Progressive politics, ideas & culture


moral purity, political rhetoric, and the lesser evil

This Magazine Staff

During last fall’s US election campaign, I occasionally expressed on this blog the opinion that John Kerrry was hardly the epigone of moral consistency that some of his supporters – in the US and in Canada – had made him out to be. It seemed to me that Kerry had flip-flopped on a number of issues, including the invasion of Iraq. If I recall correctly, John Degen defended Kerry as someone struggling with difficult questions. I believe “nuanced” was the word Degen used.
I’ve long been impressed by my blogmate’s sense that integrity in politics is not incompatible with nuance and subtlety. I believe that he and I agree that Canadian politics deals too much in caricature and hypocrisy, although I suspect we disagree as to the relative merits of the NDP on this. As I see it, the NDP spends too much time on the political sidelines and calling it the high ground.
At any rate, I am now worried that his recent political adventures have won Degen over to the dark and dirty side of politics, the side that treats any attempt at nuance as indecision, the side that tries to force complex positions into the crude shape of the cheap sound bite.
Here are a couple of quotations:

Legalisation of physical force in interrogation will hasten the process by which it becomes routine. The problem with torture is not just that it gets out of control, not just that it becomes lawless. It inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner. It violates basic commitments to human dignity, and this is the core value that a war on terror, waged by a democratic state, should not sacrifice, even under threat of imminent attack.

For torture, when committed by a state, expresses the state’s ultimate view that human beings are expendable. This view is antithetical to the spirit of any constitutional society whose raison d’etre is the control of violence and coercion in the name of human dignity and freedom.
We should have faith in this constitutional identity. It is all that we have to resist the temptations of nihilism, but it is not nothing.

Who wrote this? Chomsky? Howard Dean? John Degen?
Actually, it was Michael Ignatieff. In the Financial Times, May 15 2004.
If you read the article, you’ll find that his position on torture is not as clear cut as these quotations might have it. And if you look around, you might find places where Ignatieff comes down more in favour of torture than he does here; in other places he might come down more on the side of an outright ban. The point is, Ignatieff is trying to think through what I take to be some very, very difficult questions about which options are open, and which are not, to a liberal society that sees itself to be under threat. If there is anywhere in his writing where Ignatieff does end up supporting a limited right to minimal physical coercion of prisoners with judicial oversight (and in the above piece he does not even go that far) it is worth emphasizing the title of his recent book: The Lesser Evil. Lesser, but still evil.
All of this is just a roundabout way of taking issue with Degen’s caricature in the preceding post of Ignatieff as “famous for his pro-invasion, pro-torture support for the Bush administration’s adventures in the middle east.”
Ignatieff has not been the perfect candidate so far, and he doesn’t appear to have the best people working for him. The way he got the nomination wasn’t great (though Ed Schryer’s parachute-candidacy puts the lie to any NDP-purity on local democracy on that score).
But this is my point: Let Ignatieff’s candidacy succeed or fail on a fair hearing of his opinions and abilities. If he’s as bad as everyone seems to think, it shouldn’t be necessary to misrepresent his views.

Show Comments