Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Firm Grasp of the Painfully Obvious

This is Michael Ignatieff.

His illustrious biography reads as follows:

Ignatieff is the son of Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff and Alison Grant, and the grandson of Count Paul Ignatieff, Minister of Education to Tsar Nicholas II and one of the few Tsarist ministers to have escaped execution by the Bolsheviks. His Canadian antecedents include his maternal great grandfather, George Monro Grant, the dynamic 19th century principal of Queen's University. His mother's younger brother was the political philosopher George Grant (1918-1988), author of Lament for a Nation. His great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, the Russian Minister of the Interior under Tsar Alexander III.

In 1976, Ignatieff completed his PhD in History at Harvard University. He was an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia from 1976 to 1978. In 1978 he moved to the United Kingdom, where he held a Senior Research Fellowship at King's College, Cambridge until 1984. He then left Cambridge for London, where he began to focus on his career as a writer and journalist.

In 2000, Ignatieff accepted a position as the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He taught at Harvard until 2005, when on August 26, it was announced that Ignatieff was leaving Harvard to become the Chancellor Jackman Visiting Professor in Human Rights Policy at the University of Toronto. Ignatieff has received nine honorary doctorates.*

*Author's note: I've copied all the above from Wikipedia because I'm not going to waste a lot of time on this.

Michael Ignatieff was a keen supporter, or maybe just a prominent supporter, of the invasion of Iraq. Ignatieff has now concluded that his support was ill-conceived, but explains his misplaced enthusiasm thusly: "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."

That's OK, Michael. Anyone can make an honest mistake. Lots of intelligent, well-intentioned, globally aware and morally attuned human beings were suckered into the Iraq "Extreme Makeover" project, and now regret their fundamentally idealistic, though admittedly misguided, enthusiasm.

Michael is one such person, and after four years of sometimes painful, though ultimately enriching reflection, he has hit upon some hard-earned life-lessons which he would like to share with the rest of us. Thank you Michael, for opening a window onto your mind, your thoughts, and your soul.

Fifteen lessons learned from the bitter disappointment of Iraq:

1. I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.

2. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they can’t afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life.

3. 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.

4. I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life.

5. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing.

6. Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.

7. As a former denizen of Harvard, I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions. . . . Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. Procrastination is even costlier in politics than it is in private life. The sign on Truman’s desk — “The buck stops here!” — reminds us that those who make good judgments in politics tend to be those who do not shrink from the responsibility of making them.

11. In politics, learning from failure matters as much as exploiting success.

12. Roosevelt and Churchill knew how to do wrong, yet they did not demand to be judged by different ethical standards than their fellow citizens did. They accepted that democratic leaders cannot make up their own moral rules . . . They must live and be judged by the same rules as everyone else.

13. In my political-science classes, I used to teach that exercising good judgment meant making good public policy. In the real world, bad public policy can often turn out to be very popular politics indeed.

14. Good judgment in politics is messy. It means balancing policy and politics in imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy — often yourself.

15. People with good judgment listen to warning bells within.

Re: The Above Observations:
No shit, Sherlock.

Note the patronizing faux humility of observation number seven, on the shrewdness of bus drivers (actually, the whole piece is patronizing). Perhaps Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government should consider recruiting at the Greyhound bus depot.

Furthermore, it would seem that lesson thirteen contradicts lesson two. Tragically, politicians do sometimes venture beyond the confines of "the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life" in order to engage in "bad public policy [which] can often turn out to be very popular politics indeed."

Isn't politics just a right old mess?

Why do I feel that I have been carried - on wings of cliche and Thorazine-induced prose - back to a sixth grade Civics class? The whole fucking article reads like something written with little thought and less effort by a clever(ish) 19 year old enrolled at Georgia Southwestern State University.

Who was Ignatieff teaching at Harvard anyway, the custodial staff?

Michale Ignatieff, no longer at Harvard, is now usefully applying these nuggets of insight in his new role as Canadian MP and deputy leader of the Liberal Party. I eagerly await Ignatieff's pearls of wisdom plucked from the inner sanctum of the Canadian Parliment.

A foretaste:

1. I've learned that Ottawa, not Toronto, is the capital of Canada.

2. I've learned that politicians sometimes promise more than they can deliver.

3. I've learned that stupidity, real or feigned, is an effective way to deflect difficult questions. It is possible to bore one's interlocutors into silence.

4. I've learned that promising more than one can deliver sometimes works (only in a crassly political sense, mind you), but it is still bad, except for when it inspires (deceives) the public into taking risks which I think are good, in which it case, maybe it is good.

5. I've learned that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions!


Anonymous said...

I am perplexed; you write as one who has been disappointed, or disabused of a long held belief.

Was there really a time when you thought that any modern politician - even one with a background like that of Ignatieff - was capable of overcoming his patrician contempt for the plebs?

'Telling it like it is', as objective observers of the illustrious Messrs. Blair and Clinton would attest, means, simply, spinning some bullshit that the peasants will accept - and sounding vaguely sincere about it.

As an earlier, suspect, Labour Party Prime Minister once said, "A week is a long time in politics". The implication, that the electorate is too stupid, or too apathetic to remember who said what has, I suspect, become an integral part of later politician's thinking; as Professor Ignatieff's ramblings clearly show.

Patrick Deneen said...

Hot diggity - you go boy! I suspect that, like you, what irks isn't any disillusionment with politicians per se, but rather the treacly pretense that our most learned professors have discovered newly-found wisdom and are now sharing it with the unwashed masses. As if there have never been arguments made by eminent thinkers about the dangers of overreaching, hubris, unintended consequence, and the messiness of human life and the limits of politics. I guess Ignatieff missed the semester when they offered "The World is a Messy Place 101." He might have encountered Aristotle, Augustine, Burke, and Oakeshott, among others.

By the way, your old picture was much nicer. But I'm sure you knew that.

Black Sea said...


I am afraid that I am perpetually astonished at what passes for "successful" political discourse. Naivete may be one of my many failings. Most politicans long ago realized that the general public pays them no more attention than they do the public. It's a mutual disregard that they've learned to work to their advantage.

Patrick Deneen,

Thank you for your comments. I'm glad that you enjoyed my small attempt to pin Mr. Ignatieff to the wall. Of course, he'll just proceed from one comfortable, insulated position to the next, dispensing wisdom along the way.

When I think about the people who gave birth to the tragedy in Iraq, I can only recall the words of Fitzgerald:

“They were careless people . . . — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

Finally, keeping your comment in mind, I've changed the photo at the top of my blog.

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