Monday, August 06, 2007

Ignatieff and the War

At the time the Iraq war of 2003 started, I was a supporter of the initiative; in many ways it seemed the appropriate conclusion for the first Gulf War's limited end. I was hopeful, if not optimistic, that a reasonable civil society could arise in some time in Iraq (never did I think in a few weeks or months, and I am not yet sure).
My sister writes interestingly on Michael Ignatieff's repudiation of his support.
Norm writes interestingly on it as well.
For me, as I read it, what jumped out and shocked me was what I hope deeply was not really what Ignatieff meant. Ignatieff makes this remarkable assertion:

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.

Brad DeLong responds to this and some other statements with:
I think Ignatieff has it wrong when he contrasts realistic politicans with academic visionaries. The academics I know and respect labor under three ethical prime directives:

* Learn as much as possible about the issue.
* Fairly present all points of view that have significant support.
* Always remember that the world is a complex and surprising place, and that our theories, models, and data are limited: the map is not the territory.

The academics I know and respect don't make mistakes like those Michael Ignatieff attributes to an academic mode of thought: they don't believe that the ideas they play with are ultimately useless, and they desperately want to think thoughts that are true rather than thoughts that are false.

I hope DeLong is right - that academics in general are like him, can engage (and he has!) and not separate modes of thought so there is one in which facts seem not to matter.

Ignatieff's point now seem weirdly to suggest that henceforth he will worry about facts, and not ignore them as before. Even worse, he WILL ignore theory, if he gets politcal success. Bizarre.

BTW, I have always found Brad DeLong a useful, if occasionally slightly over-the-top, commentor on events and someone with whom I agree some part of the time. But he is always willing to justify his arguments and usually base them on facts. And he teaches at Berkeley!


At 6:15 PM, Blogger BSF said...

What did you make of Ignatieff's comment that the people who showed good judgemnent on Iraq didn't suppose that America could shape political outcomes "in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little"? There seems to be a rather unfortunate resonance to that wording.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Alan Adamson said...

Well that was a point of the opponents of the war, and results have strongly supported that. As he is now one, I suppose the way he says it makes sense. Is that what you mean? I am not sure this general rule is supported by history overall.


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