Open­ing our eyes to the flame of power

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Fire and Ashes: Suc­cess and Fail­ure in Pol­i­tics By Michael Ig­nati­eff Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 224pp, $39.95 (HB) Why We Ar­gue (And How We Should): A Guide to Po­lit­i­cal Dis­agree­ment By Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Rout­ledge, 151pp, $34.95 FOR Plato, the ideal city-state was one in which ‘‘philoso­pher kings’’ would take charge. ‘‘Un­less philoso­phers bear kingly rule in cities,’’ he has Socrates say in The Repub­lic, ‘‘there will be no respite from evil.’’

In re­al­ity, how­ever, the his­tory of in­tel­lec­tu­als in power has not been a happy one; in­deed, it seems the­o­ret­i­cal acu­men and prac­ti­cal abil­ity are of­ten at odds. Nei­ther Alexis de Toc­queville nor John Stu­art Mill was par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive in po­lit­i­cal life, while Ed­mund Burke en­dured barbs from con­tem­po­raries for ne­glect­ing his inkwell for West­min­ster. As for Max We­ber, the great so­ci­ol­o­gist failed even to gain nom­i­na­tion as a can­di­date for the Ger­man Demo­cratic Party in 1919.

One who bucked this trend was Pierre Trudeau, Cana­dian prime min­is­ter from 1968 to 1979, and it is in his foot­steps that au­thor, broad­caster and aca­demic Michael Ig­nati­eff hoped to fol­low when he en­tered the Cana­dian par­lia­ment in 2006. But while Trudeau, a dash­ing law pro­fes­sor with charisma to burn, was able to

March 29-30, 2014 turn his in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism to his ad­van­tage, Ig­nati­eff’s ad­ven­tures in the world of ideas were re­garded as ev­i­dence of his un­world­li­ness.

That these ad­ven­tures tended to take place in the US only made the sit­u­a­tion worse. ‘‘Iggy’’ was painted as a dilet­tante, a Har­vard snob and a Johnny-come-lately. The re­sult was that, over the course of five years, Ig­nati­eff’s dreams of the top job evap­o­rated. De­nounced as a car­pet­bag­ger, Iggy flopped.

Bear­ing on its cover the im­age of a bi­plane twist­ing, nose first, back to earth, Fire and Ashes tells the story of those five years and at­tempts to re­trieve some the­o­ret­i­cal work­ing parts from the wreck­age of the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ence. Hav­ing pur­sued ‘‘the flame of power’’ and seen his am­bi­tions ‘‘dwin­dle to ashes’’, Ig­nati­eff wants to in­spire the young to take up the po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge, but to do so with their eyes open to the nu­mer­ous com­prises and in­evitable re­ver­sals that af­flict the tyro par­lia­men­tar­ian. As he puts it: ‘‘The ashes of my ex­pe­ri­ence, I hope, will be dug into some­body’s gar­den.’’

The book opens in 2005, at the be­gin­ning of the end of a lengthy pe­riod of Lib­eral Party dom­i­nance in Canada. In that year, Ig­nati­eff, a Lib­eral sup­porter, was vis­ited by the ‘‘men in black’’, party strate­gists on the hunt for a fresh leader who could take the fight to the resurgent Con­ser­va­tives. Flat­tered, and not a lit­tle baf­fled, he de­cided to stand in the 2006 elec­tion, and de­spite op­po­si­tion from some in the party who re­garded his writ­ings on hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion as an apol­ogy for US im­pe­ri­al­ism, was elected as the MP for Eto­bi­coke-Lakeshore.

Na­tion­ally, how­ever, the cen­tre-left Lib­er­als lost power to the right-of-cen­tre Con­ser­va­tives: Stephen Harper was sworn in as prime min­is­ter and the Lib­er­als’ years in the wilder­ness be­gan.

It was dur­ing the fall­out from the 2006 de­feat that Ig­nati­eff an­nounced his can­di­dacy for the lead­er­ship of the Lib­eral Party. Putting the case for an ac­tivist state — his ver­sion of Trudeau’s ‘‘just so­ci­ety’’ — he at­tempted to raise the tone of the de­bate, and to deepen the con­ver­sa­tion about pol­icy, but re­alised quickly that in­tel­lec­tual subtlety is best put aside in the pur­suit of power.

Tellingly, it was in his area of ex­per­tise, for­eign pol­icy, that his po­lit­i­cal fail­ings were most ob­vi­ous. A ‘‘crit­i­cal friend of Is­rael’’ is a per­fectly sen­si­ble thing to be, but dur­ing the Is­rael-Le­banon war it came across as dither­ing.

At any rate, his cam­paign went into free fall, and it was not un­til 2009, in the wake of yet an­other elec­toral de­feat, that he fi­nally landed the lead­er­ship spot. Un­for­tu­nately for him, that’s all he landed. Harper won vic­tory in 2011 and re­mains the Cana­dian PM to this day.

Through­out Fire and Ashes, Ig­nati­eff com­bines a chrono­log­i­cal ac­count of his ex­pe­ri­ence with a more in-depth anal­y­sis of some key fea­tures of po­lit­i­cal life, and there is much to be said for the skil­ful way he weaves these two com­po­nents to­gether. Im­pres­sive as the per­for­mance is, how­ever, parts of his anal­y­sis struck me as su­per­fi­cial.

Of course, one takes his cen­tral point that politi­cians can’t ‘‘take refuge in moral pu­rity’’. But to say that in pol­i­tics there is ‘‘no such thing as good or bad faith’’ is easy cyn­i­cism. Nor do I ex­pect to hear from a writer (and thinker) of Ig­nati­eff’s cal­i­bre that ‘‘read­ing the room’’ suc­cess­fully can put the au­di­ence in the ‘‘palm of your hand’’, if only be­cause it’s the kind of cliche I can find in any po­lit­i­cal mem­oir.

If, in at­tempt­ing to give the world of pol­i­tics its due, Ig­nati­eff comes across as in­suf­fi­ciently crit­i­cal, the same can cer­tainly not be said of Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, au­thors of Why We Ar­gue (And How We Should). For while they, too, seek to af­firm democ­racy, they be­lieve there is sig­nif­i­cant scope for im­prove­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, they think a ground­ing in logic has the po­ten­tial to en­gen­der a health­ier polity, one less sus­cep­ti­ble to ‘‘group po­lar­i­sa­tion’’. “Democ­racy,’’ they write, ‘‘is col­lec­tive self-govern­ment by means of pub­lic ar­gu­ment among equal cit­i­zens.’’ It brings with it ‘‘a duty of ci­ti­zen­ship, specif­i­cally, a duty to try to ar­gue well’’.

For Aikin and Talisse, good ar­gu­ment is grounded in what they call ‘‘di­alec­ti­cal logic’’: ‘‘An ar­gu­ment is an at­tempt to put a dis­agree­ment to rest by show­ing those with whom you dis­agree that they should be com­pelled by rea­sons to adopt your be­lief.’’ The key words here are ‘‘com­pelled by rea­sons’’. It is not enough to take a po­si­tion, to ac­cept a par­tic­u­lar propo­si­tion as true; ‘‘we aim to be­lieve in such a way that en­ables us to see the truth of our be­liefs’’. Thus, we should ar­gue, or aim to ar­gue, in a way that con­vinces oth­ers of our rea­sons; in short, we should re­spond ra­tio­nally to dis­agree­ments.

The greater part of Why We Ar­gue is given over to a ‘‘sys­tem­atic con­cep­tion of the ways in

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