Thursday, July 28, 2005

Michael Ignatieff: blind, wrong and dangerous

More than any other public intellectual of our time, Michael Ignatieff horrifies and fascinates me. As Mariano Aguirre writes on openDemocracy, the man has been on a mission to justify post-Cold War US-led efforts at democratisation by force, on 2 grounds: (i) the Jeffersonian desire to 'spread to the whole world' the 'American form of republican self-government' is rooted in the country’s history and tradition; (ii) 'if the American project of encouraging freedom fails, there may be no one else available with the resourcefulness and energy, even the self-deception, necessary for the task'. We can quibble over (ii), but Ignatieff's tendency to see the rest of the world as a sandpit in which America can play out its national myth, amazes me.

Ignatieff is not just wrong, he is dangerous: as Aguirre puts it, 'Michael Ignatieff has been useful to the US government as it has tried to promote democracy in the middle east. He brings to this unofficial job a special, double-edged approach: he provides conservative arguments to the liberal audience and liberal alibis to the conservatives. Ignatieff considers himself a liberal, so sometimes he criticises the Bush administration. And he is an intellectual, so he has doubts about almost everything and airs them for the liberal readers of the New York Times. But in the end he shares the US government’s vision of the violent and compulsory promotion of democracy, the war against terrorism and the use of instruments, for example torture, which are apparently in need of a revisionist treatment.'

In his latest book The Lesser Evil (which I have yet to read), he reportedly reframes the debate on torture - 'the issue then becomes not whether torture can be prevented, but whether it can be regulated' - going so far as to suggest that when the police need to torture a suspect they could apply to a judge for a torture warrant that would specify the individual being tortured and set limits to the type and duration of pain allowed. This, from the current director of Harvard's Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy.

The problem with Ignatieff - and there are so many that one does not know quite where to begin - but the problem as Aguirre sees it is that 'Ignatieff has no historical context. Fatally attracted by the style of instant journalism, he frivolously mixes history and propaganda.' Seductive prose and messianic rhetoric make for good reading, but incredibly shoddy argument. 'In his militaristic patriotism', Aguirre says, 'Ignatieff is blind and wrong.' I could not agree more.

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