Sunday, August 05, 2007

Pompous Politics

In practical politics, there is no science of decision-making. The vital judgments a politician makes every day are about people: whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid. The question of loyalty arises daily: Who will betray and who will stay true? Having good judgment in these matters, having a sound sense of reality, requires trusting some very unscientific intuitions about people.

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. To bring the new into being, a politician needs a sense of timing, of when to leap and when to remain still. Bismarck famously remarked that political judgment was the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history...

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. Resisting the popular isn’t easy, because resisting the popular isn’t always wise. Good judgment in politics is messy. It means balancing policy and politics in imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy — often yourself.
Thank you, Michael Ignatieff, "former professor at Harvard and... member of Canada’s Parliament and deputy leader of the Liberal Party." What else have you learned by being terribly, tragically mistaken in your support for the Iraq War and for torture as a "lesser evil"?
Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound.

People with good judgment listen to warning bells within. Prudent leaders force themselves to listen equally to advocates and opponents of the course of action they are thinking of pursuing. They do not suppose that their own good intentions will guarantee good results. They do not suppose they know all they need to know. If power corrupts, it corrupts this sixth sense of personal limitation on which prudence relies.

A prudent leader will save democracies from the worst, but prudent leaders will not inspire a democracy to give its best. Democratic peoples should always be looking for something more than prudence in a leader: daring, vision and — what goes with both — a willingness to risk failure. Daring leaders can be trusted as long as they give some inkling of knowing what it is to fail. They must be men of sorrow acquainted with grief, as the prophet Isaiah says, men and women who have not led charmed lives, who understand us as we really are, who have never given up hope and who know they are in politics to make their country better. These are the leaders whose judgment, even if sometimes wrong, will still prove worthy of trust.

Indeed. And then sometimes the stupidity and immorality is so great, yet the rhetorical pomposity so soaring and insidious, that bad judgment not only goes unrecognizable but in its very lack of self-recognition is capable of creating disasters so great that even ex post facto recognition fails miserably at moral reconciliation. Ignatieff here basically says that good intentions can have bad unintended consequences. Of course, this is one of the very first ethical struggles of infants ("but I didn't mean to!"). It is the very basis of coming to ethical responsibility. Learning this lesson after the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocents is unforgivable regardless of the intentions.

Rüdiger Safranski, in his magnificent biography of Martin Heidegger (although Ignatieff is hardly on an intellectual par with Heidegger - he's a mediocre intellect somehow in his biography quickly elevated to a public podium), wrote of Heidegger's Nazism that,
He too - as happened so often in the history of thought - failed to ask the one question: Who am I really when I am thinking? The thinker has thoughts, but sometimes it is the other way around - the thoughts have him. The "Who" of thinking transforms himself. He who thinks great things can easily be tempted to regard himself as a great event; he is anxious to match up to Being and is concerned about how he will figure in history, not how he appears to himself. The contingency of one's own person disappears in the thinking Self and its great dimensions... There is a lack of acquaintance with oneself, with one's own time-conditioned contradictions, biographical accidents, and idiosyncrasies. He who is acquainted with his contingent self is less likely to confuse himself with the heroes of his thinking self, or to let the little stories drown in great history. In short: knowledge of self protects against seduction by power.
Ignatieff does indeed learn that a politician needs good judgment and that this involves self-criticism. But the pomposity of this piece (as if his faulty judgment has earned him special access to what are nearly truisms), its dismissal of the substantive claims of early critics of the Iraq War (a group of which I'm a part), and its performative dimension of political rehabilitation all suggest that Ignatieff's self-understanding is that of a tragic hero with a "sound sense of reality" hearing the distant hoofbeats of history. "Reality," however, suggests otherwise.

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