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David Rees

David Rees

Posted: August 7, 2007 03:36 PM

Cormac Ignatieff's "The Road"


Hello everyone! Personal message to all the New Yorkers out there: Did you read Michael Ignatieff's essay in the the NY Times Magazine? If so, contact me ASAP to let me know you're OK. I put your flyer up at Grand Central Station, but have heard no response.

Myself, I'm just making my way out of the debilitating Level-Five Mind Fog that came from reading the thing. Even my "Second Life avatar" has a headache! (Hey young people, did I get that right? Hope so! See you in "Warcraft Worlds!")

The essay is called "Getting Iraq Wrong." And baby, if Michael Ignatieff got Iraq wrong, I don't want him to be right! Because this essay can MAKE LEMONADE IN YOUR MIND.

I wrote a "cyber-essay" on the Huffington Post a couple years ago about Ignatieff. (Oh, sorry, you didn't know I blog on the Huffington Post? Yeah, not to brag or nothing, but I totally do. Also, my friend has a flickr.) My cyber-essay concerned itself with a masterpiece of foreign-policy fan fiction: Ignatieff's 2005 NY Times Magazine essay justifying the Iraq war. Ignatieff's essay was called "Let's All Fly Up In Space Together and Smoke Dope." (That was the vibe, anyway.)

In that 2005 essay, you'll recall, Ignatieff said the reason the American public wanted to invade Iraq was to spread "The Ultimate Task of Thomas Jefferson's Dream." (I am not making a joke. This is for real.) And, he implied, anyone who opposed the invasion of Iraq did so because they hated Thomas Jefferson-- and they didn't believe in the Ultimate Tasks of Dreams!

So far, so GREAT, right?

Ignatieff's latest essay is what Latin people call a "mea culpa," which is Greek for "Attention publishers: I am ready to write a book about the huge colossal mistake I made." I imagine the book will be about a man struggling to do the right thing-- a man who thinks with his heart and dares, with a dream in each fist, to reach for the stars. It's about a journey: a journey from idealistic, starry-eyed academic to wizened, war-weary politician. (Ignatieff used to work at Harvard's Kennedy School; now he's Prime Chancellor of Canada's Liberal Delegate or whatever kind of wack-ass, kumbaya government they've got up there.)

In a way, it's a story much like Cormac McCarthy's recent best-selling "The Road." Both follow a hero's long march through thankless environments-- in Ignatieff's case, from the theory-throttled, dusty tower of academia to the burned-out hell-hole of representative politics. Danger lurks. Grime abounds. The narrative tension is: Can the hero be wrong about everything, survive, and still convince people he's smarter than everyone in Moveon.org?

I was excited when I first saw this new essay: At last, Ignatieff was going to come clean about his super-duper-double-dipper errors. I expected a no-holds barred, personal excoriation. In fact, I assumed the first, last, and only sentence of the essay would be: "Please, for the love of God, don't ever listen to me again."

HOWEVER. . .

The first nine-tenths of Ignatieff's essay, far from being an honest self-examination, is a collection of vague aphorisms and bong-poster koans. It hums with the comforting murmur of lobotomy. I refuse to believe this section was actually written by a member of the Canadian government, because that would mean Canada is even more "fuxxor3d" than America. (A little hacker-speak, that. There will be more; I finally bought the B3rlitz tapes.)

Below, a smorgasbord of Ignatieff's musings, with commentary:

"An intellectual's responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician's responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm. . . ."

Right off the bat, he's saying: "It was right for me to support the Iraq war when I was an academic, because academics live in outer space on Planet Zinfandel, and play with ideas all day. But now, as a politician in a country that opposed the war, I'll admit I screwed up, because politicians must deign to harness the wild mares of whimsy to the ox-cart of cold, calculated reality." So, although his judgments were objectively wrong, they were contextually appropriate. Sweet! You've been totally 0wn3d by Michael Ignatieff! And so have all those dead Iraqis.

Immediately, I could tell: THIS ESSAY WASN'T GOING TO BE FRUSTRATING AT ALL.

"Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. . . ."

Why do I hear Geddy Lee singing this phrase over a 6/13 time signature? All that's missing is the phrase "telescopic zodiac / whispering secrets into my cerebellum" and you've got a killer Rush lyric!

"As a former denizen of Harvard, I've had to learn that a sense of reality doesn't always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what's what than Nobel Prize winners. . . ."

Given the title of my previous post about Ignatieff, I was especially taken with this paragraph. Two questions:

1. Is Michael Ignatieff sending me secret messages, like Christopher Hitchens did Paul Wolfowitz? If so, let me state for the record: Michael Ignatieff, I am ready to wage war on whomever you want! You had me at "Invade."

2. Don't bus drivers ever get tired of the "Regular schmoes are smarter than us academics/politicians/journalists" gag? Raise your hand if you think Ignatieff appointed any bus drivers to the Kennedy School faculty. I mean, if Ignatieff really thinks bus drivers are shrewder than academics, why didn't he quit Harvard and go drive a bus? After all, even if he turned out to be the worst bus driver ever, and ran over pedestrians every five seconds, he probably wouldn't kill as many people as his Iraq war did! (Joke.)

"A sense of reality is not just a sense of the world as it is, but as it might be. Like great artists, great politicians see possibilities others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities. . ."

Winston Churchill is Leonardo daVinci. George W. Bush is Thomas Kinkade. Michael Ignatieff basically helped us buy a half-trillion dollars' worth of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Thanks.

"To bring the new into being, a politician needs a sense of timing, of when to leap and when to remain still. . . ."

Come, now: If you're gonna steal from Kenny Rogers, you at least gotta grow the beard.

"Few of us hear the horses coming. . . ."

"Ma! Circle the wagons! The horses are coming!"
"But Pa, I can't circle the wagons without the horses! The horses pull the wagons!"
"Oh, no! We're totally gonna get trampled by horses!"

Seriously, let's repeat this quote: "Few of us hear the horses coming." We are really getting into Cormac McCarthy territory here:

"They saw the WMDs over the hill, staggering under the weight of their own nonexistence like some funereal assemblage of bent-backed phantoms. Ignatieff crouched in the mulberry copse, glassed his target, cursed the Chomskian dust that risked his weapons ruin, then raised The Ultimate Task of Thomas Jeffersons Dream and sent its buckshot tearing into Iraq-- tatterdemalion, sanction-wracked-- and the rocks behind were splatter-stained with a crimson decoupage like some chromatic inversion of all that is holy and lawful. I kindly reckon we just shot the shit out of Iraq, Ignatieff said. And Friedman said, Lets move in to get a better look at her. And they tried hailing a cab with an anecdotaholic driver but they couldnt find one because they were stranded in a featureless semantic apocalypse, meaning-raped and apostropheless like some joy-smudged, italicized parody of Cormac McCarthy. And on the crest of the hill they heard Kanan Makiya weeping soundlessly like the very enabler of evil itself."

Coen Brothers, I am ready to ROCK!!!

"People do want leadership, and even when a leader is nonplussed by events, he must still remember to give the people the reassurance they deserve. Part of good judgment consists of knowing when to keep up appearances. . . ."

I think it was at about this point I started weeping quietly. "When will this essay end," I remember thinking, "and what will be left of my dignity? Is there a leader out there, steadfast and un-nonplussed, who can give me the reassurance I deserve?"

"Improvisation may not stave off failure. The game usually ends in tears. . . ."

You know what would have pushed this essay into the realm of literary greatness? If Ignatieff had ended this paragraph with: "The game usually ends in tears-- the tears. . . of a clown." I don't know why, but that would have made me really happy. I guess because I love that song? Do you think there's a chance Ignatieff actually did consider ending with ". . . the tears of a clown," but then deleted it, saying, "They wouldn't understand. . . they're not ready yet"? Let's call the Geek Squad and pay them to steal his hard drive! Then we can "hack it."

"The sign on Truman's desk -- 'The buck stops here!' -- reminds us that those who make good judgments in politics tend to be those who do not shrink from the responsibility of making them. . . ."

Bingo! Our first tautology. You spend enough time in the vague-o-sphere, you're bound to bump into one.

"Politicians have to learn to appear invulnerable without appearing inhuman. Being human, they are bound to revenge insults. But they also have to learn that revenge, as it has been said, is a dish best served cold. . . ."

My eyes. Stinging. Is it tears, or blood? Can't tell-- all the mirrors are cracked. From my screams.

"Nothing is personal in politics, because politics is theater. It is part of the job to pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel. . . . This saving hypocrisy of public life is not available in private life. There we play for keeps. . . ."

I panicked when I read this, because I couldn't figure out where "we play for keeps": In private life, or in public life? I don't care if we play for keeps in public life-- I never leave my house, so I don't have a public life. But if we play for keeps in private life, I'm doomed. Because I spend 90% of my waking hours in private. On the internet. And I don't want that to be "for keeps." Believe me, that must not be "for keeps."

"Good judgment means understanding how to be responsible to those who pay the price of your decisions. . . . Sometimes sacrificing my judgment to (my consituents') is the essence of my job. Provided, of course, that I don't sacrifice my principles. . . ."

Attention, Michael Ignatieff's constituents: HE THINKS YOU'RE DUMB. Also, there's something suspicious about that "Provided, of course. . ." It's only five syllables, but it seems to mask a conga line of condescension. It makes me think Ignatieff assumes his readers are dumb, too. But I'm not dumb-- I predicted the Iraq war would be a disaster. And that means I'm as smart as a bus driver.

"Politicians with good judgment bend the policy to fit the human timber. . . ."

Who was that poet who lived in the woods back in Civil War days? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Walt Whitman? Anyway, I'm sure he talked like this all the time: "I ain't payin' your confounded taxes-- they don't fit my human timber! Because ye didn't bend 'em correctly! By the way, you're standin' on my sasparilla patch! Did they invent electricity yet?"

"Resisting the popular isn't easy, because resisting the popular isn't always wise. . . ."

Michael Ignatieff is the Chuck Klosterman of political science.

"(Bush) had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound. . . . People with good judgment listen to warning bells within. . . ."

Ding-dong! There's my warning bell within! What are you saying, warning bell? Ding-dong! Don't keep reading this essay! Your HMO won't cover the neurological damage! Ding-aling-dong!

"A prudent leader will save democracies from the worst, but prudent leaders will not inspire a democracy to give its best. . . ."
This reminds me of something I had stitched on the back of my denim jacket once: "An eagle with a broken wing may fly high enough to avoid the quicksand, but it cannot soar above possibility's treetops at the dawn of a new day." Boy, did everyone in town hate that denim jacket!
"Daring leaders can be trusted as long as they give some inkling of knowing what it is to fail. They must be men of sorrow acquainted with grief, as the prophet Isaiah says. . . ."
I think it's reaching to call Isiah Thomas a "prophet," though the New York Knicks are definitely "men of sorrow acquainted with grief." Surely Ignatieff doesn't think America would be better off if the New York Knicks were president? How would that even work? Also, he misspelled "Isiah." In conclusion, this part of Ignatieff's essay should have been called "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten-- But It Didn't Actually Sink in Until Thousands and Thousands of Iraqis Went to Heaven."

Now, let's move on to the other part of the essay! Are you still with me? Let's DO THIS! I still have some water in my canteen; I'll share it with you. No, don't be silly, there's plenty of light left-- sunset's at least an hour away. . .

Next is the part of Ignatieff's essay that I initially thought would be the whole essay: The part where Ignatieff admits he made a boo-boo.

"We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong."

"Always and in every situation wrong?" Come on, we all like it when America wins at the Olympics, right? I bet even Ward Churchill had a crush on Mary Lou Retton, back in the day. Good thing they didn't make a baby together, though! Wow! That would have been an intense baby-- unlimited negative energy vs. unlimited positive energy and all that! For real, though: You anti-war people have got to admit, Ignatieff has you nailed. You dumb-asses who were right about everything for the wrong reasons, instead of wrong about everything for the right reasons. You lose.

"The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq's fissured sectarian history. What they didn't do was take wishes for reality. They didn't suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn't suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn't believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes."

Yeah, you're right, they did. Do you know why? Because they're not retarded.

"I made some of these mistakes and then a few of my own. The lesson I draw for the future is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire -- Iraqi exiles, for example -- and to be less swayed by my emotions. . . ."

And here, finally, is where my skull cracked open, my heart combusted, and a murder of crows flew out of my ass. Michael Ignatieff is drawing lessons for the future. Michael Ignatieff has a future in public policy. Sure, it's CANADIAN public policy, so it doesn't really count, but still-- it's like the guy can't be stopped. You know why? Because he's at that level where you literally can't make a big enough mistake to be fired, shunned, or indicted. I'd like to visit that level someday. First thing I'd do is get rip-roarin' drunk and rob a bank using Richard Perle's face as a weapon. (JOKE!)

Then again, I guess it's for the best-- because if people like Michael Ignatieff were ignored, how would we know what to think about the world?

Oh, wait: We could ask the bus drivers.

But now that I think about it, why ask bus drivers when we could ask RACE CAR DRIVERS? Race car drivers are smarter than bus drivers, right? After all, they make more money, are held in higher esteem, and have sexier wives!

RACE CAR DRIVERS ARE #1!

THE END.