Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Torturous Read

Warren Kinsella leads the charge against Michael Ignatieff's latest article on torture. Even though it probably would have been a more enjoyable use of my time to be strapped in the Iron Maiden, I decided to read the full article.

And, after doing so, I fail to see what the fuss is about. It's obviously an anti-torture article, here's the crux of it:
So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress, and I believe that enforcement of such a ban should be up to the military justice system plus the federal courts. I also believe that the training of interrogators can be improved by executive order and that the training must rigorously exclude stress and duress methods.

It's pretty obvious that Ignatieff doesn't support torture. However, what is also obvious is that, much like Harper, there are a lot of old Ignatieff quotes which would be used against him during an election campaign. And, in writing a lengthy piece full of juicy quotes which could be misconstrued, Ignatieff displayed the kind of poor political judgment you'd expect from someone with zero political experience.


  • I'm glad you posted this, calgarygrit. This is exactly how I've been feeling as well. I've read the full articles and the books which people have been drawing their anti-ignatieff comments from and they have all, as far I've seen so far, been taken out of context. That being said, the critics will not become quiet once the leadership race begins or the next election but will likely become noisier. He and his team have quite a job ahead of them.

    By Blogger Ned Noodle, at 12:00 p.m.  

  • Ned: I agree. It's a sad throwback to a decade of smear-and-run tactics instead of policy discussion we're seeing here. Do we not have any other way of winning? I'd like to think we do. In fact, I know we can.

    CG's criticisms of Ignatieff's experience are obviously very valid. Does he have the leadership "stuff" we need? We should be talking about that. We shouldn't be trying to distort what he says into the opposite of what he believes just to support our preferred candidates.


    By Blogger Ted Betts, at 12:13 p.m.  

  • What more do I have to say now. Irrespective of who we support in this leadership, it is important that we try and raise the bar by bringing great candidates like Iggy. I worked on his campaign in Eto-Lakeshore and had the opportunity to discuss several things with him during our campaiging and in personal discussions and I'm very impressed with his honesty and the ideas he brings to the table.

    I hope we all can focus on the strength's of our candidate and not get into hitting under the belt and keep the party divided. The healing has started and I'm seeing that among organizers, which is a positive sign and lets keep it that way.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:25 p.m.  

  • I don't know why talking about a candidates record is "hitting below the belt" Vijay

    -confused in Danforth

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:37 p.m.  

  • Confused in Danforth: It's perfectly fair to talk about a candidate's record.

    But if you quote selectively or take words out of context, you are no longer talking about a person's record.

    Thus, it's hitting below the belt to take Ignatieff's past writings out of context in order to claim he supports torture. It's evident that he does not. It's also evident that he's devoted far more thought to this issue than his critics, who, because they are unable to engage him intellectually, reach for the only rhetorical weapons they have left: libel and slander.

    I agree, however, with the point that Ignatieff showed bad political judgment in publishing this article now. If you know there are gutter trash out there willing to twist your words, you're well-advised not to give them ammunition.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:49 p.m.  

  • Part of the problem is Ignatieff's writing style. He makes a definitive statement then points out why the definitive statement isn't definitive and that the issue is really, really complex.

    By Blogger Greg, at 12:56 p.m.  

  • Yes and it is that gutter trash that has caused the dumbing down of politics in this country to the point where thoughtful people with new ideas and new vision are discouraged from getting involved in politics.

    I am not just talking about Dr. Ignatieff in this case I am talking in generalities.

    I have not even come close to making up my mind of who should lead the Liberal Party but I welcome Dr. Ignatieff because I beleive he will raise the level of the debate.

    If we can have a great debate of ideas and vision we can give Canadians something to vote for instead of just something to vote against.

    By Blogger ottlib, at 12:58 p.m.  

  • When you criticize people for their lack of "political judgement," CG, you're missing the point. Political judgement should serve what we believe, not the other way around.

    It's the deceptive or willfully ignorant mis-quoting of his written works that is the problem, not the fact that he was willing at one time to explain what he thought about something important.

    Your concern with his political experience is valid, but not because of his willingness to express his opinion.

    The fact that he has been willing to put what he thinks is true above what would be considered politically prudent is to be praised, unless we want another Martin.

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 1:14 p.m.  

  • I thought that it was a well written piece that explored all of the elements of its subject and then came to a conclusion. It wasn't a 5 paragraph essay where you only bring out points in support and elide any controversy or further discussion. (Ad Hominem attack on Warren and what his reaction says about him). (I'm trying to keep my blood pressure down as well as play nice)

    I disagree with M.I.'s conclusion, in that it follows a trand of ethereal ivory tower opinion that is unwilling to accept our situation or to do the work necessary. Similar to the post-hoc condemnations of Bomber Command and Hiroshima. But to throw "torture supporter" at him is to jump into illiteracy. WK isn't saved by saying that "his opponents" will do it to him. Who is going to throw "coercer" at him? The NDP? Who cares? David Frum, Myron Thompson, Steven Harper? HAHAHAHA. Maybe David Orchard or Joe Clark, but that's not going to do anything.

    WK is getting into the game, at least to oppose MI. Now I didn't like the E-L thing, as it was further evidence of the depravity of the Liberal Party (aka The Board and the internal corruption of LPC politics that CG and others have discussed). I felt bad for MI that he was thrown into that situation, when he rightly should have been put into good riding (TC-Rosedale, for one).

    MI is definitely the kind of person that we want to attract to politics. BR would be too, but for his atrocious previous incarnation as Premier. I hope that more people will stand up to WK's ridiculousness, as he has several issues where he can simply not act like a mature, rational, and reasonable adult.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:24 p.m.  

  • Richard Diamond and Scott Brison do not like torture!

    We draw a line at playful S&M! Our safe word is "Turnip"

    So vote Diamond and Brison for a peaceful world!

    By Blogger Diamond Fan, at 1:24 p.m.  

  • And just like Harper it's frustrating when the campaign is based on this kind of stuff instead of ideas.

    By Blogger Shawn, at 1:46 p.m.  

  • You can have great ideas, but you need political judgement to get elected so you can make those ideas happen. Simply put, that's why political judgement is important.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 1:49 p.m.  

  • He says he's against torture but makes the case for "coercive interogation throughout the entire essay. He does not prove but infact disproves his thesis statement. This is called double speak. Highlight the number of times he gives a proof against "coercive interogation" you won't need much highlighter.

    This is definately an essay in favour of coercive interogation, rhetoric for 'torture' just like 'casualties' are not deaths but 'collateral damage'.

    This essay would have to change its thesis statement to obtain a pass or fail even in a high school level English course.

    Usually people cite examples that support their thesis not disprove it.

    Are you trying to tell me a Phd in History couldn't come up with a more convincng arguement? I have a hard time believing that.

    I want a leader who means what he says, not one that recites charming and dangerous doublespeak.

    This is not a smear tactic. Speaking about a candidates stand on key issues is not smear its called politics and a fair assessment of someones record.

    The man supports coercive interrogation quite clearly, no matter what he ineffectually stated in two or three sentences of this entire esssay.

    He also quite clearly supported the war in Iraq and only changed his mind, because of the way it was going, not because it was inherently wrong in the first place.

    This invasion of a sovereign nation had nothing to do with the Kurds, UN weapons inspectors found nothing of consequence there and did not recommend any action.

    That's a pretty big leadership issue, sorry. And his entire essay is cited on my blog, not misquotes. The whole thing.

    It speaks for itself. Greg it's not his writing style. He disproved his own thesis. This can only be intentional for someone with a Phd. It's called doublespeak.

    By Blogger S.K., at 2:06 p.m.  

  • Gauntlet: I agree that all people, particularly politicians, should be able to speak their minds freely. Put another way, I agree that the real problem is that people twist the words of others, rather than Ignatieff's lack of political judgment.

    But there is a large gap between what should be and what is. We have to accept that in an era where people get their information in thirty-second chunks from an uncritical media, a political figure has to be careful about controversial issues.

    Ignatieff has very thoughtful and nuanced views on issues such as Iraq and torture. I may not agree with him, but I respect that he has devoted significant thought to these issues. But because his positions are nuanced, it takes time on his part to explain himself and time on the part of his audience to understand his views. That naturally puts him at a political disadvantage compared to less intellectually advantaged opponents who can speak (and perhaps can only think) in sound bites.

    I lament this state of affairs, but I do not see how we can fix it. Given that state of affairs, the best political judgment dictates caution and circumspection when commenting on controversial issues.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:10 p.m.  

  • Ignatieff's problem is that he is an intellectual and an idealist in a party that tends not to burden itself with intellectual purity or idealism. Unfortunately (becuase I like him) he has chosen to run for the leadership of a party filled with people that would rather kick the living shit out of anyone who dared not support their guy or, forbid, be their guy. Context and honesty will not matter.

    If you don't beleive me, then read Warren Kinsella's blog for about a week or so.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 p.m.  

  • I think Harper proved that the Canadian public ultimately cares less about what you've said, and more about what you've done and said you plan to do. Liberals need to learn from that. If there's anything we've learned, it's that demonization doesnt work very well, especially if you can definie your candidate before your opponents can. If Ignatieff wins, let's hope more liberals dont have his name so tarred that Harper stays in the PMO for another decade.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:31 p.m.  

  • Agreed. He's an academic. As a fellow academic, I understand the motivation that led him to write such an honest, non-black-and-white article. That doesn't mean it was a good idea.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 2:57 p.m.  

  • I agree with you, CG, in as much as you put forward the point that Ignatieff does not support torture.

    I suspect the thrust of this piece was to have people understand that being against torture of any kind carries with it a cost. To be against torture does not grant a person a clean conscience. The moral cost of opposing torture (in its broadest definition - which is to say opposing any inflicting of physical or mental suffering) is that it may lead to a situation where harm is done because torture was not.

    For Ignatieff, this is a bit of self-realization. He ends "up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress." However, this position can be attacked on the grounds which Ignatieff lays out in his essay. Doing so would seem to be, at the very least, intellectually honest.

    That he was willing to make this argument could signal a lack of political judgment, or it could be indicative of an unwillingness to desend to "lowest common denominator" politics. As someone who believes that Ignatieff offers us (all of us, not just Liberals) something better, I think that worthy of praise.

    By Blogger Leny Vilekoskytch, at 3:05 p.m.  

  • This post nearly made me cry -- well, not really but, still ... d4mn!

    What you have said is that it is not possible for an intellectual, or for that matter a thoughtful person with a written history of being thoughtful, to be successful in politics.

    What you have said is that thoughtful analysis shows poor political judgement.

    It's probably true but

    By Blogger KevinG, at 3:32 p.m.  

  • I don't think this kind of thing ultimately hurts Ignatieff's candidacy. In the actual race, journalists (as opposed to political activists) will quickly come to the consensus that he doesn't support torture, simply because it's right there in black and white, and noone is going to want to be caught out looking like the guy who can't read.

    The race itself will be about the candidates' messages (and other lesser considerations like style and likeability) and only very tangentially about "answering criticisms."

    By Blogger Jason Townsend, at 3:49 p.m.  

  • "simply because it's right there in black and white, and noone is going to want to be caught out looking like the guy who can't read."

    Jason, that's the first laugh I've had over this so far. Can I steel your line. Brilliant.


    By Blogger Ted Betts, at 4:28 p.m.  

  • I can't support the guy because he hasn't lived in Canada for the better part of 30 YEARS!

    Who gives a fuck what he thinks about torture? The man has spent the overwhelming majority of his adult life outside of the country he wishes to lead someday. He is at the bottom of my list of potential candidates to support, even Volpe and MacIssac look better.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 p.m.  

  • After reading the comment thread I would suggest that several of the readers may wish to re-read the essay and then reconsider their comments.

    The point MI is trying to make is that while he is against coercive interrogation there is a very strong case that can be made to support the idea. As one can imagine, having Alan Dershowitz come out in favour of torture clearly means that the subject is not easily handled.

    What MI is doing in this essay is something seldom seen in modern dialogue where everything has to be black-and-white, he is shining the light on an area of heavy grey. He argues a strong case for coercive interrogation, but in doing so indicates that as a moral position it is untenable and as such he is against it. In being against it he thus has to accept potential responsibility for failures and losses in the “ticking bomb scenario”.

    As for WK’s comments, I’m not sure what to say. Having read the essay and WK’s interpretation thereof brings me to one of two conclusions, either he is engaged in sophistry or he was unable to grasp the underlying premiss of MI’s essay. Admittedly, MI does write pretty dense prose but if I had to guess I’d go with the former over the latter.


    Blair King

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:05 p.m.  

  • I'd just like to point out for the record that Ignatieff is a public intellectual, and has been for a good while. He knows how to present and sell an idea if necessary. People may jump on this essay - that's not a sign of political inexperience, its bait. Remember an election we had recently where stupid attack ads didn't quite work so well? Do you think they will work better when parlayed against a politically well-educated elite (Liberal party members)?

    The real question is whether Liberals like his stance. I think it is a very sellable stance (though personally I wish he was no-holds-barred pro-torture). In the ticking time bomb case, I think there most people would accept (or look the other way with) coercive interrogation, or even outright torture. If he can frame the debate that way, he can win on that issue.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:11 p.m.  

  • Anonymous says he laments the fact that politicians can't have nuanced views, but that he or she doesn't know how to fix it. Someone else says that the concept that a politician cannot be an intellectual makes them want to cry.

    I'm not sure what to do, either. I think it has to involve electoral reform.

    But here's what I do know. We cannot allow the argument that politicians should not have ideas, or should hide their ideas, to go unchallenged.

    It is irresponsible to set such low expectations of people who have such great responsibility.

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 9:24 p.m.  

  • After much discussion Ignatieff states: "I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress." But in the rest of his essay it seems he would like to eat his cake and have it too. s.b. hit the nail on the head when he said: "The man supports coercive interrogation quite clearly, no matter what he ineffectually stated in two or three sentences of this entire esssay."

    By Blogger cardinal47, at 10:41 p.m.  

  • There was an interesting piece on the Iraq war in Britain's Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, which actually mentions Ignatieff. It says he supported the war in Iraq "on humanitarian grounds," but that now he'd repudiated his views and was "doing penance" by running for the Liberal leadership! (I am not joking..it actually says that)

    28/3/06 9:47 PM

    By Blogger Ogilvie, at 10:59 p.m.  

  • Cardinal: The substance of his article and his summary paragraphs that you find inadequate agree: He opposes coercive interrogation (Torture lite.)

    What is supposed to be so confusing? The fact that he finds a distinction between torture and torture lite? That he discusses the reasons why people would advocate using one or the other? This is the very heart of nuance and the kind of logic needed to make a case for never condoning any torture or torture-like behavior, always. If you think that's a silly thing to write an essay about because "everyone knows that," try asking a few of your friends about the "ticking time bomb" question and see if they get the right answer. It is the soft "well, if lives are at stake," "if he can stop an attack" views which are very prevelent, above all in the United States - and these are the views he lays out and rebuts.

    Torture and torture lite are always unacceptable - he's been clear about it, HRW has been clear that he's been clear.

    By Blogger Jason Townsend, at 11:07 p.m.  

  • You nailed it with your title "A Tortuous Read". I'm not surprised that some have pulled quotes out of the piece that suggest Ignatieff may favour torture because his intellectual style of overly writing is just agonizing to read closely.

    Can you imagine if he was the PM? Confusion would reign supreme.

    His article has bothered me since I read it, but I have yet to write about the reasons. Perhaps I'll dive into it today at my blog just to get it out of my head.

    By Blogger catnip, at 11:44 a.m.  

  • Good point. Warren has left his flank unguarded. I doubt that he has any high profile *leader* ambitions.

    Ignatieff seems to be a clear thinker...

    Whatever the religious ,trappings extremist Isamism is still a form of Fascism. As Ignatieff notes . *We can fight this Fascism now, or we can fight it later, when it is organized and stronger, but we do have to fight it, just as we had to in 1939. TG [Yes, 55 million lives.]

    Afghani-American Tamim Ansary , shortly after 9/11, wrote, *When you think Taliban, think Nazi SS. When you think bin Laden, think HITLER. And, when you think of the people of Afghanistan, think of the Jews in concentration camps.*

    By Blogger TonyGuitar, at 12:17 p.m.  

  • C'mon, CalGrit. It's clear that he's dancing around the issue by saying "I don't support it, but clearly people do and I don't deign to disagree with them". His support for its efficacy is laughable, and it demonstrates some of the worst political instincts I've seen since Harper became PM.

    This isn't about being an intellectual (it's not a smart argument) and it isn't about being an idealist (because he defends the use of torture from a "realist" perspective)... it's about internalizing Republican nonsense and a perceived need to play the "liberal hawk" to be taken seriously.

    Ignatieff is hardly unique in this. It's wearisome in its popularity among the cocktail party circuit in America. He's just the one aiming to run Canada, and Canada doesn't need this.

    By Blogger Demosthenes, at 1:17 p.m.  

  • I found the article to be very engaging and insightful. It's not breaking any new ground, as anybody who has read The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror can attest. He's taken the argument from that text and expanded it somewhat, but he comes to the same conclusion as he did in 2004: torture is not something which liberal democracies should be pursuing. The temptations of nihilism, the physical barbarity, and the psychological effects on both the torturer and the tortured (he eloquently discusses this in the book) are but three of the reasons why an outright ban on the use of torture should be supported.
    This article may be perceived as something of a response to Charles Krauthammer's recent article, in which he heaps considerable opprobrium on the use of torture but does make the exception for the ticking time bomb case. There is a broad discourse on the legitimacy of torture/coercive interrogation; while I firmly side with Ignatieff over Krauthammer, that very smart people are engaging in lengthy debates over the efficacy of torture is helpful because it sheds light on liberal democracies' abuses and usage of the evils which we would otherwise ascribe to the terrorists.
    That some people will quote Ignatieff out of context is inevitable; sadly, the level of political discourse in this country is in a sorry state of affairs. By publishing a lengthy article and entertaining both sides of the debate before arriving at a definitive conclusion, Ignatieff is contributing to the elevation of our debates beyond capturing soundbites to be played endlessly. Frankly, I would much rather listen to Ignatieff talk about the nuances of torture than listen to Paul Martin read off the back of a napkin his strategy to remove the federal government's ability to use the notwithstanding clause. That may be just me, I'm extremely hopeful that such is not the case. Mr. Townsend makes a fantastic point: anybody who attempts to use the article to paint Ignatieff as being pro-torture is simply demonstrating the lack of an ability to read. "Political savvy" be damned; I'll take a lengthy essay that arrives at the right conclusion over a 10-second soundbite that is wrong any day of the week.

    By Blogger RGM, at 3:46 p.m.  

  • This article may be perceived as something of a response to Charles Krauthammer's recent article, in which he heaps considerable opprobrium on the use of torture but does make the exception for the ticking time bomb case.

    I haven't read the Krauthammer piece, but if he indeed wrote it recently, as you say, then Ignatieff's Prospect essay cannot be seen as a response to it: this is a shortened version of an essay Ignatieff wrote for a book published in 2005 called 'Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?"

    The 2005 essay collection included Ignatieff's longer essay, 'Moral Prohibition at a Price,' which responds to both Human Rights activists (e.g. Kenneth Roth, published in the same volume) and R. Posner and J.B. Elshtain, published elsewhere.

    Countering Roth, Ignatieff argues that 'Coercive Interrogation' ought not to be collapsed into the category of 'Torture.'

    Furthermore, he argues that, within the category of 'Coercive Interrogation' (also called 'torture lite' by more than one writer Ignatieff cites), we should distinguish between 'methods of coercive interrogation that are lawful and permissible and those that may be inhuman and degrading.'

    Since the categories 'lawful' and 'degrading' are not, in practice at least, mutually exclusive, I'm not entirely sure what Ignatieff is getting at here, but I assume that he wishes to distinguish between 'those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress' and, presumably, other forms of interrogation which are more 'coercive' than regular police interrogations, and yet not as 'coercive' as 'stress and duress' coercion or outright torture.

    Since Ignatieff himself says in the same essay he has great difficulty outlining exactly what should count as permissible coercion, I'm not sure why he's so adamant that the distinction must be maintained, over the practical objections of people like Kenneth Roth.

    (Note to Ignatieff: it would be helpful to those trying to understand your position if you could curb your addiction to modals like might and to the passive voice.)

    Moreover, I'm not sure why he says in the same essay that his position on torture/coercive interrogation is 'close' to that of Elshtain (she of the 'dirty hands') while going on to present himself as a supporter of 'an absolute and unconditional ban and those forms of of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress."

    It seems to me like his desire to chart a middle course between Roth on the one hand and Posner/Elshtain/Dershowitz on the other has turned the 'middle course' into a 'muddled course.'

    Why cavil on the ninth part of a hair if you're not going to say precisely where part eight ends and part nine begins?

    My friend Jason Townsend (above) will doubtless try to show where I've been unfair to Ignatieff, but my view is that he's no one to blame but himself for the current criticisms he faces on this question.

    Furthermore, the exception he admits to the 'absolute ban' (i.e. a 'conscientious' interrogator facing a 'ticking bomb' case) is large enough to drive a truck through.

    To turn some of Ignatieff's own rhetoric against him, 'what are the words "absolute" and "unconditional" doing in that sentence he wrote?'

    By Blogger Stephen, at 4:00 a.m.  

  • Nuance as Nemesis.

    The flurry of articles for and against Ignatieff, based on his writings and speeches, means he is in the headlines in bloggerdom more than any other candidate right now.

    But there is my CatForecast:

    • His newness, coupled with his nuanced positions, added to the fact that he is a fresh face in the Liberal Party, will mean he runs for leader as a frontrunner, and will do well on the first ballot.

    • But the second ballot will see him fading fast, as Liberals at the convention decide he is not the leader to beat Harper.

    • By the third ballot, he will be signalling to his supporters which person he wishes to be leader.

    And this brings us to the inevitable question: Who will Ignatieff choose to support as leader once his own star fades?

    Will he choose a practiced politician? Or a fresh face? Or someone highly intelligent?

    Fairly easy to predict who he will not choose; less easy which one he will choose.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:51 p.m.  

  • If a man cannot cogently oppose coercive interrogation and, in the course of doing so, demonstrate that he actually understands the arguments in favour of coercive interrogation (which have persuaded so many like Dershowitz) as well as the potential consequences of opposing coercive interrogation, then our capacity for intelligent political discourse is gone. Is Warren's world one that I want to occupy? Not on your life. Go Ignatieff!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:36 a.m.  

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