Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Smart People, Dumb Choices

As an antidote to Bush fatuity, we now have the thinking man’s explanation for supporting the war and getting it totally wrong.

A former Harvard professor now a member of the Canadian parliament, Michael Ignatieff writes in the New York Times Magazine today:

“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...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...

“I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds...I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror? I should have known that emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self-justifying...”

Ignatieff is more than a bit glib, but shrewd on the differences between academics and politicians: “Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.”

But Ignatieff is too easy on himself. Going back to David Halberstam’s dissection of the intellectuals who misled JFK into Vietnam, the ironically titled “The Best and the Brightest,” it has become fashionable to dismiss thinking in favor of instinct in matters of war and peace, life and death. We need both, and we need them in people who admit human fallibility and still have the courage to make the best decisions they can.

Informed emotion may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s our best hope.

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