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John Harvard's Journal

Michael Ignatieff

March-April 2004

Unlike the world, the Kennedy School office of Michael Ignatieff, Ph.D. '76, is immaculately tidy. "It's complete illusion," he quickly explains. "Underneath, it's all chaos." As a London-based correspondent from 1984 until 2000, Ignatieff lived with chaos, covering the Balkan wars for the BBC, the Observer, and the New Yorker. Now, as Carr professor of human rights practice and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, his work focuses on one question: when should you use military force to defend human rights? Law, politics, and history converge in this area. A trained historian, he explains that "these disciplines are incorrigible. I don't seem to understand anything unless I know where it came from." Ignatieff's core field of eighteenth-century intellectual history explains "why I'm in human rights, since human rights came out of the European Enlightenment and Rousseau." Ignatieff, whose grandfather was a cabinet minister in czarist Russia, was born in Toronto and grew up as a Canadian foreign-service brat (he spoke perfect Serbo-Croatian at 10 — it vanished by 12.) His second novel, Scar Tissue, about a professor dealing with his mother's Alzheimer's disease, was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1993. A regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he has a new book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, due out in April. He and his second wife, Hungarian Zsuzsanna Zsohar, live in Mather House, where he is a resident scholar. Ignatieff skis, skates, and has "all the local vices" — e.g., the Red Sox — and declares that "sitting on the couch, watching pro sports with a beer in my hand, is pretty close to my idea of heaven."