Ignatieff in Iran


Michael Ignatieff was in Iran on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005. He gave talks, met with reformers and students, and wrote it up for the New York Times Magazine. The piece is worth reading now for all kinds of reasons: It gives a nice snapshot of the state of the reform movement at the time, and helps explain why Ahmadinejad was so popular in the first place. It also contains some of the cut-rate intellectualizing that makes Ignatieff’s academic positions so shaky, such as when he replies to a cleric’s demand for proof that rights are universal with the following:

I gave the answer I use in my class at Harvard — that if I were to go up to him, right now, and smack him across the face, anywhere in the world the act would count as an injustice and an insult. Human rights law codifies our agreement about stopping these intuitively obvious injustices.

Well, not quite.  Anyway, it’s easy to go back over things written in different contexts and pull out Telling Quotes or Portentous Passages, but I thought this was interesting:

Many young Iranians I talked to were so hostile to clerical rule that I found myself cautioning them against going too far in the other direction. Many seemed in favor of a secular republicanism in which religion was excluded from politics altogether, as it was in Turkey during the rule of that country’s modernizing dictator, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As Isaiah Berlin warned, however, if you bend the twig too far, it will snap back in your face.

And especially this:

In any event, America has almost no capacity to promote democracy inside Iran, and some capacity to do harm to Iranian democrats. Every Iranian I met wanted to spend time in the United States — and wished there were more scholarships to take them to America — but nearly every one of them laughed when I mentioned the recent Congressional appropriation of $3 million to support democratic opposition groups inside and outside the country. Iranian democrats look on American good intentions with incredulity. It would be fatal for any of them to accept American dollars. ”Do they want to get us all arrested as spies?” one said to me.

Hence the paradox: the Middle Eastern Muslim society with the most pro-American democrats will strenuously resist any American attempt to promote democracy inside it. It is easy to understand why. ”We fought for our independence,” Semnanian told me. ”You think when our people fought to drive out the invaders from Iraq for seven years, we were fighting only Saddam? We were fighting the U.S.A., Britain, the whole world. We saved our country. And now we are free.”

Read the whole thing.

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Ignatieff in Iran

  1. "It also contains some of the cut-rate intellectualizing that makes Ignatieff's academic positions so shaky…

    And Potter's arguments to support this:

    1. "The following."
    2. "Not quite."
    3. "And especially this:"

    Summed up by "Read the whole thing."

    A compelling case, to be sure.

    • I know, right? Also amusing that Potter, who has linked approvingly to Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks in the past, would choose *this* post to roll out the phrase "cut-rate intellectualizing".

      The writing quoted here seems completely noncontroversial: any American involvement in Iran's pro-democracy movement will immediately taint and undermine whatever it touches. I could maybe be convinced otherwise, if only somebody would make an effort (and a sensible argument) to do so.

      • Well, we'll never know what Potter thinks until a consensus opinion emerges.

  2. Iggys right. This is why Obama is staying out of the fray by withholding judgment (publicly). The United States is hated more than any other country in that region of the world. An endorsement of your movement by the US in Iran is tantamount to the KKKs endorsement of a congressman.

    • Yeah, I thought that was the stuff that seemed most relevant to what is going on now. When even the reformers are telling you to keep out of it…

      • Makes sense that the US can probably only do damage if it does anything, in this country. Which is why it is time for countries that HAVE been engaged with Iran for so long, often shamefully so (hello, Western and Eastern Europe), to start making noises.

  3. "…But why, he pressed further, would an injustice against him also be perceived by me as an injustice? Because, I replied, human beings are not closed compartments. We can imagine what it would be like to be at the receiving end of the very blows we strike.

    ''You are an intuitionist,'' he said with a smile. I countered that the human capacity to understand the pain of others is a fact, not an intuition. ''But you need something stronger than this,'' he said. We continued for a while, agreeably disagreeing, but as he gathered up his papers to depart, he was smiling like someone who thought he had just won an argument. As far as he was concerned, beneath his belief in human rights lies the bedrock of the Koran, while beneath mine lies nothing but hopeful instincts. "

    His adversary sounds like a religious version of Stephen Harper to me – guided by his inner compass of his narrow ideological ideas – whether right or not is almost immaterial – they provide a basis for all his decision-making.

    • If the only argument MI could muster is hopeful instincts it doesnt give me comfort. If you dont have a grounding in some belief then you are Forest Gump, a feather in the wind.

      MI has more beef to his argument, the bigger concern is he is either too unsure or too uncomfortable to state it. Maybe MI is more Canadian than we know.

  4. Part II – Mr. Ignatieff has not yet – and may never reach – the point where he is prepared to go for the jugular – when he thinks the end is right – in other words – he has to let his intuition go – to the ultimate end. If or when he does – he will have the tools in place to become a fine Prime Minister.

    • Yes, I want more in a leader than someone who can come up with popular tax supported programs or can balanced budgets – bureaucrats can do that all by themselves. I want a leader who has a clear position (and not necessarily one that is popular), and is willing to stand up for that position – Churchill had it, and (I know I will get hit for this), but so did Bush. Churchill stood up for Britain when many of the elite (including that wimpy Prince of Wales) didn't see much wrong with Hitler et. al. Bush stood up for America and yes it annoyed people, but he was clear on what America stood for – freedom, liberty and democracy – you may disagree with him on how he decided to spread that, but he stood up for it. Obama – not so clear and in fact I don't even think he likes most of America,

      • Clear unwavering positions are to be desired in candidates for leadership, but not necessarily leadership itself.

      • Oh, and minus one billion.

  5. That's actually a remarkably adept foreign policy analysis for Mr. Iggy (it being perhaps one of his weakest areas). Especially the last bit. I hope if he becomes the PM he retains this level of clarity.

  6. Well said, Anon.

  7. Actually, it is kind of nice to have a guy who was paying attention to something happening outside of Canada now willing to run for PM. Not only paying attention, travelling to Iran! Also means that he did not wait to be PM before getting a passport.

    An even if the tone can be a bit pompous, what he is saying is actually quite right…

  8. The clarity of Ignatieff's writing has been remarkably inconsistent over the years. A significant portion of his output is beautifully written, and clear as a bell. However, Iggy has also written a lot of pieces that seem wooly-headed, airily vague, or self-absorbed to the point of indulgence. His reliance on aphorisms can be infuriating.

    • That's a keeper. I'm sending that off to Bullwer-Lytton.

      • Why, have you published there before?

        • Why? Have you published there before?

          Correctness first, after all.

          • Why, we have a pedant in our midst! Thanks for coming out.