Ignatieff’s Bad Judgment

In yesterday’s New York Times magazine, Michael Ignatieff, the professor-turned-politician, almost acknowledges that he made a terrible mistaking in supporting the U.S. invasion into Iraq. Recall that Ignatieff was one of the leading liberal intellectuals who bolstered the Bush administration’s case for war. Along with the liberal journalist Christopher Hitchens, he helped lend a veneer of legitimacy to the U.S. invasion. If liberals supported the war, then what’s the problem, the right all but said.

Well now the massiveness of the problem is something even conservatives have a hard time denying. And now that he is a member of the Canadian parliament and the leader of the liberal party, Ignatieff says he sees things differently from before. The difference, he says, is between being in a position of making political judgments and being in the academy making academic judgments. “In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with,” Ignatieff writes. “In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources.”

Who listens to an academic from Harvard, anyway, he feigns? Who? How about the Bush administration as it tries to grab legitimacy wherever it can find it? Ignatieff’s collosal mistake is in thinking that what an academic thinks and writes is of little or no consequence. But as the poet Adrienne Rich wrote in her poem, “North American Time,” we are responsible for everything we write: “These are the terms, / take them or leave them. / Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history.” And neither do the writings of an academic from the Kennedy School.

Despite the essay’s title — “Getting Iraq Wrong: what the war has taught me about political judgment” — Ignatieff never admits he was wrong, much less does he apologize. He seems to simply regret that now that he is a politician he has to be accountable. And he denies that he did anything wrong as a professor or that he has any responsibility for the political consequences of his academic writing. Strangely, he doesn’t seem to see that there are indeed political consequences for what we academics say in our writings. “In private life, we pay the price of our own mistakes,” Ignatieff writes. “In public life, a politician’s mistakes are first paid by others.” Oh, for the days, Ignatieff seems to long, when one could write without consequence. Forget such dreams, Adrienne Rich implores:

We move but our words stand

become responsible

for more than we intended

Whether we speak and write in the private realm or the public realm is inconsequential. What is of massive consequence is the quality of the judgments we make in a world with others on matters of common concern. For that we are all responsible.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Stephane Dion is is leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, not Michael Ignatieff. Mr. Ignatieff is deputy leader.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: