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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ignatieff does not defend torture

I made a big mistake about Michael Ignatieff. He does not defend torture. An article in Prospect magazine has been cited, but not quoted, as a source for the idea that he does. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, the turning point in Ignatieff's article for Prospect, "If torture works..." comes with this paragraph:

So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress, and I believe that enforcement of such a ban should be up to the military justice system plus the federal courts. I also believe that the training of interrogators can be improved by executive order and that the training must rigorously exclude stress and duress methods.

Read the whole article here =>

My thanks to Joanne for pointing out this error. She includes links to articles by Terry Glavin and Shefa Siegel who take up "his alleged support for torture." Glavin is a more paranoid, referring to "a purposeful misreading."

Though this changes the tone of my question, I think the question which it was the purpose of my posting to raise--Is Ignatieff a pragmatist or an opportunist?--still stands. He disposes of the notion that he is an idealist in the Prospect article. I don't see any evidence that he is pathologically addicted to power, a charge that some insiders apparently make seriously about Harper.

Nor does Ignatieff seem particularly predatory to me. I don't think he needs to destroy Bob Rae for nourishment. But Glavin and Siegel, who obviously support him, fail to provide a credible answer to whether he is pragmatic or opportunistic. They talk about his view of politics as tragedy. Both are won over by his aptitude for nuance. In the afterBush of nearly a decade-long binge on Imperial Lite, that is an easy hangover to understand.Recommend this Post

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Christian said...

Good for you Jim, for correcting the record. I did a little write up on this yesterday. Ignatieff was simply explaining different points of view, and his words were taken out of context.

Erik said...

Who are you bullshitting here?

Michael Ignatieff's
Lesser Evils

"But thinking about lesser evils is unavoidable. Sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedoms.

Abandoning the rule of law altogether betrays our most valued institutions. To defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war. These are evils because each strays from national and international law and because they kill people or deprive them of freedom without due process. They can be justified only because they prevent the greater evil."

Translation (or, shorter):
According to Mr. Ignatieff torture (think Arar) and pre-emptive war (think Iraq) is justified when it prevents greater evils (whatever that means).

Let's not beat around the Bush here. Ignatieff is a Bush backer. They both support programs that "may" include torture, even when they say they don't.

Yes, there are more liars in the world than Harper. Surprised?

Terry Glavin said...

Eric's comment is precisely the sort of "purposeful misreading" I was referring to.

"But Glavin and Siegel, who obviously support him, fail to provide a credible answer to whether he is pragmatic or opportunistic. They talk about his view of politics as tragedy. Both are won over by his aptitude for nuance."

First, I "obviously support" nothing but the proposition that Ignatieff is to be taken seriously, rather than merely lied about, and the proposition that he is perhaps the best hope for a liberal-left federal electoral victory in Canada.

I don't know how I'd vote if a federal election were called tomorrow, or next month, or next year, and if I "fail to provide a credible answer to whether he is pragmatic or opportunistic," it's because no one has asked me, and also if I were asked, I'd have to point out that whatever the answer, the question is faulty. One can be a pragmatic opportunist (opportunism is by its nature pragmatic) or an opportunistic pragmatist. I expect you could call Ignatieff either, or an opportunist, or a pragmatist, and be at least half right in each case.

Erik said...

Eric's comment is precisely the sort of "purposeful misreading" I was referring to.

It would make sense to back that up with facts. My "translations" is still standing un-debated; purposeful or not, it's definitely not a misreading by the only merits of just saying it is.

Jim Terral said...

I'll take that one. Eric, I think what's missing from your interpretation of the paragraph you quote is a fair consideration of the context. To call that "purposeful misreading" strikes me as churlish and combative, not rigorous or perceptive or even accurate. But the failure to consider context (and tone) is also the problem with the video clip from Bush and it can lead to serious misunderstandings.

You don't have to read or listen to either Ignatieff or Bush for long to recognize that they are very different characters. Furthermore, if you pay attention to this sort of thing, they are engaged in radically different types of discourse. (Let's just stick to the article "Lesser evils" and the Bush video clip for the time being.)

Dubya once told Senator Joe Biden, "I don't do nuance." Indeed, that seemed at the time to sum it up very nicely. In fact, his political persona is something of an extreme in that regard. I have friends who are truck drivers, loggers, mill workers, and drywallers who are all several orders of magnitude better at nuance than President Bush even though it has nothing to do with their work.

Ignatieff is the opposite. He doesn't like to leave any significant nuance unmentioned. He frequently restates the position he intends to oppose or refine. I won't say that he wins a gold medal for this, but he is pretty obsessive about it and does a reasonably good job. He goes far beyond merely labelling a position on a one dimensional political spectrum (e.g., left and right, or nationalist and internationalist, etc.). With him especially you have to be careful about the context--and the tone. You have to ask how he is saying what he is saying.

Let's remember that this essay was published in May 2004 during the campaign between Bush and John Kerry. I don't know how well you remember that, but I remember well that the notion of "lesser evil" had suddenly taken over the rhetoric about what had formerly been flogged as the war between good and evil. Was John Kerry a lesser evil? Was the war in Iraq a lesser evil? Suddenly everything was being justified, not merely considered, as a lesser evil.

The quote you have cited occurs early in Ignatieff's essay, i.e., is introductory, in a section called "The necessity of lesser evils" or why I am going to talk about this subject. In that section, Ignatieff admits that this is going to be tough going, especially for civil libertarians. But he makes it clear, early in the essay, that he intends to face up to hard questions. That's not questions like "Are you bullshitting me?" It is questions like "Could we lose the war on terror?" Could we lose our identity as free peoples? Is it possible to resort to coercion, secrecy, deception, and violation of rights without losing our way? How is it possible to resort to the lesser evil without getting sucked in to the greater evil as well? Is there any good reason to embrace "lesser evils"? Can a pragmatic person escape lesser evils?

The paragraph you quote tells us that Ignatieff means to address this question and why. Probably the greatest peril in an essay like this--you have to remember that Ignatieff was an academic when he wrote it--is that his approach to the subject requires so many words that the real point may, for some readers, be obscured by the sheer volume of verbiage. There is no simple answer, nothing you can put on your T-shirt. You can wait for a long time before he actually says what he does believe, where he stands. You have to wait for it. I think that is one of the things that pisses conservatives like Harper off with liberals. It is easily confused with the Mr Dithers syndrome.

So there's another big difference between Ignatieff and Bush. Bush doesn't ask hard questions and he doesn't answer them either. And when he does answer, he is often tone deaf. So he refers to Abu Ghraib as "a big disappointment" instead of an outrage. Did he give the orders? That's another hard question. But for those of us who wanted to see Bush tried for his crimes, calling him a liar doesn't quite do what we need. I have witnessed a man being tortured. I was trained to commit atrocities. I think I understand how it happens and how the President's deniability is preserved in the process. Liar, liar pants on fire is, for me, not a strategy. I am not satisfied just to know what I believe. I want a plan of action, even if it seems quixotic at first.

So I have argued that Bush should be tried in a jurisdiction with the death penalty because I think his crimes are extreme ones, because he so obviously believes in the death penalty himself, and because I think it might add a adrenalin to the disclosure of official processes that lead to and justify torture and other crimes against humanity. I don't think the questions about Bush--yours or mine--can be answered except in a court. Debates like this one we are having will never accomplish what needs to be done. It's the wrong forum for what needs to happen. Even if he were not ultimately convicted, a court is where the information needs to come out and be adjudicated.

I think you are comparing apples and oranges. Bush is putting on his official hat and wrapping himself in the flag. Ignatieff is reasoning his way through a complex moral dilemma and doing it as a public individual, not an official of state. In other words, you have to consider the context, not only the context of the quote within the piece, but also the historical context, and the context of the piece as the product of the particular individual's role in the overall discourse.

Picking up on context is an open-ended reading skill that is closely related to an ability to "hear tone of voice" in written work. It's not easy and is often intermittent. The whole internet phenomenon of "flaming" has taught us how readily we may misconstrue someone's tone. I don't think Ignatieff is being ironic. But I do think that he is laying out what he takes to be the rules and necessary caveats at the beginning of a lengthy examination of a serious and difficult subject.

I disagree with a lot of what he says. Ignatieff is largely a defender of orthodoxies I believe are broken. He does not do a good (i.e., nuanced) job of re-stating positions that I am or have been associated with. But he tries, and I give him credit for that. And when he does finally get around to stating a position which he has challenged from every angle he can think of, Ignatieff does not support or defend torture.

Erik said...

Jim, very interesting how your “facts” (remember what I asked for?) ends up being nothing more than "add-on bullshit".

You go to great length to explain that Bush is "different character" than Ignatieff, aples, oranges, whatever. Did I ever say otherwise?

But "different characters" doesn't disqualify the fact that Ignatieff and Bush have such similar agenda's in the so-called “war on terror” (talk about a contradiction in terms): they both supported pre-emptive war, and both have supported torture. If you beg to differ then you haven't been paying attention.

You fail to point out HOW the paragraph was taken “out of context”; again, merely stating that tone and context matter does not disqualify my point.

I repeat: Ignatieff clearly states in his article “Lesser evils” that “indefinite detention of suspects (illegal under international law), coercive interrogations (considered torture under the Geneva conventions), targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war” (illegal under international law) can be justified when they avoid greater evil.

It's hard to read Ignatieff's justification as something else as a moral supports for these lesser evils, but if you found a way then please keep me updated.

In the end we can at least agree that Terry was wrong: I wasn't mis-reading but Ignatieff was mis-writing.