Michael Ignatieff On The Case For Liberal Democracy

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Michael Ignatieff moved to Budapest in 2016 to run Central European University (CEU). Instead the Canadian-born author, academic and former politician is fighting for its survival. In April, the Hungarian parliament fast-tracked a law that could force CEU to close. The law requires all foreign-accredited institutions in Hungary to have a campus in their home countries. Therefore, CEU, which is accredited in Hungary and the state of New York, would have to open a new campus by 2018 but this, according to university officials, would be financially and logistically almost impossible.
Hungarian officials say that the law is intended to regularise higher education. But as Ignatieff, the biographer of Sir Isaiah Berlin points out, some of the law only applies to CEU and the law is now often referred to as Lex CEU. “Our view is that this is a premeditated, unprovoked attack on one institution.” Negotiations finally began in late May between Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, and Hungarian government officials.

We meet in Ignatieff’s grandiose office in a former aristocrat’s palace in the heart of downtown Budapest. Our conversation ranges widely, beyond CEU, to the crisis of liberal democracy, the role of government, the rise of populism and the Jewish contribution to history and culture.

CEU was founded by George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish billionaire philanthropist. As Communism entered its death throes during the late ‘80s, Mr. Soros supported the fledgling dissident groups that helped deliver the coup de grace. The aim was to support and train a new generation of democratic politicians who would lead Central and Eastern Europe out of the darkness of Communist totalitarianism into the sunlit uplands of freedom and democracy.
The results were mixed. Among those young radicals was Viktor Orban, a former liberal turned right-wing populist who has been the prime minister of Hungary since 2010 (he previously governed between 1998 and 2002). Orban was a Soros Scholar at Pembroke College, Oxford University between 1989 and 1990. Mr. Orban now has both Mr. Soros and CEU in his gunsights. State and pro-government media rail against Mr. Soros for his liberal politics and pro-migration stance. CEU is regularly erroneously described as “Soros University”.

For government supporters, CEU is the epicentre of liberalism, globalism and multi-culturalism. Its programmes such as Gender Studies arouse especial anger. The battle for CEU is part of a wider culture war, a continuum that takes in the rise of populism around the world, from the election of Donald Trump to the solid base of support for Marine Le Pen and the far right in France.

Ignatieff, the biographer of Isaiah Berlin, carries a photograph on his phone: a shot of a small brass plaque embedded in the pavement on Andrassy way, one of Budapest’s main avenues, not far from his flat. The plaque marks the life and death of Dr. Istvan Zoltan, born in 1899 and deported to Mauthausen in October 1944, where he died in April 1945. Ignatieff knows that the wide streets and tree-lined squares are haunted. “I live on one of the great streets of Budapest, and this is a place where something unspeakable happened between March 1944 and February 1945. The founder of this university lived through that. He famously said, ‘Some people believe in providence, I believe in harsh reality’.”

How did you end up in Budapest?
Firstly, I had lectured at CEU a few times and I always thought it was a great place, with a kind of crackle to it. Secondly, I am married to a Hungarian. I’ve always had a sense of Hungary being a place that is full of unbelievable mathematicians, physicists, chemists, amazing philosophers, and fantastic poets. Hungary has made an extraordinary contribution to intellectual life, some of it a very tragic contribution.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has offered to negotiate with the Hungarian government over Lex CEU. How does that affect the current impasse?
The door is open for negotiation, so the question is whether the Hungarian government will walk through the door and begin talks with New York state authorities. At the moment we cannot accept new students for the 2018–2019 year and that will put us out of business. We refuse to be put out of business. We need a resolution sooner rather than later. But I am not sitting around waiting for that, the academic year will resume as normal next year. We will keep going and hope that the government sees sense.

What will you do if you cannot reach an agreement?
Any institution, especially one dealing with this government, has to make contingency plans. We are actively making contingency plans and it would be irresponsible not to do so. We think that when the government thinks about this, when it looks at the global outpouring of support for us, that Lex CEU has aroused condemnation in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and other capitals, when they look at the cost, they will conclude that the game is not worth the candle. That is not for me to decide. All I can do is run a university and keep it open and that’s what we are going to do. We will never give up a presence in Budapest, whatever happens.

The government says that this law is not a Lex CEU, it is not aimed at CEU and aims to regularise the position of all foreign-accredited educational institutions.
If you look at the text of the law, there are certain provisions that can only apply to us. One says you cannot have two names—we have a name in Hungarian and a legal identity in Hungarian, and an American CEU identity. There is no other university where that particular provision applies. They say this about 28 universities, but we believe it in effect applies to one. Our view is that this is a premeditated, unprovoked political attack on one institution. That’s why the law is known in the press as “Lex CEU” because that is what it is.

Why do the pro-government media and politicians from the ruling party keep calling CEU “Soros University”?
I don’t answer questions about Soros University because there is no such place. There is a place called Central European University. What they are trying to say is that CEU is run by Mr. Soros. It is not, I don’t take direction from him. This university would not be allowed to award American-accredited degrees and PhDs unless we met the accreditation standards of American academic life. Mr. Soros has very explicitly said to me, you are the president and rector; it’s your responsibility to deal with this situation. And I have been dealing with it ever since.

Do you think that the storm of criticism against George Soros and some of the wording – international speculator etc – in the Hungarian media is antisemitic, either intentionally or by default? Government officials strongly deny this but Hungarian state television recently quoted Iranian television describing George Soros as “an evil American and rich Zionist”.
If the Hungarian government officials deny these intentions, then I would take them at their word. There is little doubt, however, that words can conjure up echoes from the past and have consequences that go beyond the original intentions. I am surprised and disappointed that the Hungarian state television would cite these words.

Your critics say that CEU is an elitist institution with no organic connection to Budapest or Hungarian society.
If that were true we would not have had the support we have had from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious institution in the country, or from many Hungarian universities. We would not have had 70,000 people marching on the streets of Budapest, we would not have had four demonstrations in a row in our support. We did not organise those demonstrations, we took no official or unofficial part in them. They are a pretty clear demonstration of the support we have in Hungarian academic life. Part of what makes me so angry, personally angry, is that we have played a very active, and, in our view, positive role in strengthening Hungarian academic life for 25 years. This is why I regard this Lex CEU as a piece of vandalism because it seeks to rip up relationships of cooperation of which we are intensely proud and given the chance, darn it, we would deepen and extend them in all kinds of ways. We are the most successful university in the region in getting European research council grants. Could we sit down with other Hungarian universities and work out team approaches for European funding? You bet. Hungary has some of the best mathematicians in the world. The Renyi Institute, for example, is a world-class institution. It does its teaching at CEU.

Tell me about the Roma Access Programmes. 
Many of the Roma people in Europe have been among those most disadvantaged in terms of access to higher education. We put together programmes in which we help Roma students from all over the region to prepare for university and for graduate work. We have played our part in providing the academic training for a whole new generation of Roma leaders across Europe. It is part of our identity as an institution and we will keep on doing it.

How much has Budapest changed since you first came here in 1993?
I am very attached to this city. It is a kind of living monument to the astounding impact of Jewish emancipation. The period from 1867 to 1930 was the hour of Budapest’s glory. Some of it was created by the way that the Habsburg Empire enabled an unbelievably entrepreneurial and active Jewish middle class to flourish. Then it had a pretty horrible time from 1945 to 1989, the communist period.
The city looked pretty beaten up in 1993. But it was also beginning to display its irrepressibility, with bars, pubs, fantastic music. Nowadays, I could go to a concert every night of the week.

How would you describe the atmosphere in Hungary now?
I am not a Hungarian but I am married to one. It’s a wonderful language, a great poetic language, but I don’t speak it so I don’t pick up the street music. I see this through the eyes of my wife’s family. They come from a small town near Lake Balaton, they are a sort of working class, lower-middle-class family. When you look at their lives since 1993, their life is better in the sense that they travel but they have not benefited as much from the last 25 years as you might think. This is not a political remark, but there is a lot of frustration. There was a promise after 1989 that life would be completely different, especially after EU accession in 2004. But 500,000 Hungarians are working in Europe, it is a remittance economy, which is very heavily dependent on the four to five billion euros it gets every year. We were founded to be the university of transition, to train people to move from communist world into a democratic one. That transition is not finished, it is still going and it is taking much longer than people thought.

In many universities across the world Jewish and Israeli students feel intimidated. Is antisemitism or anti-Zionism an issue here?
A university that is doing its job wants to create a space for full and complete, but civil, debate on these issues. I don’t like Israel-bashing. I never did. It is important that universities lead and make it clear what kind of debate is appropriate. But antisemitism/anti-Zionism is not an issue here. We have Israeli faculty, we have extended deep, long-standing relationships with Israeli academic institutions, we have Palestinian students, we have relationships with al-Quds university in Jerusalem. We have students from 120 countries. We are bound to have students with very strong feelings on these issues but we are proud of the fact that we all muck in together and live together.

How important has Judaism and Jewish themes been in your life?
I am not Jewish but for a bunch of reasons I have always had a sort of emotional connection with the Jewish story in the 20th century. I have been a guest at Hebrew University, at Beersheba and I have been to Jerusalem more times than I can think of. I am the biographer of Isaiah Berlin and that is the most formative experience in my life. Next to my dad, Isaiah Berlin had the biggest influence on me. Isaiah Berlin was a Russian Jew and my family is of Russian origin—there is a connection, the Russian bridge. As I say in my Berlin biography, one of the biggest things I learnt from him was his navigation of his Jewish identity. The single thing I took from him is to be Jewish is to be free and to be free is to choose what kind of Jew you choose to be. You cannot change your fate, your destiny, your birth. I would ask him, “Are you proud of your Jewish heritage?” He would say, “What is that supposed to mean? I am a Jew, period.” But the question of what kind of Jew, what it means to you, what part of your identity, must be a matter for you to choose, I found that as a non-Jew, as a human being, deeply inspiring. I could see how much pressure he was under, to take positions on Israel and Zionism. He would stand up for his people when they were attacked, but he would be critical of people saying you have to be this kind of Jew or that kind of Jew, he basically said I will be myself.

The election of President Trump, the rise of Marine Le Pen and other populist leaders shows that a significant proportion of the population feel disenfranchised by the current political system. Is liberal democracy in danger?
When you cast this as a crisis of disenfranchisement, you put your finger on it. Democracies are always in trouble when people feel disenfranchised. You can see in the United States the rage and fury, but all Isaiah Berlin would say is that “Everything is what is and not another thing.” This is not the ‘30s. That does not mean it is less serious or that it is less worrying, but it is not the ‘30s. We are not looking at Fascism. It’s important to remember that. Fascism is the organised use of political violence to subvert a democratic system, not just against Jews but against Communists and opponents. Whatever is wrong with contemporary European democracy, it is not facing a crisis of organised violence within the political system. It is facing a crisis of violence as we saw in Manchester. That is not fascism, that is something else. That is repulsive. It renders you speechless. After you settle the clever analytical sociological things, you are still faced with how does a 22-year-old do that. But I think that people give up on liberal democracy too easily.

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