonviolent civil disobedience, practices largely abandoned by environmental organizations — especially those based in Washington, D.C. — in favor of lobbying, white papers and media jockeying.

“Oil and Honey” is McKibben’s memoir about his transformation from public intellectual to political activist. McKibben used the advance for his book to purchase a farm in Vermont, offering a beekeeper-friend, Kirk Webster, free tenure in exchange for cultivating his apiaries. His relationship with Webster shapes the book’s narrative. From struggling with the toil of rallies, travel and bad hotels, McKibben returns to the land for solace and inspiration from the farm Webster is cultivating. The book is McKibben’s examination of the conflict between heeding his moral calling to lead a global movement and the deep local agrarianism that speaks to his soul.

“As long as I was the somewhat bumbling author-activist who’d stumbled into this work, then failure was okay,” McKibben writes. “If you’re not expecting to win, then any victory is a bonus. If you’re willing to declare yourself a leader, however, then failure is on you.” Despite his reluctance to leave the shelter of quiet pietism and risk failure, McKibben finally embraces the role. “I wasn’t cut out to be a leader,” he writes. “Still, I was one.”

As much as McKibben supported candidate Barack Obama in 2008, the Obama administration’s procrastination on climate change led him to ramp up the call for active resistance to fossil fuel industries (coal, oil and gas). A hastily organized action outside the White House in the summer of 2011 — protesting construction of a North American oil pipeline, called Keystone XL, that most people had never heard of — was a radical success. The tactic of blocking oil supply routes by opposing individual pipelines soon led to a fossil fuel divestment campaign modeled on the anti-apartheid movement.

“We have met the enemy and they is Shell,” McKibben wrote in a pathbreaking article for Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Over the next two years, the anti-pipeline movement “went viral,” drawing tens of thousands of supporters to rallies, attracting billionaire donors and pushing the politics of pipelines — and by extension, climate — to the fore of both American and Canadian politics, proving there is such thing as environmental populism.

Younger than Ignatieff by a decade, McKibben turned himself into a nimble digital intellectual, no less effective in the messy world of popular blogs than with the tidy erudition of the New York Review of Books. This flexibility proved vital when the excitement of the two-week Keystone protests was dampened by a hurricane that barely missed Manhattan, only to devastate McKibben’s home state of Vermont, and again a year later, when Hurricane Sandy did drown the city. McKibben seemed to be everywhere during these periods, sometimes publishing numerous articles per day in a plethora of print and online outlets, chronicling the rising tide of climate disaster and writing furious appeals for swift and drastic reversal of the global energy path.

‘I began reading again’

“Of all the transformations of the past three decades,” Tony Judt comments in his 2009 book “Reappraisals,” “the disappearance of ‘intellectuals’ is perhaps the most symptomatic.” For Judt, this eclipse was part of a broader discursive shift from “all-embracing generalities” to “issue” politics. “While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march,” Judt wrote in his final book, “Ill Fares the Land,” “we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest.”

In one respect, Judt’s lament is reinforced by these memoirs, neither of which presents a panoramic theory of change. Despite his disillusion with the liberal enterprise, Ignatieff’s focus is the art and practice of politics rather than holistic remedies for his party or parliamentary democracy. McKibben, meanwhile, dips into local agrarian ideals and notions of medium-scale industrial development championed by economist E.F. Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”), yet avoids utopian evangelizing, no doubt conscious that the high cost of land in a productive agricultural state like Vermont makes the apiary he underwrites an impossible dream for most Americans, let alone the rest of the world. Nor does he aim to square every complexity, for instance the way popular debate about Keystone — whose fate came one step closer to being decided in late January, with the release of another environmental assessment commissioned by the State Department — has come partly at the expense of comprehensive energy reform.

Though lacking ideological thunder, the authors cannot be accused of cravenly perorating as worlds crash before them. If they are not exemplars of enlightened engagement — liberal and revolutionist — it’s tough to know who is. Perhaps the absence of supreme goals and maniacal plugging of programs speaks to self-awareness rather than narrow mindedness. Modern democratic politics are played out at the intersections of bureaucracy and lobbying, where all-embracing ideas are seldom influential, especially in the generalized way sometimes imagined by intellectuals.

While Ignatieff’s summit of party politics and McKibben’s radical dissent are remarkably different experiences, the authors share the sense of personal and intellectual detachment inflicted by the active life. “I began reading again,” Ignatieff writes about life after politics, “and with reading came the first stirring of the intellectual curiosity, the avidity for ideas that the routine of political life can slowly drive out of your system.” McKibben writes simply, “You can violate your nature for a while, but eventually it takes a toll.”

The toll is reflected in the books. Ignatieff’s elegant composition may be his finest since his biography of Isaiah Berlin in 1998. While in politics, though, his writing lacked the artistic sensibility that led him to write three novels earlier in his career. Ignatieff the writer is back, returning like an old friend, while McKibben’s book feels rushed, at times stretching to build a meaningful metaphor for consensual democracy out of the wisdom of beehives.

The tension between politics and art evokes something Arthur Koestler writes about his protagonist, Rubashov, in “Darkness at Noon”: “The most productive times for revolutionary philosophy had always been the time of exile, the forced rests between periods of political activity.” In a similar vein, upon his return to teaching, Ignatieff observes that flunking out of politics is a common thread among many canonical political theorists: Cicero, Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, Mill and Weber, to name a few. History, it seems, may be written by the victors, but the theory of how things ought to work appears to be the property of losers.

Shefa Siegel’s most recent writing on natural resources and religion appears in Ethics & International Affairs, Carnegie Ethics, and Sojourners. He holds a Ph.D in resource ethics from the University of British Columbia.

Bill McKibbenCredit: Steve Liptay
Michael Ignatieff in his previous life as leader of Canada's Liberal Party.Credit: Bloomberg
Michael IgnatieffCredit: Martha Stewart

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