"There’s no them. Just us"

The Canadian Cleveringa Professor is an ardent supporter of civic courage

Students gather in front of the Academy building after Cleveringa's lecture.

By Vincent Bongers

Historian Michael Ignatieff knows the difficulties facing academics who take up politics. On Tuesday, in his inaugural lecture as Cleveringa Chair, he called for civic courage.

“I support interventions”, says Michael Ignatieff (66). “Particularly if it could end a war. Obviously, it’s important to form the broadest possible coalition before intervening. You can be as anti-American as you like, love them or hate them – it makes no difference, we still need them. It would inconceivable to form a coalition without the United States. My own country, Canada, and the Netherlands too for instance, are simply too weak to intervene on their own. Even the French in Mali needed technical and communication support from the Americans.”

Ignatieff is a historian, novelist, failed politician and this year’s Cleveringa Chair in Leiden (see box). He is known for his ardent support of interventions: diplomatic and, if necessary, military. He argues that, even though interventions in global hotspots backfire all too often, we still can’t leave the inhabitants of war-ridden areas to fend for themselves. “Just look at former Yugoslavia: the slaughter in the Balkans has stopped. No one is being killed in Kosovo or Bosnia anymore and that’s all thanks to the efforts of President Clinton and the diplomat, Richard Holbrooke. They’d still be killing each other probably if the Americans hadn’t done something.”

Initially, Ignatieff also supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I will never be able to forget the images of Kurds in Halabja, murdered with Saddam’s poison gas in 1988. When a dictator is capable of doing that, I think the international community should intervene.”

He talked extensively with Kurds and Shiites and came to the conclusion that Saddam’s removal from power would be the only way they could live in freedom. “I supported Bush’s military intervention, but I changed my mind. It wasn’t the right way. Ah well, you learn from these errors of judgment.”

Regarding Syria, he has grown more cautious. “Assad is not the only party involved. We don’t know whom we should support. This situation isn’t easily solved with a military intervention so our only option is to try and negotiate a cease-fire. If we can manage that, it would be a victory for human rights.”

But that will only succeed if nothing fuels the flames. “The challenge is to stifle the flames with a blanket, or the killing will continue. Accordingly, we have to make a deal with Russia, Saudi Arabia and other major players to ensure that they stop supplying arms.”

He thinks that there have been a few victories. “The destruction of chemical weapons in Syria, for example. Now we need to put a stop to the production of enriched nuclear material in Iran – without resorting to violence.”

In his Cleveringa speech, Ignatieff calls for civic courage and the importance of confronting authorities with their behaviour, even if it is risky.”

“Cleveringa was brave enough (see the box) to do it. He supported Meijers, not just because Meijers was a colleague, even a friend, and not just because he was a human being like Cleveringa. He supported him because Meijers was a fellow civilian. It is an important fact, certainly now that nationalism and extremism is on the rise in Europe. Both right-wing and left-wing populists are stirring up an ‘us and them’ mentality – exactly what we don’t need: There is no them. Just us.”

Ignatieff chose not to remain in his comfortable position telling others how to do things without becoming involved. He took up politics and eventually became the leader of the Liberal Party, one of the largest parties in Canada.

“At first, it was a great success, but eventually it all went pear-shaped. I was viciously attacked by my political opponents. I had worked abroad for thirty years and accomplished a lot but that was used against me. My enemies claimed I wasn’t a true Canadian. What I had to say didn’t matter, only whether I was sufficiently Canadian. I found that very strange and hard to live with. In that sense, I was very naive. It’s not easy for an academic to become a politician.”

The 2011 elections ended in disaster: the Liberal Party lost a large number of seats and Ignatieff left politics. “Still, I’m glad I did it. You get to know every millimetre of the country, learn how the poor and the rich live. You get to visit hamlets north of the Arctic Circle and see how the original inhabitants of Canada live. That was really great.”

He has no plans to return to politics. “Now I can concentrate on writing and teaching again, which is what I prefer to do. But I’d be happy to see more scientists move into politics - they could do a lot of good there.”

Who was Cleveringa?
Professor Rudolph Pabus Cleveringa (1894-1980), dean of the Law Faculty, held an unusual speech on 26 November 1940, the day he replaced his Jewish colleague Eduard Meijers (1880-1954). Meijers was to have held a lecture on civil law, but the Germans had denied Meijers and other Jewish staff access to the university and fired them.

Cleveringa did not lecture but held a protest speech. The Sicherheitspolizei arrested the dean the day after his act of resistance and he was detained in the prison in Scheveningen, the infamous Oranjehotel, until the summer of 1941. Both he and Meijers survived the war, and in 1970, a Chair was established in his honour. A new Cleveringa Chair is appointed every year, and each one delivers a speech around 26 November. All over the world, professors and (former) students give lectures around this date.

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