Historians will not be kind to Michael Ignatieff. They will point to the collapse of the Liberal Party under his leadership -- although, in truth, it was a long time coming. He happened to be there at the fall. But, in the wake of John Baird's address to the United Nations last week, his review of Alan Wolfe's book, Political Evil, deserves careful consideration.
Modern conservatives like to think that, when it comes to international affairs, they stand for moral clarity. Certainly Baird likes to think that's what he stands for. But, Ignatieff writes,
We are indiscriminate in our use of the language of evil, Wolfe argues, because we like what the language does to our own moral standing. It makes us self-righteous. To call others wicked is to give us a moral privilege we may not deserve and a moral permission we are likely to misuse. The language of good and evil only seems to create moral clarity: It actually creates moral entitlement.
That sense of moral privilege was behind the Conservatives' attempt to shut down Insite -- which the Supreme Court, in a narrowly constructed ruling, rejected yesterday. In fact, the Harper government's whole tough on crime agenda is motivated by a sense of moral privilege.
And the Harperites bring that same sense of moral privilege to foreign policy. Their uncritical support of Israel comes from the same place. But, Ignatieff points out:
We need to set aside moral frames of good and evil that assign our politics - and our military - tasks they cannot accomplish; we need to stop seeing international politics as a morality play in which our role is to back innocence and victimhood against malignity and viciousness; we need to counter the politics of violence with a politics that drains evildoers of support and drives them to the margins. We need the inner discipline and self-knowledge to refuse the temptations of believing that we are always on the side of the angels.
The central flaw of the present government -- and one suspects that it goes back to the Prime Minister himself -- is the conviction that it is always on the side of the angels. When one is certain that the Gates of Heaven will open upon one's arrival, one needs not admit imperfection.
Truth disappears for those who believe they possess moral clarity.