Errare

Books ought to be written about how otherwise smart looking people got Iraq wrong. But not by them. Too many people who were wrong about Iraq have only profited from it. Some of them (Bill Kristol, O’Hanlon and Pollack, the Kagans, Bush, Cheney, Rice, Republicans) continue in their error; others have had a change of heart, but have not had their credibility questioned (Friedman, Beinart, Yglesias, Josh Marshall, Ivo Daadler). Many of them were not just factually wrong, but morally wrong to have been so absolutely callous and shallow with the awful and uncontrollable violence of war.

Another person who got the war wrong (but who has since come to repent) is Michael Ignatieff (formerly of Harvard University). In a New York Times Sunday magazine article he explains why he got it wrong. One reason has to do with academia:

>The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.

>Having left an academic post at Harvard in 2005 and returned home to Canada to enter political life, I keep revisiting the Iraq debacle, trying to understand exactly how the judgments I now have to make in the political arena need to improve on the ones I used to offer from the sidelines. Iíve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.

>The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they canít afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectualís responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politicianís responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.

Funny thing about that “condemnation”: it hasn’t convinced Ignatieff or any of the commentators who got it wrong to exclude themselves from continuing to comment. Ignatieff doesn’t even think it excludes him from running for office (in Canada). It’s a big deal to get something like that wrong (I think at least). For many (even or especially on the left), getting it wrong has been a kind ticket for pundit advancement.

That’s probably because of what Berlin said. But Berlin would probably be better understood to be talking about the endless yapfest of American punditry. For apparently it doesn’t matter whether what anyone says is true. So long as its interesting.

One thought on “Errare”

Comments are closed.