Monday, August 6

The First Twenty-five Names in the Phone Book

Michael Ignatieff, "Getting Iraq Wrong." New York Times Magazine, August 5

The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.

NAH. That just seems like the decision to get a particularly regrettable tattoo in the throes of a bad romance a couple of seasons back. What seems like a distant dream is Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, or the dewey promise of the United Nations after the most horrific conflict in human history. Strangely enough, their being co-opted by liberals who intended to "spread freedom" to all the countries they hated is still fresh in the mind, even though I wasn't yet born when the process took off.

Having left an academic post at Harvard

Did you say Harvard?

in 2005 and returned home to Canada to enter political life, I keep revisiting the Iraq debacle, trying to understand exactly how the judgments I now have to make in the political arena need to improve on the ones I used to offer from the sidelines. I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.

Uncounted thousands of deaths, but Professor Ignatieff picked up a homily. So I guess it wasn't all bad.

In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.

Well, that's Harvard for can feel the quality of the nonsense.

I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.

Michael Grant Ignatieff. Born May 12, 1947. Awakened from profound coma, early 21st Century.

The attribute that underpins good judgment in politicians is a sense of reality. “What is called wisdom in statesmen,” Berlin wrote, referring to figures like Roosevelt and Churchill, “is understanding rather than knowledge — some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that it enables those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.” Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings.

Y'know, simple mathematics suggests there's a battalion of lesser politicians for whom that description is an even worse fit that it is for Churchill, but I don't know why you'd bother compiling it. I guess Churchill the theoretical construct is a lot more valuable than Churchill, the sainted war leader who was wrong about practically everything else in his political life, and usually at the service of his own imaginings.

As a former denizen of Harvard,
Did you say Harvard?

I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners.

Good Lord. Talk about your ivory towers. It's cab drivers, Doc. That way they can write your column for you. You're not allowed to talk to the bus driver.

The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world every day and learn, mostly from our mistakes, what works and what doesn’t.

What're you, climbing back down the academic ladder now, Doc? Let us know when you make it to kindergarten. I understand that's where the real learning takes place. In the meantime, there's something somewhere about learning from history. I'll look it up and get back to ya.

Yet even lengthy experience can fail us in life and in politics. Experience can imprison decision-makers in worn-out solutions while blinding them to the untried remedy that does the trick.

No. Please. You've done enough already. Do not encourage the search for untried remedies that miraculously solve the disasters we've created listening to your earlier suggestions.

Having taught political science myself,
Really? Where?

I have to say the discipline promises more than it can deliver.

As I recall it, I picked up this little tidbit about twenty minutes into my first Poly Sci 101 lecture. Maybe it's time to take the world out of the hands of the terminally credulous and let the spitball-throwers in the back--the ones who felt that smokin' a doob and layin' a little pipe was at least equally important in the grand scheme of things--take over. They can't do much worse. And then you could, y'know, go find yourself somewhere. Somewhere farther away than Canada.

A sense of reality is not just a sense of the world as it is, but as it might be. Like great artists, great politicians see possibilities others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities.

Well, for one thing, yuck, and for another, we continue to learn from the work of great artists while we continue to view them as flawed human beings, a goodly number of whom we would not allow to babysit, let alone start wars. We seek to understand not just the work but how it came into being. There's not a whole lot of time in the Arts for knob-polishing some dead guys in order to turn your present inventory over a little faster. That is left to the political scientists. In politics it is permissible, even encouraged, to say something like, "George Bush is standing up to terrorists," or to compare him with that gold-painted bust of Churchill you admire so. In the Arts one lets out with a "Patricia Cornwall is the new Tolstoy" at peril of one's career. Unless one is happy to remain in public relations or has a Salon column.

To bring the new into being, a politician needs a sense of timing, of when to leap and when to remain still. Bismarck famously remarked that political judgment was the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history.

We have now roared past the 800 word mark, and we're discussing cavalry tactics. I could swear the title said something about Iraq. Will all of this be on the quiz? Is this going on much longer? Some of us would like to experience a little more of life while we're still able.

Improvisation may not stave off failure.

Do tell.

The game usually ends in tears. Political careers often end badly because politicians live the human situation: making choices among competing goods with only ordinary instincts and fallible information to go by. Of course, better information and factual criteria for decision-making can reduce the margin of uncertainty. Benchmarks for progress in Iraq can help to decide how long America should stay there. But in the end, no one knows — because no one can know — what exactly America can still do to create stability in Iraq.

Nine-hundred and fourteen.

Okay, I apologize. I'd read all the way to the end before I did that, and it was cruel to subject you to such a chunk of--I'm not kidding--the first third. I suspect that you might be treated elsewhere to a couple of pull quotes about Iraq, namely:
[M]any of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action.

without a full appreciation that the payoff of Dr. Ignatieff's 2500 words, a stunning professorial version of "sure they were right and I was wrong, but I saw one of them compare Bush to Hitler", was preceded by four pages of gibberish, but not one word explaining why he put his Liberal Academic imprimatur on torture in 2004, long after the worst America-hating Leftist could back his knee-jerk opposition with plain evidence. We've suggested before that it was time for a new version of Godwin's law for this, but the difficulty is that anyone playing the You Lefties Made A Lucky Guess card already lost the game four years ago and still doesn't realize someone turned out the lights.

So again, Professor, since you appear to be the last man in the Americas to hear the response: there were plenty of voices cautioning against the rashness and the insane presumptions and the interminal commitment of the Iraq Adventure who did manage to observe the proper rites while addressing their superiors in the Bush administration and its academic enablers. They were ignored, too. And even granting you pardon for your emotional attachment to the pre-post-Sadam Iraqis and its horrific results--and we don't--we have to ask how a political science specialist, a professor of international stature, could, to chose just one example, have slept through 150 years of US-Latin American relations. Or how the editors of the Times Magazine could imagine the rest of us had slept through the last four years.


heydave said...

It galls me no end to see this wave of the newly chastised. No, you Georgie were not just misguided or wrong, you were fucking assholes!

Speaking of which, well not really, but...
As a special for BLTR readers, I am offering my copy of The Historian by Kostova. While it didn't totally suck, I will either drop it in my library's return slot (telling myself they use it or sell it) or send it to a reader here who expresses interest in a free copy for their very own.

Doug said...

Mmm, treacley professorial writing.

Still, it was worth slogging through the quoted material to get to this line:

"Maybe it's time to take the world out of the hands of the terminally credulous and let the spitball-throwers in the back--the ones who felt that smokin' a doob and layin' a little pipe was at least equally important in the grand scheme of things--take over. They can't do much worse."

I was kind of a square in that good old fashioned beer was my abused drug of choice. But still.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's always the same confused tune with these pseudo-repentant hawks. This was my transcription of the melody:

Those opposed to the Iraq war were right but for all the wrong reasons, whereas we hawks were wrong but for all the right reasons. Moreover, being wrong was the right thing to be at the time, so anyone who wasn't wrong was simply refusing to be properly misled. Finally, while right people like myself may have been wrong about the war, those who were right were most decidedly the wrong kind of people, so the right people can ignore them now, just like we did then.

Anonymous said...

Men have such a problem when it comes to admitting guilt, don't they now.

My Own Poor Wife sez, just tell me you were wrong and make a simple heartfelt apology, & I'll be satisfied. At which point, I'm still tonguetied with miserable self-justifications spinning round the old dome. Shall we American Males thus sympathize with these poor souls who know, not so way down deep inside, that they bear a major share of responsibility for a half-million horrible Iraqi deaths? If I can't cut the BS and just say I'm truly sorry for my various peccadillos, how much more difficult it must be for them.

But I'm a man. Sympathize? Not. F**k em. Especially when they still don't want to admit, or haven't the "intellectual" brains to see what's shiningly, bulbously sprouting on the noses of all these oil men who have the power these days. You know, that giant oily pimple? Still there?

And ... Harvard? Well, by now we all know the BS factor vis-a-vis the "intellectuality" of graduates of the "top" ivy schools: remind me again, who's President these days?

Anonymous said...

Shorter Ignatieff:

"My bad. Sorry about the corpses! Additionally: Churchill."

Anonymous said...

The deep realization that "ideas have consequences -- i had never thought about that!" can be seen in the excellent a hitchcock film Rope, and i think jimmy stewart is much more convincing. it also points out that a lot of these sadists are closeted or out but gay-o nonetheless. no offence, please, some of my best friends are thrill killers.

Rugosa said...

I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions.

I worked for Fair Harvard for many years, in a very lowly capacity, but in science departments. In science, even at Harvard, specifics and reality matter very much. No one is arguing for phlogiston or spontaneous generation on ideological grounds these days. Perhaps Ignatieff should have wandered out of the JFK School for Politicians Down on Their Luck once in a while.

D. Sidhe said...

Two thoughts.

Has he really just said that ideological opposition to unprovoked wars and torture is an example of irrational bias? Really? No, really?

Is he honestly saying that it should matter to the dead, the tortured, their survivors, and refugees of a destroyed country what the *motive* was? Incidentally, Michael, as I recall the motive was "We don't want the president you hate as much as anyone else does to attack us first, despite the very real evidence that such a thing is pretty much out of the question."
I'm sure they're delighted to have been killed by our need for a blankie, you know?

Oh, one more thing. Doghouse, can we round up the cash for a plane ticket so you can go tell Michael this to his face and/or punch him? I'm good with either.

Anonymous said...

I believe it was the Grammy Award winning guitarist Carlos Santana that said those who fail history have to go to summer school.

heydave said...

On another note, we've just recently been enrolled in harassment classes, and we learn, quite specifically, that it's not the intent but rather the effect of our actions that count.

In other words, drivel such as we see here is tantamount to the guilty trying to weasel their way out of fines/jail time.

Anonymous said...

Quick bit of background here: Ignatieff was a candidate for leadership of the Canadian Liberal Party last year, and many considered him a shoo-in. He lost in an upset to Stephane Dion, and it was almost certainly partly due to the fact that he was then still a supporter of Bush's methods. He's now desperately trying to retain ideological clout within his party, which is what his sudden Road to Damascus bit is all about. I'm kind of astonished to find the New York Times willing to offer such a blatant platform for a Canadian politician to rehabilitate his career, though. I'd usually expect to find this kind of thing in the National Post, our version of the Moonie Times.

Anonymous said...

He's now desperately trying to retain ideological clout within his party

What with all the anti-intellectual posturing (elite institutions Bad, bus drivers Good), it sounds more like he's planning to create a new Populist Party. Has he come out in favour of Bimetallism yet?

Anonymous said...

Having taught political science myself,

Really? Where?

I'd like to know too, since he doesn't have a degree in it.