Even before the publication of The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff had attracted some powerful, if predictable, enemies. His justifications for the Iraq war had incensed many radicals. Michael Neumann, Professor of Philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, described the imperialist thesis as developed in Ignatieff’s Empire Lite (2003) as “a web of foolishness, error and confusion”. The argument that America was still the world’s best hope for the spread of liberal democratic ideas was “built on sand” and his proposals for nation–building when stripped of “claptrap” were deeply flawed. They amounted, Neumann wrote, to this: “The US should, having first consulted its own interest, occupy ‘failed states’ and suppress disorder. Then, over what Ignatieff repeatedly emphasises is a long period of time, Americans are to teach these little folks abut judicial procedure, democracy and human rights. Then Americans will help their apt pupils to create sustainably democratic institutions.”This is precisely the problem with Ignatieff, and I wish I'd known about that "and yet, and yet" description, as it perfectly describes the issues that Ignatieff's sleazy redefinition of "torture" represents. Not that this is going to turn away Ignatieff's supporters- at this point, they seem reduced to reciting talking points and taking foreign policy positions that, a year ago, they'd see as abhorrent.
But with the publication of The Lesser Evil in 2004, and a series of articles which expanded on aspects of the book’s arguments in the New York Times, he also began to incur the wrath of liberals and, perhaps more significantly, former colleagues in the human rights movement. The critics began to line up. In a 2005 article called ‘Exporting Democracy, Revising Torture: The Complex Missions of Michael Ignatieff’, published on the website openDemocracy, Mariano Aguirre concentrated particularly upon the seven pages in The Lesser Evil which dealt with the question of torture.
In this brief section, Ignatieff turns to the so–called ‘ticking–bomb cases’ where torture might be the only way to extract information from terrorists which could save human lives. He cites Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who had contended that “whatever we might think about torture in the abstract, the pressure to use it in cases of urgent necessity might be overwhelming. The issue then becomes not whether torture can be prevented but whether it can be regulated.”
Ignatieff rejects this argument — “as an exercise in the lesser evil it seems likely to lead to the greater” — along with other justifications for the use of torture by democratic societies. Nonetheless — and this is critical to the argument that was to develop — he does go so far as to suggest forms of duress that might be permissible. These include “forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in harm to mental or physical health, and disinformation that causes stress.”
Aguirre describes this style of argument as ‘and yet and yet’. Ignatieff is “absolutely in favour of the principles and the defence of human rights, and yet, and yet, if a terrorist has valuable information about a biological weapon that is going to explode in New York, then maybe the security forces could use some level of force on him. Thus, the director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University becomes a sort of Bruce Willis figure.”
This ‘and yet and yet’ approach, suggests Aguirre, is just what the US government needs as a justification for its current breaches of human rights. “Ignatieff considers himself a liberal, so sometimes he criticises the Bush administration. And he is an intellectual, so he has doubts about almost everything and airs them with the liberal readers of the New York Times. But in the end he shares the US government’s vision of the violent and compulsory promotion of democracy, the war against terrorism and the use of instruments, for example torture, which are apparently in need of revisionist treatment.” In these ways, “he has established a sort of rational framework for democratisation by force and also for the revision of our understanding of human rights.”
(They think he's going to win, and they want to back a winner, so...)
But it should give the rest of us pause, both those who live in Canada and those who don't. I've said before that I think that the Canadian Liberal party has a good shot of being the heart of North American liberalism, because it can BE liberal without having to run away from it, like the Democrats do. It would be a shame if that heart was corrupted by these mealy-mouthed apologias for the inexcusable, but that's what seems to be in the offing if Ignatieff became Liberal leader.
That's not to say he'd be a worse Prime Minister than Stephen Harper, of course. Stephen Harper is a zealous market fundamentalist; a neoconservative exploiting a base of social conservatives to gain the kind of autocratic power that only a Canadian Prime Minister at the head of a majority government can enjoy. We've already seen that he wants to control the government from his own desk, and the only check on his ambitions is the reality that he only controls a minority government. That's why every single thing he's done since the end of January has been turned towards winning that majority; from budgetmaking, to speechmaking, to muzzling his ministers, all of it is aimed at gaining power. Nobody knows what Harper would do with that power, but I imagine it would be to do his damnedest to remake Canada in the image of Howard's Australia and Thatcher's England. Needless to say, anybody would prefer Ignatieff to THAT.
I'd just rather that Canadians, and liberals, didn't have to make that choice.
Hat tip: Politique Canadienne.