The Flame of Power

For Plato, the ideal city-state was one in which ‘philosopher-kings’ would take charge; ‘Unless philosophers bear kingly rule in cities,’ he has Socrates say in The Republic, ‘there will be no respite from evil.’ In reality, however, the history of intellectuals in power has not been a happy one; indeed, it seems that theoretical acumen and practical ability are often at odds. Neither Alexis de Tocqueville nor John Stuart Mill was particularly effective in political life, while Edmund Burke endured barbs from contemporaries for neglecting his inkwell for Westminster. As for Max Weber: the great sociologist failed even to gain nomination as a candidate for the German Democratic Party in 1919.

One figure to have bucked this trend was the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and it is in his footsteps that the author, broadcaster and academic Michael Ignatieff hoped to follow when he entered the Canadian parliament, with one eye on the Prime Ministership, in 2006. But while Trudeau, a dashing law professor who seemed to have charisma to burn, was able to turn his intellectualism to his advantage, Ignatieff’s adventures in the world of ideas were regarded as evidence of his unworldliness. That these adventures tended to take place in the US only made the situation worse. ‘Iggy’ was painted as a dilettante, a Harvard snob and a Johnny-come-lately. The result was that, over the course of five years, Ignatieff’s dreams of the top job evaporated. Denounced as a carpetbagger, Iggy flopped.

Bearing on its cover the image of a biplane twisting, nose first, back to earth, Fire and Ashes tells the story of those five years and attempts to retrieve some theoretical working parts from the wreckage of the author’s experience. Having pursued ‘the flame of power’ and seen his ambitions ‘dwindle to ashes’, Ignatieff wants to inspire the young to take up the political challenge, but to do so with their eyes wide open to the numerous comprises and inevitable reversals that afflict the tyro parliamentarian. As he puts it: ‘The ashes of my experience, I hope, will be dug into somebody’s garden.’

The book opens in 2005, at the beginning of the end of a lengthy period of Liberal Party dominance. In that year, Ignatieff, a Liberal supporter, was visited by the ‘men in black’ – Party strategists on the hunt for a fresh leader who could take the fight to the resurgent Conservatives. Flattered, and not a little baffled, Ignatieff decided to stand as an MP in the election of 2006, and despite opposition from some in the Party who regarded his writings on humanitarian intervention as an apology for US imperialism, was elected as the MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Nationally, however, the centre-left Liberals lost power to the right-of-centre Conservatives; Stephen Harper was sworn in as the new Prime Minister, and the Liberals’ years in the wilderness began.

It was during the fallout from the 2006 defeat that Ignatieff announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Putting the case for an activist state – his version of Trudeau’s ‘just society’ – he attempted to raise the tone of the debate, and to deepen the conversation about policy, but realised quickly that intellectual subtlety is best put aside in the pursuit of power. Tellingly, it was in his area of expertise – foreign policy – that his political failings were most obvious; a ‘critical friend of Israel’ is a perfectly sensible thing to be, but in the course of the Israel-Lebanon war it came across as dithering. At any rate, his campaign went into freefall, and it was not until 2009, in the wake of yet another electoral defeat, that he finally landed the leadership spot. Unfortunately for him, that’s all he landed. Harper won victory in 2011 and remains the Canadian PM to this day.

Throughout Fire and Ashes Ignatieff combines a chronological account of his experience with a more in-depth analysis of some key features of political life, and there is much to be said for the skilful way he weaves these two components together. Impressive as the performance is, however, parts of his analysis struck me as superficial. Of course, one takes his central point that politicians can’t ‘take refuge in moral purity’. But to say that in politics there is ‘no such thing as good or bad faith’ is easy cynicism. Nor do I expect to hear from a writer (and thinker) of Ignatieff’s calibre that ‘reading the room’ successfully can put the audience in the ‘palm of your hand’, if only because it’s the kind of cliché I can find in any political memoir.

If in attempting to give the world of politics its due, Ignatieff comes across as insufficiently critical, the same can certainly not be said of Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, authors of Why We Argue (And How We Should). For while they, too, seek to affirm democracy, they believe that there is significant scope for improvement. In particular, they think that a grounding in logic has the potential to engender a healthier polity – one less susceptible to ‘group polarisation’. ‘Democracy’, they write, ‘is collective self-government by means of public argument among equal citizens.’ As such, it brings with it ‘a duty of citizenship, specifically, a duty to try to argue well’.

For Aikin and Talisse good argument is grounded in what they call ‘dialectical logic’; ‘an argument is an attempt to put a disagreement to rest by showing those with whom you disagree that they should be compelled by reasons to adopt your belief’. The key words here are ‘compelled by reasons’. It is not enough to take a position, to accept a particular proposition as true; ‘we aim to believe in such a way that enables us to see the truth of our beliefs’. Accordingly, we should argue, or aim to argue, in a way that convinces others of our reasons; in short, we should respond rationally to disagreements.

The greater part of Why We Argue is given over to a ‘systematic conception of the ways in which proper argument is mimicked’. To this end, we are given a range of fallacies, the effect of which is to lead us away from the proper role and practice of argument. These include the Simple Truth argument, where a view is presented as obviously true; Pushover arguments, where views are presented in a way that makes them indefensible; and the argument from Hypocrisy, where a view is deemed invalid or illogical because the person who holds it has done or said something with which it would seem to be inconsistent. There is also a chapter on argument online, in which the authors consider argumentative phenomena peculiar to the Internet. No doubt many readers will recognise the semi-satirical Godwin’s law, which states that ‘as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1’.

This is a clear and lucid book, and if its authors tend at times to talk as if naked demagoguery, deception and wilful blindness to the facts are incidental to politics, as opposed to part of its DNA, this is only because they are putting forward an ideal version of democracy in which we all have the potential to become philosophers. Taken in that spirit, Why We Argue is a fascinating contribution to an important field.

Michael Ignatieff
Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
Harvard University Press; U$24.95; 205pp

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement
Routledge; $34.95; 151pp


First published in The Australian.