Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Straw Men

In light of Warren Kinsella's apparent misinterpretation of Michael Ignatieff's poor and indecisive but otherwise harmless essay on torture, I thought I'd demonstrate what taking things a little out of context can do. For example, Kinsella's recent comments on Iraq (March 23) offer a sunny outlook on Americans' thoughts on the war, that is if you read them the right way. Take a good look, you'll be reading them enough during the next election campaign.

'puny crowds gathered in cities around the globe to protest it'

'...Wartime boosterism is conspicuous'

'the victim of brutality at Abu Ghraib prison - the one seen in the infamous photograph, standing on a box, hooded and electrical wires dangling from his arms - merits front-page coverage'

'Further north, on Sunday morning in Atlanta, the Journal-Constitution fills page after page with exemplary stories about Iraq'
And, finally, the epitaph:

'There will be more stories to be written, up and down the Interstate'
That much, it seems, is true.

If you're too lazy to read the Ignatieff and Kinsella pieces, which really would be the only reason to take things this far out of context, let me give you a taste.

Leaving my feelings about Ignatieff out of this (put it to you this way, I won't be voting in any Liberal leadership race anytime soon, and I most CERTAINLY did not go to Harvard), allow me to define 'out of context': copying and pasting sentences and leaving out key words, which is what Kinsella has recklessly done. Is it a waffle? Almost certainly, but hey, we're talking about a Liberal leadership candidate here. Is it a death knell for Ignatieff's candidacy? Only if taken ridiculously out of context. To wit:
Kinsella quoting Ignatieff: "�torture is not served by collapsing the distinction between coercive interrogation and torture. Both may be repugnant, but repugnance does not make them into the same thing."

Ignatieff's essay: "Clear thinking about torture is not served by collapsing the distinction between coercive interrogation and torture. Both may be repugnant, but repugnance does not make them into the same thing. If coercion and torture are on a moral continuum, at what point on the continuum, to use Posner's words, does queasiness turn to revulsion?"
The difference: The big debate, as Ignatieff points out, is, can torture actually be defined, and if it can't, how do we deal with this as a society? I'd like to see Kinsella's indisputable definition of torture.

Another gem:
Kinsella quoting Ignatieff: "�necessity may require the commission of bad acts�"

Ignatieff: 'necessity may require the commission of bad acts, which necessity, nevertheless, cannot absolve of their morally problematic character'
Pretty clearly couched.

"An outright ban on torture and coercive interrogation leave a conscientious security officer with little choice but to disobey the ban."

Quote taken directly, but this is at the heart of the problem: if millions of lives can be saved through the torture of one man, would applying torture be wrong? And if such an action were punishable by law, should it be as punishable as torture in the absence of such a benefit to society? Ignatieff seems to think there should be at least some judicial punishment, and fair enough, but it should be up to the courts to decide.

The kicker:
Kinsella quoting Ignatieff: "I am willing to get my hands dirty."

Ignatieff: "I am willing to get my hands dirty, but unlike her, I have practical difficulty enumerating a list of coercive techniques that I would be willing to have a democratic society inflict in my name. I accept, for example, that a slap is not the same thing as a beating, but I still don't want interrogators to slap detainees because I cannot see how to prevent the occasional slap deteriorating into a regular practice of beating."
In other words, in a perfect world, the definition and practice of torture is easily delineated. In the real world, however, this is clearly not the case. Hence the (rather valid) debate over the limits of torture.

Sorry to see the usually excellent Kinsella fall down on this one. I would have thought Ignatieff was enough of a straw man that a replica would not have to be constructed out of his rubbish essay and summarily destroyed.


Blogger James MacDuff said...

Heh. I wonder if Cooper's opinion of Ignatieff would differ if the Professor had taught at Yale?

I certainly didn't find the essay rubbish. But the funniest part about the whole Kinsella attack is that, in a sophisticated discussion, Ignatieff's purist position is more open to attack from just the opposite perspective, that a complete ban on all forms of coercive interrogation at all times is itself too extreme.

Anyway, went home after posting yesterday to watch the latest installment of this season's (so far quite sub-par, sadly) "24". Needless to say, Jack Bauer would not be impressed with Ignatieff's conclusions.

8:09 PM  
Blogger The Tiger said...

I think that the substance of most of Ignatieff's opinions is defensible enough. (Though I think he tries to make distinctions that ultimately cannot be sustained, sometimes -- not on the torture issue, but in dealing with, say, terrorist movements.)

The problem he has -- in my opinion, and it's different from those of his Liberal supporters and detractors -- is that he is unsteady. He can over-think things sometimes, and does not necessarily stand by his previous views -- as I think we'll see with regard to some of his more controversial (in Canada) foreign policy ideas.

We'll see how he stands it when he has to weather the inevitable attacks during the leadership campaign.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Barrelman said...

There is a difference between political soundbites and coherent academic thought. Methinks Warren doesn't know that.

11:28 AM  

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