[Marxism] Scott McLemee reviews Derrick O'Keefe book on Michael Ignatieff

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 8 06:59:28 MST 2012


Review of Derrick O'Keefe, "Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil?" [1]
by Scott McLemee

A set of three books landed on my desk last week: the opening salvos in 
a new series [3] 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 [4], 
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 [5], who, when not playing a 
philosopher on French television, serves as a celebrity 
thinker-in-residence at the Huffington Post [6]. As always, he looks 

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 [7] 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 [8]) 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.

[2] http://www.insidehighered.com/users/scott-mclemee
[3] http://www.versobooks.com/series_collections/28-counterblasts
[4] http://youtu.be/lxW5yvpeHg4
[5] http://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee276
[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bernardhenri-levy
[8] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7578.html
[9] http://www.insidehighered.com/taxonomy/term/789
[10] http://www.insidehighered.com/ad-keywords/books-publishing
[11] http://www.insidehighered.com/ad-keywords/faculty
[12] http://www.insidehighered.com/image-size/thumbnail-left

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