Wednesday Book Club: The Rights Revolution

Wednesday, 7 January 2009 — 11:46pm | Book Club, Canadiana, Literature

This week’s selection: The Rights Revolution (2000) by Michael Ignatieff.

In brief: The text of Ignatieff’s appearance in CBC Radio’s Massey Lectures series makes for an effective plainspoken introduction to the complex balance of rights in modern liberal democracies. What remains to be seen is whether the positive vision of Canadian-style governance, founded on civic notions of identity rather than ethnic ones, has a realistic chance of spreading to the societies that need it most.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Rights Revolution, keep reading below.)

Before I get started: yes, I’m aware this post comes a few days behind schedule and that if I keep this up, I’m going to have to drop the “Wednesday” from the Book Club. Rest assured that the weekly reading project will continue in 2009 for as long as I can sustain it, though it is not immune to interruption.

The Rights Revolution is a series of five radio lectures edited into book form, delivered in 2000 when Michael Ignatieff was a Harvard professor (with all the pre-9/11 optimism that entails). As is characteristic of the Massey Lectures, it is unambiguously directed at the general Canadian public; much of what Ignatieff discusses should not be news to anybody with a college-level understanding of political theory, though here it is condensed into a refreshingly lucid and jargon-free package. Here’s a sample of the questions he tackles:

  • In a democratic society, where does the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority end, and the tyranny of the minority begin?
  • If rights are universal to all human beings, how do we square that with the recognition of human uniqueness?
  • How do we balance the individual right to dissent from a group with the necessity of collective rights to protect groups of individuals?
  • Is the increasing legal deference to individual rights leading to the poisoning and dissolution of stable social structures like the family?
  • Does the recognition of rights claims present a threat to national unity, or a boon?

While I remain committed to the political neutrality of this journal—this is a literary review, you see, and it has always been my opinion that books and ideas invariably outlast governments—it would be disingenuous to brush aside the reality that Michael Ignatieff is currently in a position to potentially become our next Prime Minister, a fact that presently colours any reading of anything he has ever written. Indeed, if you really want to get a measure of a politician, it is always advisable to look at what he produced prior to the opening of his political aspirations and the accompanying campaign doublespeak.

All the same, The Rights Revolution has been on my reading list since before Ignatieff entered politics, and my intention in reading it was never to gauge him as a statesman. So all I will say on the matter is this: regardless of what you think of Ignatieff or the party he leads, don’t swallow the line that his opponents on all wings will inevitably trot out about his inexperience as a Canadian resident. He knows this country and he knows it well.

Indeed, the first real surprise to come out of the book is Ignatieff’s elucidation of how Canada looks from the outside: as a unique hotbed of what he calls “rights talk” and a leading exporter of rights-based discourse to the rest of the modern world. Our insecurity as a country often compels us to receive any talk of Canadian global leadership with a healthy scepticism—deep inside, we can’t help but feel that this is just a young whippersnapper of a patchwork state, and that we all live in the sticks—but Ignatieff has a point: the legal, institutional recognition of competing rights claims in this country is exceptional in its degree.

When Ignatieff speaks of Canada as a progressive country (as he does repeatedly), one gets the sense that he does so not to exclude conservatives as un-Canadian, but to recognize that whatever our opinions are on the legitimacy of certain rights versus others, or the role of the state in protecting them, what is common to all Canadians is our habit of speaking in terms of rights at all. Political culture isn’t an ideological monolith, but a discursive one.

This encouraging appraisal of national identity—based on the nature of Canadian citizenship rather than any shared essential traits—recurs throughout The Rights Revolution, making the strongest impression in the final chapter, which evaluates how “rights talk” fits into the context of national unity. Here, one sees the seeds of Ignatieff’s involvement in the Harper government’s recognition of the Québécois as a nation. Ignatieff envisions the rights-based state, which Canada has already become, as a successor to the very concept of the nation-state: civic culture, not ethnicity, is his ideal basis of government.

Under this schema, the recognition of the Québécois nation is part and parcel with the legitimacy of all minority groups that rely on collective protections of entities like language, be it immigrants or First Nations. Separatism, to the contrary, is founded on the antithetical model of regarding ethnocultural homogeneity as the basis of statehood. While it is facile to reduce the reception of any political text to a statement of “I agree” or “I disagree”… I agree.

Ethnic nation-states have historically had their own legitimate reasons for coming into being, often as a result of an ethnic community casting off a government in which it was disenfranchised, but a monolithic vision of society based on naïve myths of common origin is destructive, exclusivist, and ultimately outmoded. Ideally, the Canadian vision of what Ignatieff calls “civic nationalism” should permeate the globalizing world, and individuals should be free to pursue whatever personal culture they like—which, as Ignatieff explains, may involve participating in a collective lobby for cultural protections.

In practice, it is difficult to see how Ignatieff’s ideal of multicultural coexistence as a natural outgrowth of “rights talk” will find any traction whatsoever in states that are, in reality, overwhelmingly homogeneous. As Ignatieff argues himself, Canada’s predilection to rights-based discourse was the product of a very specific chain of historical circumstances. The foundation of a country should have little say in its present governance insofar as its former ethnocultural composition is concerned, but it also has an indelible legacy in either permitting or curtailing the legal respect for pluralism in all three classes of relations—individual-to-individual, individual-to-group, and group-to-group. Without that history, and without its accompanying domestic legacy, it is hard to see how states with little to no tradition of cultural pluralism or individual liberty will ever arrive at the same ideal of governance.

Be that as it may, The Rights Revolution is an effective and balanced guide to conflicts of rights as they occur in the domestic theatre. Ignatieff concedes that the enfranchisement of individual claimants has created a fair share of ruptures in structures of power at all levels, while emphasizing that rights are not themselves the cause of the trouble: rather, rights exist to give a voice to unrecognized troubles that are going to explode sooner or later anyway, and provide us with a framework for arbitrating the whole sorry mess. There is nothing uniquely liberal about this idea except in the small-L, classical sense that also gave us democracy; and although rights and democracy may not always go hand in hand, there is a certain elegance in how one provides for the other.


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One rejoinder to “Wednesday Book Club: The Rights Revolution

  1. Daniel Kaszor

    The National Post is running an “Iggy Book Club” right now. Here is there discussion of “The Rights Revolution”: and the

    Saturday, 10 January 2009 at 2:52pm

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