Barely three months after losing the Liberal leadership campaign to Justin Trudeau in 2013, Michael Ignatieff, the professor and author who had become an expert at explaining the world to the president of the United States, spent his first night without sleep for nearly half a decade.
Rather than going to sleep, he logged on to Facebook and looked for news of the day. That’s how the 70-year-old career politician and academic came to be sitting in a restaurant in New York state, near the Greyhound bus station where he’d taken a train to connect with a book tour.
It wasn’t that Mr. Ignatieff had lost interest in politics, it was just that he felt alone and vulnerable.
“I went up to Facebook the very first night, and there was an article I didn’t know. It was about Palestinian men and women in Gaza cutting off the heads of their schoolgirls, cooking them in small pots and shooting them down in the street. There was another article about Saudi women who were simply banning themselves from going out and driving and the photos of them on their way back to Riyadh,” Mr. Ignatieff recalled. “All these things were happening in the Middle East and I realized it would be a mistake for me to hide from this. I wanted to see what I could do to try to make a difference, to support both the people who are making the necessary change and the forces that want to block it.”
The complex world of international politics and the devastating pandemic of human suffering is Mr. Ignatieff’s subject in his new book, On Consolation, a collection of reflections, poetry and reflections on human nature that will be released Tuesday.
While he accepts that our future may not resemble a united world, Mr. Ignatieff makes clear that the reason for optimism about the future – because of our diversity – must also extend to the possibility of human belonging.
“The curse of Donald Trump is what the people of the world can learn from him: this man, with his powerful beliefs and perceptions, has become an extraordinary symbol of our inability to live as one human race,” Mr. Ignatieff writes. “If we are to survive him, what we must realize is that a world of Trump-like powerful, petulant, corrupt, divisive and intolerable individuals could actually make us stronger.”
Mr. Ignatieff takes the reader on a journey that he hopes will explain how to deal with the suffering and death of loved ones and learn to find meaning in the loss of friends and acquaintances.
“More than anything else, my book is about consolation, the question of how we come to seek and accept a search for meaning – and most of all how we can begin to mend the broken, anxious, traumatized persons of our days,” he writes.
The book represents Mr. Ignatieff’s personal journey of consolation – and the story of a graduate of public high school who joined the Ontario Liberal Party and was elected to Parliament in 1999 – including during the recent election when he ran for the leadership of the party. At the time, the book could have easily been called Mr. Ignatieff and Liberal Ministers – a reference to his earlier stint in Canada’s political wilderness as a Conservative party minister – competing for seats in the north.
“On Consolation” may look like a self-help book but it’s also a reminder of how tragedies can actually bring people together.
“I think I discovered why politics is so important in the world and human life,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “I was terrified and I learned some things about being in political life that were very important to me.
“Politics is so important for making peace and making human relationships good and making good health and making good government. I think this book lays out more of what is the hard stuff, which is the sort of deep, stubborn problems in the world that come up now and force us to look more intensely at ourselves, and try to figure out what is our role in that,” he said.
One of the biggest questions Mr. Ignatieff has received from readers is his response to the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in October of 2017. In his book, he says he was always at the concert, seated a couple rows ahead of the shooter. “As I stood up on the Cajon Pass, I felt something in my gut. I didn’t expect this,” he writes.