Counterblasting the Past
A new book series offers polemics against prominent figures -- including an influential academic turned politician. Scott McLemee casts his vote.
A set of three books landed on my desk last week: the opening salvos in a new series from Verso called Counterblasts. A notice across from each one’s title page announces the intention “to revive a tradition inaugurated by Puritan and Leveller pamphleteers in the 17th century when, in the words of one of their number, Gerard Winstanley, the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire.’” Given that Winstanley’s group, the Diggers, was the original Occupy movement, Verso’s timing is excellent -- though any revival of pamphleteering at this late date almost certainly demands a format suitable for rapid dissemination on portable devices. And at extremely low (and probably no) cost.
At least with Counterblasts you get a well-designed artifact for your money. Each volume singles out one of the “politicians, media barons, and their ideological hirelings” serving as “apologists of Capital and Empire,” as the series description calls them, in suitably Puritan-Jacobin tones. The cover is stark black. A photo of the book’s polemical target looms against the backdrop. The aesthetic here resembles "The Charlie Rose Show" (talking heads afloat in the depths of infinite space) although considerably less flattering to the guests. It seems appropriate, then, that the first two Counterblasts are directed at figures who have been prominent in the world of TV punditry.
One is the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, pictured scowling in concentration, like a bulldog who just swallowed a Styrofoam packing peanut and is now thinking that it might have been a bad idea. The other is Bernard Henri Levy, who, when not playing a philosopher on French television, serves as a celebrity thinker-in-residence at the Huffington Post. As always, he looks marvelous.
The third figure is Michael Ignatieff, whose picture will be familiar to the Canadian public but ring only the faintest of bells elsewhere. He spent the 1990s as one of England’s most prominent public intellectuals, preparing BBC documentaries and writing books on human rights, civil wars, and humanitarian intervention. He was also the authorized biographer of Isaiah Berlin, whose essays on the history of social and political thought defined a sort of Anglo-American liberal orthodoxy in recent decades.
In 2000, Ignatieff became the first director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. A few months later, George W. Bush took office. Each man had barely settled in their new offices before Ignatieff published the first of several efforts to clarify the ethico-political justification for preemptive war against Iraq, given the menace of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
With mission accomplished yet no WMDs in sight, Ignatieff turned his mind to arguing for other reasons why the invasion of Iraq had been a good idea. His book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton University Press, 2004) argued, among other things, that torture must be condemned as morally wrong, but hey, what can you do? Desperate times mean desperate measures, and desperate measures require thoughtful casuistry.
The Lesser Evil appeared at just about the time the pictures from Abu Ghraib did. Nobody in those snapshots was agonizing over nuances of right and wrong, and it didn’t look like the US soldiers were extracting information about ticking time bombs either. They were just having an awful lot of fun. The images would have created an uproar, of course, even if they had worn expressions of pain and doubt. But the way they looked out at the viewer, as if expecting you to give them the high-five, threw Ignatieff’s work in a new context. However much his thinking might be rooted in the precepts of Sir Isaiah, its on-the-ground consequences were degrading for everyone involved.
In 2007, Ignatieff returned to the pages of The New York Times Magazine (where his most widely discussed articles in favor of the war had appeared a few years earlier) to say that he had been wrong ... or misled ... or too much the airy academic ... or not quite so right as he could have been. He admitted that some people argued from the start that the war was a bad idea, but that didn't mean they were proven correct , since they had been right for the wrong reasons. He, at least, had been wrong for the right reasons and clearly must not be expected to learn anything from them.
It was a strange essay, and it left the impression of a mind at the end of its tether, dangling in the wind. But Derrick O’Keefe’s Counterblast volume Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil suggests that his mea culpa was more coherent -- or at least more consistent with the rest of his career -- than it might look.
When Ignatieff returned to Canada in 2005 after almost three decades abroad, it seemed like he was stepping away from the work that had defined him as a public figure. After all, he had made some major interventions in the debates over liberal internationalism, or philanthropic militarism, that unfolded across a distinct period beginning with the first war of Yugoslavia’s disintegration (mid-1991) and ending, more or less, with the second battle of Fallujah (late 2004). He even had the confidence and authority needed to risk defining his position in terms as brutal as any that an opponent might attribute to him: “Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it become politically incorrect.”
So wrote Ignatieff in 2003, full of beans. Declarations of imperial mission were not much wanted by 2005, when headhunters from the Liberal Party of Canada lured him away from Harvard. You could not fault him for wanting to reinvent himself. But here was more to it than that.
From the blinkered U.S.-centric perspective, Ignatieff’s departure did not look like forward motion, but the Liberal Party has long been at the very center of Canadian politics (flanked by the Conservatives on the right and the New Democrats to the left, and the dominant force among them). Ignatieff’s return to his homeland was the first step in a serious bid for power. And his mea culpa in the Times was part of it, since the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq never enjoyed much support in Canada.
Besides distancing himself from policies he had once supported -- taking responsibility for them, but not too much responsibility -- Ignatieff also used the essay for another purpose. He explained that leaving the ivory tower behind had rendered him a tough-minded man of the world. In the future he would assume his positions, and choose his words, more carefully. In the meantime, he was making as many references to hockey as circumstances would permit.
Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? makes the case that this newfound discovery of measured responses and realpolitik is just an act, because Ignatieff has been practicing them all along. O'Keefe points out that the Times essay defines politicians as "actors who have to feign indignation and other emotions they do not feel,” while academics “merely play with words and pursue digressions with ideas for their own sake because they are detached from the real-world consequences.” Here, unwarranted generalization yields self-accusation: Ignatieff himself seems to have been one of the very few academics to champion "regime change" in ways "detached from the real-world consequences." O’Keefe wonders if Ignatieff ever had a moral compass to lose. “It’s not that one can never genuinely change one’s mind,” he writes, “it’s just that there is no trace at all of the humility or regret that would normally accompany such an about face.” It's the portrait of a man saying what the powerful want to hear, as the means to gain power for himself.
While largely persuasive, O'Keefe's indictment is a little too unrelenting. He can barely credit Ignatieff with anything, even with any literary gifts: his books are the work of a “solipsistic cosmopolitan.” But even as a non-admirer of Isaiah Berlin, I’d say Ignatieff’s biography is decent. One of his novels was a finalist for the Booker prize in the early 1990s. And Ignatieff has been called “Canada’s Obama,” which refers in part to their shared facility with a pen, rare among politicians. But the series is called Counterblasts, after all, and sometimes polemic involves taking no prisoners.
Ignatieff became the leader of the Liberal Party in 2009. Last May, he oversaw what O’Keefe calls “the most catastrophic electoral defeat in the history of the Liberal Party of Canada,” whereupon Ignatieff resigned. That underscores the other reservation I had about the book, which is that both the man and the era he helped shape are now part of history, rather than current events. The next two volumes in the series will address Christopher Hitchens and Tony Judt. The thought of them counter-counterblasting in reply is appealing, but a daydream now that they're gone. The old world, as Winstanley said, is "running up like a parchment in the fire." The series editors should go find some active menaces to take down.
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