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“Que sais-je? What do I know?”

by Archives September 28, 2005

“Most Journalists worth their salt are too shrewd to allow themselves to be called an intellectual,” said Michael Ignatieff, renowned Canadian journalist, Harvard professor and yes, intellectual.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at Concordia’s Loyola campus last Friday about the role of journalists as public intellectuals, Ignatieff said he was uncomfortable with the title, and that like George Orwell he’d prefer to be called a writer because “intellectual” claims too much authority. “Who appointed you?” he asked rhetorically. “Show me your badge!”

Ignatieff said that while intellectuals derive their authority from their own grand visions and narratives, a journalist derives authority from actually being there. Like Edward R. Murrow in wartime London or Peter Jennings at the Munich Olympics, we listen to journalists because they’re actually on the scene as events unfold.

And Ignatieff has been on the scene of some sobering events. While in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s during the Bosnian crisis, he remembers driving down the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, stopping to visit Serb villages that had been emptied of Serbs and Croat villages cleared of Croats. He remembers that even the people there had no idea why ethnic cleansing was happening.

“The thing that turns someone into an intellectual is bafflement,” he said, describing it as the need to find some rational explanation for why things happen.

Watching the situation in Yugoslavia degenerate while the world stood by helplessly had a profound effect on Ignatieff, and it influenced his position on the Kosovo crisis that came later.

“I was an interventionist, but only after sitting on my hands in 1992-93 while 250,000 Bosnians were slaughtered,” he said. It was the intervention issue that changed him from a reporter into a public advocate for intervention to prevent human rights abuses.

And with the Iraq campaign, this view met its hour of truth.

Ignatieff said that he’d spent time in Iraq as well, listening to Shia in the south describe Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression of their communities after the first Gulf War, and to Kurdish survivors of the poison gas attacks that wiped out entire villages in Northern Iraq. He saw the situation as a clear case of massive human rights abuses justifying intervention to save lives.

While Ignatieff didn’t believe that the Bush administration were the ideal people to intervene with the purest of motives, he nonetheless expected them to be “ruthless and competent” in executing the mission, and he believes that they weren’t. He also expected them to have a post-war plan for Iraq, and he said they failed in that regard as well. While he stopped short of calling the Iraq campaign a mistake, it was clear that the intervention he helped promote on humanitarian grounds had become a chastening example of the limits of his own knowledge.

He said the postwar situation in Iraq taught him a valuable lesson about the risks of personal involvement in an issue.

“You do have to be there to have any authority, but you have to be careful about how being there affects your judgment.”

Ignatieff ended the lecture by reminding those in the audience, most of whom were involved in journalism in one way or another, to keep one question in mind to avoid saying things they’ll live to regret. “Que sais-je? What do I know?”

He then fielded questions from the audience. Asked about the ongoing CBC labor dispute, Ignatieff emphasized the importance of the institution. “If we lose it, we’ll lose much more than just a broadcaster. We’ll lose one of the things that binds this country together.”

As for Canada’s involvement in interventions around the world, he cautioned that while he wasn’t endorsing the idea of joining the coalition in Iraq, he believed in what Canada was doing in Afghanistan. “Canadian troops should be on the front lines in Kandahar.”

When asked whether he thought a group of middle-power countries could form a coalition as an alternative to American intervention, he lamented the fact that Britain is the only other Western democracy that can project force around the world. Ignatieff said he wished Canada hadn’t cut its military for three decades because it prevents us from playing a larger role in worthwhile missions.

“What I don’t like is the bad faith of middle powers bitching about the Americans but then not stumping up [to invest money and troops in their own militaries.]”

Ignatieff said the recent scandals that have rocked journalism in the U.S. are very harmful to the whole medium. “When some guy makes up his quotes, or thinks that journalism means being some kind of hired assassin, it kills the profession.”

He also recommended Canada employ a tactful approach to the missile shield debate, which involves putting U.S. antimissile batteries on Canadian soil. “We have to say no to the Americans, but in a way that we remain serious partners in defense issues for the long term.”

Ignatieff was also disappointed with the practice of “parachute journalism,” where ignorant reporters are thrown into situations they don’t understand. “It does dumb us all down, because they take their dumbness and transmit it.”

“This is the best-educated Canadian population in the country’s history,” he added. “We ought to have journalism that is up to their level.”

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