The Globe and Mail Needs To Apologize For Its Utterly Moronic Stupidity
Nevermind that there's nothing in the NYT essay that I can find that refers to torture at all; To even suggest that Ignatieff has ever defended torture, publicly or privately, is a sure sign of slobbering idiocy at work, but also of a specific kind of slobbering idiocy. It's not just a mistake, or a lie, or a libel. It's more interesting than that.
I confess to having long held a morbid fascination with the reasons why some people feel compelled to tell lies about Michael Ignatieff, but for my purposes here, what's especially illuminating about the content and function of the 'Ignatieff supports torture' myth is the way it entered popular circulation.
You have to begin with what can be best understood as a broad rather than specific libel against 'muscular' liberals, to the effect that their persistent articulation of universal principles has somehow helped provide intellectual justifications to which various shadowy Ziocons will handily resort as they go about the business of torturing and maiming people in the course of their shadowy, violent and imperialistic mischief.
If I'm not mistaken, the first Canadian articulation of this libel that specifically ensnared Ignatieff was set off by the Canadian philosophy professor Michael Neumann, an embarrassment to Trent University and a contributor to the American lunatic fringe publication Counterpunch. To be fair, while some people appear to believe the Ignatieff "supports torture" lie simply because some idiot said so or because they are intellectually incapable of grasping even the simplest forms of nuance, this is not a thing you can say about Neumann, who will happily point out the nuanced distinction between good and bad antisemitism: "Some of this hatred is racist, some isn't, but who cares?"
Anyway. In the evolution of the libel against 'muscular liberals' and Ignatieff 's inclusion in it, an important event occurred in February, 2005 when the human-rights professor Conor Gearty wrote an essay in Index on Censorship that singled out Ignatieff as an important figure within a caste of well-meaning liberal intellectuals who had handed famous American warmonger-plunderer and all-round cad Donald Rumsfeld "the intellectual tools" necessary to justify Yankee imperialism, even to the point of torturing people along the way. While Gearty was not so stupid and insulting as to suggest that Ignatieff in any way supported torture, Ignatieff was furious, and resigned from the editorial board of Index on Censorship. An amusing reconstruction of the whole rumpus can be found in Laurie Taylor's excellent essay in the New Humanist.
But how did we get to the point that the 'Ignatieff defends torture' myth not only ended up in public circulation in Canada but even gets reported, as fact, in Canada's venerable Globe and Mail? Perhaps it's at least partly because Ignatieff is a politician now, so some people see no particular shame in lying about him. But something else is at work, and here again, what's especially illuminating is the way that lie gets told.
When something approaching "evidence" is presented, it consists of a single out-of-context citation from either Ignatieff's 2004 book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, or more usually (in this Age of The Interwebs) a citation of a single sentence from a synthesis of a single chapter in that book that Ignatieff wrote for the New York Times in 2004. Watch how easy it is to turn an argument against torture into what can be handily misrepresented as an argument defending torture, just by reciting a single sentence out of its proper context:
Ignatieff: "Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress."
Nevermind that even out of context, that sentence does not provide anything approaching evidence for the support of torture, and depends on the reader's knowledge that jurists have long recognized the important distinction between 'permissable duress' and torture. Here's that same sentence in its context:
"An outright ban on torture, rather than an attempt to regulate it, seems the only way a democracy can keep true to its ideal of respecting the dignity even of its enemies. For that is what the rule of law commits us to: to show respect even to those who show no respect for us.
"To keep faith with this commitment, we need a presidential order or Congressional legislation that defines exactly what constitutes acceptable degrees of coercive interrogation. Here we are deep into lesser-evil territory. Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress. What crosses the line into the impermissible would be any physical coercion or abuse, any involuntary use of drugs or serums, any withholding of necessary medicines or basic food, water and essential rest.
And so on.
Meanwhile, in April, 2006, in an expansive essay arguing against the resort to torture even in the fabled "ticking bomb" scanarios, Ignatieff writes: Those of us who oppose torture under any circumstances should admit that ours is an unpopular policy that may make us more vulnerable to terrorism.
To be clearer, Ignatieff wrote: "For torture, when committed by a state, expresses the state's ultimate view that human beings are expendable. This view is antithetical to the spirit of any constitutional society whose raison d'etre is the control of violence and coercion in the name of human dignity and freedom. We should have faith in this constitutional identity. It is all that we have to resist the temptations of nihilism…"
Clear enough for you? Not for the Globe and Mail, obviously.