by Kieran Healy on August 8, 2007

All this harshing on Michael Ignatieff for his ponderous, air-filled essay on Iraq reminded me of a characterization of him I’d read a few years ago. I couldn’t remember the source, only the phrase. But Google remembers:

bq. The staff of BBC2’s late Late Show used to have a little joke about one of its presenters, Michael Ignatieff. Everyone knows what an idiot savant is: someone who appears to be an idiot but in fact is a wise man. Well, Ignatieff was a savant idiot.

Yes, I know that’s not really what an idiot savant is, but you get the point.

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Prolegomena » Iggy pop?
08.09.07 at 9:08 am



Grand Moff Texan 08.08.07 at 9:30 pm

The best being this one, which is linked to in two of your cites, but not so far as I can tell directly on this blog.

It’s the best thing I’ve read on a blog in plural years.


Michael Bérubé 08.08.07 at 9:39 pm

I was just reading (for book-writin’ purposes and general edification) Joel Pfister’s new book Critique for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies, and there I found the following gem: in the thirtieth-anniversary issue of Marxism Today in 1987 (the journal in which Stuart Hall published some of his most scathing critiques of Thatcherism and the political failures of the orthodox left, all of which I’ll be happy to remind you of in my own book whenever it’s done), Michael Ignatieff shows up to write, “MT to me is like an extremely bright, cheerful little rodent, with bright-rimmed glasses and bow tie, leaping off a sinking ship.” Funny stuff, that, from twenty years ago. One wonders whether now is the time to ask Ignatieff if it is he for whom the ship now sinks. Oh, and whether he’s taken to wearing bright-rimmed glasses and a bow tie.


Matt 08.08.07 at 11:00 pm

I thought the article was pretty bad, as I’d noted in the comments to the CT post on it. And I think that Ignatieff has generally earned his reputation among political philosophers as something of a light-weight. But he’s not all bad- his book on Human Rights, while far from perfect, is in general pretty good and has some points usually missed by those writing in the area. It’s worth looking at. (As someone else pointed out, it’s hard to see how that book fit very well with his support for the Iraq war, though.)


roy belmont 08.08.07 at 11:37 pm

Cheers for your profound generosity in granting Ignatieff face-value on his various pronouncings.
In that kinder gentler imbued world he becomes merely off, incompetent, mistaken. Nothing deeper weirder or any more complex than being essentially wrong about something that has had disastrous consequences. An error in strategy although with well-intentioned goals.
The basic idea I guess is Ignatieff wanted to jack-up Iraq and force democracy on their simple asses. That not having happened, he must have been wrong. Sadly. Or a lying sack of shit. Not so sadly.


clyde mnestra 08.09.07 at 12:57 am

An interesting range of commentary.

Ignatieff’s: completely unconvincing.

Yglesias and Farrell: substantive, persuasive criticisms.

Links to Rees: very funny, almost totally non-substantive, but funny. Medium Lobster returns.

This one: ad hearsayinem.


engels 08.09.07 at 2:34 am

This point has been made elsewhere (sorry, I’m not sure who said it first) but to me the most irritating parts of Ignatieff’s essay are passages like the following, which show no sign that he has succeeded in reining in the arrogance and closed-mindedness which may have led him into his original error.

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.

Translation (following Atrios):

“Okay, so I got it wrong; but how on Earth could I have realised, when the only people to point it out to me were a bunch of dirty fucking hippies, who must never be listened to?”


roger 08.09.07 at 3:03 am

It is an old story with the Beinarts and the Ignatieffs. Innocents in the casbah, suddenly Iraqi exile types come creeping up, looking all humble but unctuously rubbing their hands, and whispering sweet nothings in their ears. How was anyone going to resist that! Years later, though, both – I think we are all relieved to see – are able to look back and see that the whole thing was due to their humanitarian feelings and big hearts.

I do feel a tad bit of sympathy for those serpentine Iraqi exiles. Still and all, the U.S. is truly spot on for standing foursquare against allowing any more of them in, or giving any money to the countries that do let them in. That will show them! You can’t take advantage of Bwanas in the Ethics bazaar, and I think we can wash our hands – good heavens – of those swarthy pagans now, and once more return to TNR and Ignatieff for heavenly foreign policy advice. I believe we’ve just heard a simply wonderful idea, coming from an ethics expert and foreign policy Bwana in his own right, Ivo Daalder, who splendidly wants to invade more countries – this will cheer up the Decents! – and kill more colored savages under a delightful and very tasteful Nations of Democracy seal of approval. Hear hear I say.


Alan de Bristol 08.09.07 at 3:47 am

This one: ad hearsayinem.

Maybe, but the reason I ignored what Ignatieff said before the Iraq war, and would never actually bother to read any op-ed of his, was because of his underwhelming contribution to any of the BBC gabfests he used to infest in the 80s.

If you didn’t see him in action in these, you wouldn’t know how very plausible this piece of hearsay is.


Michael Bérubé 08.09.07 at 3:49 am

I hear you, Roger, and on Iraq and Afghanistan I completely agree with you. I have only one friendly amendment. When you say “Iraqi exiles” — here and in another thread — you clearly mean Chalabi. Whereas when the liberal hawks like Berman, Ignatieff, and Packer say “Iraqi exiles,” they clearly mean Kanan Makiya. (Tara McKelvey’s update on him, which you’ve probably read, is here). It’s almost as if, for the Hawks, there were only two Iraqi exiles in the world: Chalabi, whom they mistrusted (hell, even Bush didn’t want to install him as the puppet), and Makiya, whom they revered. You picks your exile and you takes your chances.

But cheerio to the good old U.S. of A. for refusing to take in the other exiles, the ones who will never be profiled in TNR.


Rebecca MacKinnon 08.09.07 at 4:07 am

I heard Ignatieff give a talk at Harvard in 2004. Everybody was kissing his ass. I thought he made no sense whatsoever and said so to the people around me, who acted like I was retarded.


JP Stormcrow 08.09.07 at 4:35 am

It’s almost as if, for the Hawks, there were only two Iraqi exiles in the world

What? No love for Curveball?


dsquared 08.09.07 at 8:28 am

Whereas when the liberal hawks like Berman, Ignatieff, and Packer say “Iraqi exiles,” they clearly mean Kanan Makiya. (Tara McKelvey’s update on him, which you’ve probably read, is here). It’s almost as if, for the Hawks, there were only two Iraqi exiles in the world: Chalabi, whom they mistrusted (hell, even Bush didn’t want to install him as the puppet), and Makiya, whom they revered

note that this is revisionist history – at the time, plenty of times and in writing, Chalabi was right at the side of Makiya, and if anything deserving of more praise because he actually went back to Iraq. Since no charges were ever brought against Chalabi on charges of being a traitor or Iranian intelligence asset (let alone proven), I personally think it’s rather disgraceful the way they’ve dumped him.


jay bee 08.09.07 at 10:12 am

“Savant Idiot” previously “The wisest fool in Christendom”?


ed 08.09.07 at 11:44 am

Didn’t Ignatieff become a politician?


JP Stormcrow 08.09.07 at 12:43 pm

“Savant Idiot” previously “The wisest fool in Christendom”?

The Economist apparently had a competition for “wisest fool” of the past 50 years in 2004/05. The results are here in the 1/29/05 issue, but behind a subscriber firewall, perhaps someone with access can inform of us the winner(s). Surely a fair use.


Jon 08.09.07 at 2:22 pm

That’s right – if you don’t like what somebody says, don’t explain why he’s wrong, attack him personally.

If a student said we shouldn’t care what Socrates or Einstein said and wrote because they were assholes, would you accept that? After all, there’s evidence Socrates WAS an asshole to many.

How about actually addressing what people write instead of personally attacking them?


djw 08.09.07 at 2:44 pm

Henry already took care of that. Division of Labor.


bi 08.09.07 at 2:57 pm

Jeez, post-war Iraq is such a train wreck, and Jon still thinks someone needs to explain how Ignatieff’s wrong?

And do I need to explain again what’s wrong with _that_? …


Michael Bérubé 08.09.07 at 4:57 pm

Now that you mention it, actually, Socrates was a huge asshole. I’m starting to think Western philosophy took a wrong turn right there.

And no, JP. No love for Curveball.


roger 08.09.07 at 5:01 pm

Michael, I was also thinking of the mea culpa column by Peter Beinart which begins so cutely and sweetly with his wifey-poo asking him how he could have supported the war – oh, the domestic details, they are just like dagwood and blondie, and they make us realize what an adorable, young, upper middle class and never-to-volunteer-for- military-service family we have here – and he has to sadly admit that he’d listened to Makiya and, being mr. heart of gold himself, had been seduced out of his usual tough guy stance. Rather like Jack Nicholson in that Schmitt picture, writing to the little African child he sent money to. Beinart ended the column with an insouciant flourish – so cute! – by wondering what that Makiya character was up to, nowadays? Hadn’t seen him for years. By the end of that column you knew exactly why a guy like Beinart is hot property in punditland, but you also knew – with a heavy heart – that the real damage wrought by the war was to Peter Beinart. How he has suffered! I’d compare his suffering to that of Mel Gibson as Christ, except of course Beinart’s suffering is less tacky – it isn’t like he lost his job or anything. That would be too vulgar! Luckily, he could always gaze upon his picture of Harry Truman for strength and inspiration as he dreams of other, better interventions to get back in the game.


Ginger Yellow 08.09.07 at 10:41 pm

Speaking of Blondie, check out yesterday’s Comics Curmudgeon for one of the filthiest strips in living memory.


Jon 08.10.07 at 4:35 am

Jon still thinks someone needs to explain how Ignatieff’s wrong?

Well, call me an idealistic leftie lib, but I don’t like it when people trade unfunny insults about people they consider unfashionable. Isn’t it bad form?

Nor do I like it when people try to deligitimize points of view from even being considered. Those of you who teach, what’s your opinion of those whose reaction to you is no more thoughtful than a meow?

If you must talk about him, is it so hard to actually talk about what he has to say? Sorry, I guess that’s too hard.

Oh, but, no, making you think how a war supporter feels about Iraq, NO! Call the International Criminal Court, it’s a war crime!! RUN! EXTERMINATE!!


bi 08.10.07 at 7:10 am

Jon, your words were _so_ thoughtful, it shows so clearly what a bleeding-heart “leftie lib” you _really_ are. and it _actually_ addressed what the Iraq war critics actually said, and it so _brilliantly_ defends Ignatieff’s _actual_ arguments.

And just to add, the big honking all-caps and repeated exclamation marks are such _stunning_ hallmarks of Civility, Substance, and Good Form.

…now, if Ignatieff was a savant idiot, Jon is merely an idiotic idiot.


bi 08.10.07 at 7:15 am

And again, where was the post-war plan? Anyone could see early on that there simply wasn’t one.


jcasey 08.10.07 at 10:01 pm

If I’m not mistaken, there have been several posts here about Ignatieff’s arguments. Go look at those. If not those, then you can read these two:




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