How are we supposed to go on and keep trying at anything when there are things in the world that are so much better than anything we will ever be able to do? And how are we supposed to keep going on, with all the terrible things that we do to each other and the sense of loss that comes with trying to make it better?

When we try, we feel not a sense of satisfaction, but of having done too little. Raoul Wallenberg hands out passports to Jews in Budapest and it is 1944 and it is 1945 and maybe he was a spy for the Americans and he dies in a soviet prison and these thousands of Jewish lives were saved and he hid them in buildings rented out, 20 of them, 30 of them, and they had names like ‘the Swedish Library’ and ‘the Swedish Research Institute’ and they all had giant, oversized Swedish flags hanging out front and it was just this open secret, 10, 20, 25 000 jews with Swedish passports living inside these buildings in Budapest until the Soviet army showed up 6 months later.

He climbs on top of a train, and the police are shooting at him and maybe they are trying to miss. They don’t hit him and he hands out dozens, hundreds of passports to their upstretched hands and then the Germans let them out because you don’t shoot the Swedes, because they are neutral and it just doesn’t make any sense. But if you close your eyes you can kind of imagine it happening, like it says here on wikipedia ‘the Germans and the Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.’

And you just kind of realize that you can try all you want to be that good and to make a difference like that and then and then and then.

It’s just not reasonable to be the kind of breathless, sensitive young person who at 14 watches Schindler’s List and then just sits in the kitchen crying  and just kind of chokes through sobbing breaths while his parents stare at him somewhat dumbfounded because maybe you remember that Schindler at the end says ‘I could have done more’ and I, this 14 year old, can’t even talk to them and then my sobbing turns to weeping and I look up at them. It’s awful because I have a hard time even believing it myself, and it’s not that I love who I am now, but I do love who I was then because the whole world was open to him and he could have done anything, he could have ridden a mule across the Andes, become a champion kick boxer, sailed to China and he, I just never thought seriously about anything other than this at the time, says through the tears ‘I should be doing something. I should be doing something and I just don’t know what to do. What if I don’t do enough?’

As if there was some measure. Here is Howard Zinn reminding us that the world is backward, because the wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of it. The United States has almost 3 million people under incarceration, had in 2008 almost 1.5 million adults in prison and 100 000 youth in prison and here’s the other thing – they execute children who’ve probably done terrible things and in many ways they’re not children anymore by the time they get sentenced but the government puts them under sedation and then they give them painkillers and then they put poison into their blood streams and they never wake up. And people say ‘they should have known better’ but that’s just it, they didn’t know better. If they had known better they wouldn’t have done it. And the government poisons these young men and they are broken and we have failed them, even if it’s not your country or mine exactly.

They execute men who grew up sexually abused and burned and ignored and mistreated who have grown up crazy and twisted and dissociated and they do terrible things. But if they are monsters did we make them that way and what’s our duty to them now and if they aren’t monsters then how can we kill them when they are defenceless? And now 62% of Canadians say that they think we should have the death penalty for murder and people think there should be the death penalty for rapists, just for good measure. So in this old video, Michael Ignatieff says in this clinical and detached way that we shouldn’t have the death penalty in Canada because it’s irrevocable like we might make a mistake and how can he be so cold? What makes it so that he can have talked to these people in Iraq and in Kosovo and in Croatia and all he can say is with like, surgical precision as you would say to someone who suggests that maybe the engine needs replacing that ‘well, that seems a pretty rash measure.’ Why can’t he just say with his head tilted that we can’t take it upon ourselves to kill people, to purposefully snuff out their life when they want to live, we can’t do it, because it’s wrong, because it’s wrong, because it’s wrong?

And I know that the answer is the same as the answer to why there are now almost 1 in 100 Americans incarcerated and yet none of them are George Bush or Dick Cheney. Because those of us who engage ourselves in politics just have to accept the political expediency of if you kill 600 000 people in an unnecessary war and hold people without trial and then empower people to torture them, then you get paid $400 a ticket to speak but in California if you shoplift three times you go to jail for life. Thousands and thousands of people are in prison for minor drug-related offences and yes, drugs are horrible for a lot of people, but then how is Tony Blair is a free man?

And you struggle every day with the question ‘what am I supposed to do’ and then you read too much and you watch too many movies and you listen to too much music and you find that you can talk about anything and you can talk at length about the qualities of any of this litany of things. You learn from Bourdieu that taste is a product of class and privilege, and yet you believe that the art, the literature, the music matters – that it is right, that you haven’t just soaked up the preferences of your parents. And yet…

There are these moments in books, where Gatsby’s boat beats on against the current ceaselessly into the past and now, here, in Helen DeWitt, we have this just incredible tour de force, a book that starts strong and almost every page is better and better and reading it makes you want to be better. Because her candidates are not better at, they are simply one after the other better. The hero is the hero by becoming, not by being already.

And next I visit Rod, who’s is really no slouch himself when it comes to just being impressive and prolific and thoughtful, and I am only 90% of the way through her (DeWitt’s) book and – take a breath – it’s called The Last Samurai and I ask Rod ‘what should I read?’ I want to know about the law, I want to understand what it is I am supposed to do and what it has to do with the law and how we can be good and how we can make this place we live better. I am complicit in its shortcomings and we are all complicit in them and we could do so much better than all of this suffering. I am breathless and I am weak. I want to try again. Fail again. Fail better. My question to him is about the law and it is not about the law. It is about practice, what we do, the terrible things that we can do to each other and that we do to each other and the small kindnesses and insights and braveries that can overcome it. I tell him that I have decided to spend some time thinking and I tell him some of the things that I have been thinking about and some of the things that I have been reading. He puts his hands behind his head for a moment and then he chuckles and then he screws up his forehead. He says Hmm and he says this is like a desert island book and he says. I say it’s not like a desert island book, because I have time, and he says before I finish Beethoven’s sonatas. And I say I don’t read music and he says the full collection of Walker Evans and I say I don’t know who that is and he tells me about Walker Evans, who narrated by photograph the death of the American farm. And he says you want something with words. And I say well and he says Paradise Lost and well, I guess I was hoping he would say Kelsen, who could tell me how they pretend the law is supposed to work. Or Bourdieu, who would tell me where the law sits inside everything else. Or some political theorist or legal theorist I hadn’t heard of or some other one that I know about but don’t really know about.

And now I am downloading 33 sonatas on 9 cds and I am looking at Walker Evans and then I finished the Last Samurai and now instead of writing a book about Burma, which is a story that someone else is telling already, I have to write about Job and how we can’t know God’s will and so we can’t presume to know whether anyone deserves what they get, and I have to write about humanitarian intervention because if we are going to demand the impossible then we should demand an impossible that doesn’t require us to drop bombs on people’s heads and I am going to have to write an essay in which I ask and try to answer ‘what makes Dan Deacon work?’ and then I am going to have to spend 33 hours or so trying to listen to Beethoven and I am going to have to read Paradise Lost and I am going to have to try to tie it all together because that’s what being honest about the question ‘what am I supposed to do’ means. It means that I can’t presuppose that any of this stuff doesn’t matter to that question.

I tell Rod about Wallenberg, or that I plan to use Wallenberg in something and he says ‘or who they say he was’. And I say but I don’t want to use Wallenberg, I just want to use what they say about Wallenberg. And he says well, but we should celebrate the story and not the person and I say yes exactly because for me, it is the story that matters, it’s a good story and he says well yes but what if so was Mein Kampf’?

And I think for a tiny second that maybe we need to be sure, that I need to be more sure than just it’s a good story. But then I can’t think of any way to be more sure than that so I say ‘but my story is better’ and he says yes and then he says that’s the right answer.

So I try and commit to writing better stories but I know they’ll never be good enough and it’s almost as if you could die. But you can’t, because, well, then why bother with all that blue and gold?

Swedish Institute for Practical Ethics and Breathlessness and then

proportional rep and a good first step

If democracy works at all, and MMP fails, we can just kick the bums out, and go back to our charming, ineffective, tradition.

The core argument underlying my support for the proportional representation proposal being put to the vote on October 10th – which will, with luck, ‘drag Ontario politics out of the 17th century and into the 21st – is laid out in the Ultra Vires here. Questionable title aside, included here are the sources and further discussion promise in the authornote.

To an accusation of ‘intellectual dishonesty’ received for this criticism of Urqhuart, which now includes a link to the original article, where, I maintain, he relies more on name-calling and misrepresentation than argument:

Besides those like Ian Urquhart who seem to get starry-eyed over the charms of any tradition, no matter how ineffective the institution…

I depend on statements such as these:

The system can lead to permanent minority governments and a proliferation of fringe parties;

which, in the middle a news article (describing the new proposal as “radical”) seems to fall short of reasonable standards of journalism, or argument, for that matter, especially when, as I stated in the piece, the proliferation of minority parliaments under proportional systems is debatable. Perhaps more blame might be laid on the Star’s editorial board than on Mr. Urquhart, who has remained silent on the issue for at least four months, especially since I view Mr. Urquhart’s opinions as generally insightful and well-informed.

To the core of the argument: some might disagree on the nature of democracy itself, but that’s worthy of a much longer article. However, even given support for the idea that debate, deliberation and consideration are as much, if not more important to ‘democracy’ than plurality voting systems unfortunately doesn’t dispose of the advisability of switching systems. Here, repeated, are the two strongest arguments against the October 10th proposal:

First, because the system will use party lists, MPPs may be less accountable to the ‘local constituency associations’ which this coalition somehow believes holds sway now. And because of the (debatably) higher likelihood of minority governments under the new system, they rail against the power that might be held by small parties, while discounting the unrepresentative sway held in the current system by large parties.

The real weakness of the proposal – the difficulty of almost any proportional representation system – is in choosing who gets the seats not allotted by local election. Clearly, opposition to party lists is about more than just accountability. While supporting ‘principled leadership’ over ‘administrative efficiency’, Lorne argues that party lists will only exacerbate the as-yet unquenched tendencies of parties toward corruption, nepotism, and personality-cultism, fed by a power-seeking motive which will only become more lucrative under the new proposal. Instead of inspired voices willing to spark public debate, lists will quickly fill with Machiavellian autocrats and a coterie of clashing sycophants. Underlying a belief in this process is a clearly identifiable incentive: with guaranteed access to at least partial power, politics inside every party will start to become personality-based, with those close to the core winning the spoils: almost-guaranteed seats.

This guy is likewise assured that party lists will toss Ontario head-first into an endless night of the long knives.

Yet with moderate regulation and moderate party discipline, the party list system could inspire the grassroots to seek out principled, eloquent representatives of the issues important to their party, instead of aligning around local level incumbents who are almost impossible to replace. If parties realize the potential of the list system, then conventions could become more like leadership conventions with many winners, instead of half-rigged races where the top dog also gets to choose, according to their personal motives, which contendors come in second, and third and fourth…

Perhaps Lorne’s experience with the Liberal party leads him to see dark days if the proposal wins, where I see real possibility of a passionate, informed public discourse. The NDP, despite attempts from the centre to manipulate results, has been surprsingly democratic of late.

Ultimately, the difference is, I’m willing to take the risk for the sake of democracy, and for the possibility of ending the ‘politics of fear.’


More on Arrow’s Democracy Paradox here, and on deliberative democrats here. An exciting proposal for more democratic politics, tangent to the electoral system proper was proposed in Fiskin and Acherman’s Deliberation Day.

Leadership and Forgiveness

Michael Ignatieff has written a long-awaited mea culpa for his support of the US invasion of Iraq in the New York Time Magazine here.

Mea culpa is an admission of fault, and there is much to be faulted for. The invasion of Iraq stands for two great tragedies. The first is gaunt in its scale, stark in its inhumanity: the 600 000 lives which may have been saved had the war not occurred. The number stands as a humble reminder that piled high enough, snuffed out lives, ruined families, and destroyed homes becomes, in their repetition, only a statistic. Yet there can be no denying that these lives are a sizeable remainder in the arithmetic which ‘good political judgment’ required.

The second tragedy was borne out before the first bomb even fell on Baghdad. It is the tragedy of hopelessness against the very logic of force and arrogance. Contra the realists, from Morgenthau to Kissinger, the logic of brutality and greed are not the sole shape that relations between states can take. The invasion of Iraq confirmed a view of a world where disputes are settled with violence, where power decides against argument. In short, it represented the victory of unilateralism over something more democratic. Increases in terrorism and fundamentalism since the invasion are only a corollary to that logic.

Ignatieff has no compunction about the logic of force. In a stunning display in the NYT of his turn from soft liberalism to stark neoconservatism, American Empire (Get Used to It)[1], he had this to say on the invasion of Iraq:

“The choice is one between two evils, between containing and leaving a tyrant in place and the targeted use of force, which will kill people but free a nation from the tyrant’s grip.”

Such a statement discounts not only the lives lost, but the alternatives hidden between unchallenged tyranny and unilateral force.

Getting Iraq Wrong revisits the hubris supported so vehemently in the 2003 piece, but lacks the thrilled tone Ignatieff had for American resolve in January of 2003. The tone is softened with good reason. In the four and a half years since Ignatieff came out swinging, he has entered political life in Canada, only to see his leadership hopes haunted by the ghosts of his position on Iraq invasion. Some believe that the so-called admission of wrong-doing in the NYT may yet provide him with the clean slate needed to present himself in case an embattled Stéphane Dion cannot find firm footing in time for the next election, and is forced to resign.

Is he really cleaning slate? Here is what Ignatieff says he has learned from the transition to political life.

“An intellectual’s responsiblity 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.”

Which is an attempt to cleave the intellectual from the political and vice versa; a bit of parlour magic he would certainly like to perform on his own public life. Yet drawing such a divide seems disingenuous, and more, dangerous. During the Vietnam War, Kissinger counseled a policy of unremitting violence according to a logic of force he believed to be true; yet he also promoted a result in Vietnam, and Cambodia, that followed that logic. Ignatieff also promoted such a result.

Ignatieff was no ivory tower academic, no pince-nez prognosticator, before he entered political life. He was then, as he is now, a public figure. His opinion in January of 2003 was not only ‘theory’, tossed haphazardly into the intellectual fray to be debated further, but counsel to the people of a country already on the cusp of invasion, to march to the drum of war already beating from the White House.

Again, that march to war was not inevitable. Ignatieff knew he was providing counsel, which is why he then relied on the threat of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to bolster his claims, and now claims that it was only his own ‘self-justifying’ emotions, inspired by ire over what Hussein had done to Kurds, that truly spurred him to his decision. He knew his position, his words would contribute to the final decision to invade.

As a mea culpa, then, the piece falls short: errors may be intellectual but wrongs have consequences. Admitting one has been wrong is not the same as admitting one has done wrong. And dividing so starkly the public role of the intellectual from the public role of a politician means that Ignatieff dismisses the damage that he did while claiming that others – with charmed lives – helped him learn a lesson, without admitting that the lesson was learned at a cost he too must bear: 600 000 lives, and a world slightly more beholden to the power of the most expensive army.

Ignatieff suggests that having been given more power, he can now be trusted to make wiser decisions. The implication is that, given the leadership of the country, he can’t possibly get it wrong. What he has not done is what would take true resolve: seek forgiveness.

Continue reading Leadership and Forgiveness