Moral Philosopher and Central European University President Michael Ignatieff

My Burmese Cats Decide When We Wake Up

Photo by Hector Sandoval.

Michael Ignatieff is an academic, writer, former head of the Liberal Party of Canada, rector and president of Central European University in Budapest, and the author most recently of The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, which earned him the 2018 Zócalo Book Prize. Before delivering the Zócalo Book Prize Lecture, “Are Ordinary Virtues More Powerful Than Universal Values?” he sat down in the green room to discuss his mayonnaise recipe, his spirit animal, and what’s most Canadian about him.

Q:
Writing The Ordinary Virtues took you from Queens and Los Angeles to Myanmar and South Africa. What was the least ordinary food you ate in your travels?

A:
I was in a restaurant in Kyoto, and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. I ate some form of ocean creature that I have never eaten before, and I don’t know quite what it was. But it was so good I didn’t care.

Q:
What do you wake up to?

A:
I wake up to two cats, Mimi and Eric, two Burmese deciding it’s time we wake up.

Q:
What is the most Canadian thing about you?

A:
[Laughs.] Moderation in all things. That was meant to be ironic. I’m sure my wife would say, “Moderation in all things is not him at all.” That’s what Canadians want you to believe.

Q:
What's your hidden talent?

A:
Mayonnaise. I make mayonnaise.

Q:
With eggs?

A:
With eggs, olive oil, lemon, Dijon mustard, salt.

Q:
Do you ever feel nostalgic for the life of a politician?

A:
Never.

Q:
What is the best book you've read recently?

A:
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, who’s a wonderful Italian writer. The book was published in the ’60s. It’s just a memoir of her crazy Italian Jewish family in the 1930s. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

Q:
What's the strangest job you've ever had?

A:
Selling The New York Times in the streets of Paris.

Q:
What was the last thing that inspired you?

A:
The demonstrations in defense of Central European University in Budapest in May 2017.

Q:
What word or phrase do you use most often?

A:
“I’m sorry.”

Q:
What surprises you the most about your life right now?

A:
That I’m still in demand.

Q:
What's your spirit animal?

A:
An owl.