03 August 2007

Ignatieff on Politics and "Lunatic Literalism"

Today's Globe and Mail has an interview with Liberal deputy-leader Michael Ignatieff in advance of an opinion piece that is to appear in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. He reflects on the realities of politics, as compared to politics through the abstracting lens of the academy.
He writes in his article: “This ... hypocrisy of public life is not available in private life. There we play for keeps. But among friends and family, we also cut one another some slack. We fill in one another's sentences. What we mean matters more than what we say.

“No such mercies occur in politics. In public life language is a weapon of war. … All that matters is what you said, not what you meant. The political realm is a world of lunatic literalism. The slightest crack in your armour – between what you meant and what you said – can be pried open and the knife driven home.”

Even more interesting is his reflection on making the transition from the academic world to the world of realpolitik:
“You have to see the piece [The New York Times article] in the right frame – what's different about the judgments you make in the safety of academic life from the judgments you make in politics.

“You have to remember I spent five years getting up every Tuesday and Thursday morning, teaching political science to bright people, and what's funny about it, looking back on it, is that I would teach it totally differently now. That's what I think the piece is saying.”


What he would teach his political science students now, he said, is that whereas academics and other public intellectuals are responsible in the final analysis only to themselves for their ideas and their judgments, politicians have a deeper responsibility.

They have a responsibility for the consequences of their actions; a responsibility to see and understand the world as it is, not as they would wish it to be; a responsibility to be prudent, to listen to the voices of their opponents before they act, to recognize and learn from their mistakes, and to not let emotions be the primary determinant of their actions.
A thoughtful reflection from an obviously thoughtful man. I'm planning on looking for the article this weekend. I hope that more of our politicians do so, as well.
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