But then someone pointed out to me that the whole thing is founded on the absurd premise that his errors in judgment have something to do with the mindset of academia versus the mindset of practical politics.
This is, when you think about it, totally wrong. Academics in the field of Middle East studies were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. Similarly, international relations scholars opposed the war by a very large margin. The war’s foci of intellectual support were in the institutions of the conservative movement, and in the DC think tanks and the punditocracy where the war had a lot of non-conservative support. People with relevant academic expertise — notably people who weren’t really on the left politically — were massively opposed to the war. To imply the reverse is to substantially obscure one of the main lessons of the war, namely that we should pay more attention to what regional experts think and give substantially less credence to the idea that think tankers are really “independent” of political machinations.
I had not read Ignatieff’s article before this evening, but immediately on reading the opening paragraphs I was amazed by the stunning arrogance of the claim. The claim was, in short, “Because I, Michael Ignatieff, an academic, was horribly, horribly wrong and misinformed because of grand theorising and abstraction, this is a general trait of academics and intellectuals as a whole. Now that I am a politician, I now understand the superiority of practical politicking over intellectualism.” In other words, Ignatieff may have been wrong in the past, but he is never, in the present moment, likely to be wrong. Nice work if you can get it.
Ignatieff’s precise words were these:
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. 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. 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. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.
I can’t imagine a more potent lie than this first claim. Perhaps the main, if not only, thing that drives many academics and intellectuals is their interest in finding and defending ideas that they regard as true. Naturally, you try to make them seem as interesting and relevant and applicable to your readers as you can, but if you are setting out to con your audience by spinning evidence and fabricating stories to make them more interesting you are not really engaged in scholarship or serious thought. Perhaps of all the people on earth, politicians have one of the weakest claims to be devotees of the truth. They are interested in what is expedient, what is popular, what is, to borrow a word from one of Ignatieff’s old pro-war confreres, “doable.” It is Pilate, a political functionary, not Seneca or Tacitus, who asks, “What is truth?” Princes can always find intellectual lackeys to sing their praises or write up theories justifying their crimes, but that does not mean that all scholars and intellectuals are servile lackeys who do the bidding of the ruler or the state, especially not in an era when government patronage is not as vital as it once was.
There are good arguments that academics should steer clear of politics, mostly because politics can distort and warp scholarship, and perhaps because some academics are susceptible to this sort of Big Idea mania (see Wilson, Woodrow), but the idea that the war fever prior to the invasion was the fruit of an academic and intellectual mode rather the result of an ideological mode of thinking embraced by some academics is simply absurd. Academics and intellectuals, though perhaps not always closely associated with what might be called “the real world,” have had a far firmer grasp of reality in recent years than most of the war supporters, among whose die-hard members there are, to put it mildly, not exactly all that many distinguished professors and public intellectuals. Americans have always taken a sort of pride in their instinctive anti-intellectualism, so much so that some might even start to regard ignorance as a virtue, but a policy advanced by the ignorant and incompetent and cheered on by the uninformed cannot really be laid at the door of the academy.
It occurs to me that Ignatieff’s rather bold generalisations about academia apply least of all to the discipline of history, especially when he writes:
Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.
Yet every trend in modern historiography has been to run screaming away from generalising “particular facts” as “instances of some big idea.” In history, specifics are not quite everything, but they are about 95% of everything. Theory can be helpful, but it is no substitute for a solid command of the sources and a significant collection of evidence. In some cases, theory can get in the way if the scholar follows it too rigidly and dogmatically by trying to make the evidence “fit” what he assumed beforehand must be true. In politics, on the other hand, details are not what win elections, but rather vague, generic symbolism and empty rhetoric are what matter. Politicians love to use commonplaces and boilerplate, and they avoid giving detailed plans as often as they can. In a television age, politicians thrive on generalities and, as the last few years have shown, they make policy based on vague, gauzy sentiments about “values” and “security” with no concern for the practicability, wisdom or prudence of the policies being support.
Something else struck me:
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. They must see Iraq — or anywhere else — as it is.
Yet large parts of our political class have been cocooning themselves for years with respect to Iraq and continue to do so. (A majority of members of Congress persist in the illusion that something can be salvaged from Iraq.) They confuse the world as they wish it to be for the world as it is all the time. This is a common flaw in our politicians, and it is particularly acute because of the optimistic assumptions of our politicians and of our culture. Certainly, the pols have enablers in the chattering classes, but the fault is mainly theirs. If the virtue of politicians is that they have a keener attachment to reality, why is it that the politicians always seem to be the last to grasp what everyone else seems to get so much sooner?