The Ignatieff Revolution

Simon Hayter, Getty Images).    

Ignatieff at the November 2006 Liberal leadership convention (credit: Simon Hayter, Getty Images).

On the occasion of Michael Ignatieff’s ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, I thought I would repost a review I wrote in 2000 of The Rights Revolution. Ignatieff and his party inevitably divide people, and my own faith in him as a leader is more tempered than it once was (I would have preferred that he assume the leadership after a contest, not before). The Rights Revolution, by contrast, is a well-written and thoughtful book that deserves to be more widely appreciated. It is surprising how little the vision of Canadian political life it offers has figured in the debate about Ignatieff the politician.–A.M.

In his 1993 book Blood & Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, Michael Ignatieff took a trip to LG-2 (“Le Grande Two”), a massive hydro project 1,600 kilometres north of Montreal. Ignatieff’s guide explained that the engineering project was a point of national pride for the Quebecois, but Ignatieff had a slightly different reaction. He stressed how the dam made life miserable for the equally nationalistic Cree of northern Quebec, and that its chief illustration was that “the rights of two nations are in conflict.” Ignatieff spoke on behalf of a cosmopolitan, tough-guy liberalism that was uneasy about nationalists of all stripes: “Cree and Quebecois both argue their demand for national survival in terms of cultural survival. This link between survival and self- determination is central to nationalist claims everywhere, but it deserves skeptical examination.”

What a difference seven years make. The Rights Revolution, Ignatieff’s 2000 Massey Lectures (Anansi, xi + 170 pp., $16.95), aren’t a total renunciation of his earlier view, but it’s clear there’s been a big shift in his thinking about nationalism. With a few caveats, he has come around to a much more sympathetic stance. Gone is the emphasis on how group claims inevitably come into conflict; so is the call for skepticism. Instead, he urges all Canadians to recognize the legitimacy of the claims of national minorities such as natives and Quebecers: “The problem with equality of individual rights is that it is simply not enough. It fails to recognize and protect the rights of constituent nations and peoples to maintain their distinctive identities.”

This is a welcome shift. How did it happen? Two things come to mind. Five years after writing Blood & Belonging, Ignatieff wrote a biography of Isaiah Berlin, who believed a liberal philosophy of individual rights was compatible with nationalism. Ignatieff has said that after immersing himself in Berlin, he came to doubt many of his anti-nationalist objections. Ignatieff has also become embroiled in a debate with an increasingly influential Canadian political thinker named Will Kymlicka, who seems to have persuaded him that some of the claims in Blood & Belonging were short-sighted.

Over the last 40 years, Ignatieff writes, a new emphasis on rights has come to dominate political life. Quebec rights, aboriginal rights, gay rights, women’s rights—rights talk is the language in which almost all political debates are now conducted. Not everything about this new rights consciousness is to be welcomed: Ignatieff expresses some reservation about how rights talk tends to focus on issues of identity (language, gender, etc.), overshadowing concerns about inequalities of wealth. But there’s no question a deep moral good is at work in the rights revolution: “We are living in the first human society that has actually attempted to create a political community on the assumption that everyone—literally everyone—has the right to belong.”

One of the strengths of the book is how the organizing principle—rights—allows Ignatieff to tackle a wide range of material. The post-1960 rights revolution is an international phenomenon, he notes, pointing to everything from Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 to New Zealand’s minority protections. As he did in his previous book, Virtual War, Ignatieff makes the counterintuitive yet powerful argument that if we are really serious about human rights, it will at times be necessary to kill people in their name. Provided the victims ask for our help and other criteria are met, then human rights can justify Kosovo-style military intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide.

But the core of The Rights Revolution is Ignatieff’s vision of Canadian political life. One popular view says all Canadians—Quebecers, aboriginals, everyone—should have identical rights. Ignatieff calls this view the pool table model, in which the citizens are like balls: “For the game to work fairly, every individual must be as round and smooth as every other.” Against this, Ignatieff endorses “the patchwork quilt model.” It says Canada is more like three entities stitched together, French, English and native, and measures such as distinct society status for Quebec or devolving some powers to aboriginal bands simply recognize this. Ignatieff insists national minorities should stop blackmailing the majority with threats of separation, and that the legitimacy of Canada itself also needs to be recognized, but his overall goal is to defend this asymmetrical distribution of rights. Indeed, he wants to elevate it to a defining aspect of Canadian identity. Our patchwork “rights culture,” he repeatedly stresses, is “the core of what makes us distinctive as a people.”

This is a sane and humane political vision. Ignatieff shows the weakness in many conservative critiques of liberalism, such as the canard that emphasizing rights somehow undermines responsibilities. In fact, every time a right is acknowledged, so too is a responsibility observed. Where once whites could pass laws that treated racial minorities as second-class citizens, for example, the rise of rights talk has demanded that the majority exercise their moral responsibility not to engage in such discriminatory practices.

The Rights Revolution also draws together liberal arguments for minority rights. It shows that the frequently heard view that the state should be neutral and not favour anyone’s culture is not really an option. All governments need official languages to function. Inevitably, they adopt the language of the majority. Immigrants know what they are getting into when they freely choose to immigrate, but should Canada’s aboriginal languages, for example, die simply because aboriginals have the bad luck to inhabit a country where other languages have been adopted by Parliament, the courts, state-run schools, etc.? At their best, aboriginal rights, rather than granting “special privileges,” recognize the injustice of a minority culture being crushed under the weight of its own state and try to counterbalance it.

This argument previously appeared in Will Kymlicka’s 1995 book Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Kymlicka was a sharp critic of Blood & Belonging, but in The Rights Revolution, Ignatieff can’t say enough good things about him: “Will Kymlicka [is] probably the world’s leading authority on group rights for minorities . . . see Kymlicka . . . I am indebted to Will Kymlicka.” It is a measure of Ignatieff’s graciousness and intellectual maturity that he would be open to the ideas of a thinker who has criticized him in the past, and The Rights Revolution does a terrific job of bringing Kymlicka’s ideas to a wider audience.

Inevitably, there are areas where Ignatieff is less engaging. He emphasizes how the majority benefits from minority rights, as when he claims that everyone gains from rights for the disabled (“the disabled are freed from dependency relationships that embarrass them and us.”) It’s a nice side effect if minority rights sometimes benefit the majority, but surely this can never be part of their rationale, not unless we want to say disabled rights also lose force when they stop benefiting the able-bodied or, worse, require some sacrifice from them.

But perhaps the most dangerous idea rattling around inside The Rights Revolution is the notion that Canada’s network of minority rights is an expression of our national identity. This tempting suggestion is one we should fiercely resist. Not because there’s something wrong with minority rights—but because they’re too important.

To see why, consider debates about the monarchy. Even staunch monarchists can surely concede that the relevant issues are the merits or demerits of the monarchy itself. But because the Crown is said to set Canada apart from the United States, critics of the monarchy must labour under the burden of being suspected agents of Americanization. The same is true of health care debates. In Canada, any institution that is identified as an icon of national identity is automatically transported to a plane of mystification and deep lobotomization, where the thing itself retreats from view and the anxiety that Canadian distinctiveness will be lost repels all criticism, legitimate or not.

But with rights, as with anything else, we can’t have progress without criticism. There may be some areas where minority rights go too far, other spots where they don’t extend far enough. The last thing we need when a coherent theory of minority rights is finally being delivered is for it to arrive in the obfuscatory swaddling clothes of “national distinctiveness.”

It is also misleading to claim Canada is all that distinctive when it comes to minority rights. Consider how the groups most like our aboriginals and Quebecois have been treated in the Untied States. As Kymlicka notes, the Chamorros people of Guam, a U.S. protectorate, enjoy powers of self-government. Indigenous Hawaiians’ language and land rights are also recognized. Ditto for the land claims of Alaskan Eskimos. Puerto Rico, officially designated a “Commonwealth,” enjoys unique voting rights in Washington and uses Spanish as its sole official language. Aboriginal tribes are legally classified as “domestic dependent nations,” with their own unique court system, treaty rights and tribal governments. It is not quite true to claim, as Ignatieff does, that “American rights culture is intransigently individualistic,” even if this is how Americans often describe themselves.

These reservations hardly invalidate the book. Ignatieff has a gift for spinning interesting discussions out of topics not usually addressed by high political theory, such as how stripping people of their clothing subjects them to both pure equality and pure humiliation. A chapter on the role of rights consciousness within the family is particularly good. It is refreshing to have a public discussion of the politics of the family that eschews the usual therapeutic infantilization of the left and the self-righteous scolding of the right.

It is right for many people to be worried about the rise of divorce, Ignatieff says, but wrong to blame it on liberalism and rights. Both claims—acknowledging the legitimacy of the worry, the illegitimacy of compromising our commitment to freedom in response—have power, and show Ignatieff trying to take the full complexity of the modern situation into account. This should command our respect. Not because it is the Canadian way, but because it is the only way.

3 thoughts on “The Ignatieff Revolution

  1. “It is right for many people to be worried about the rise of divorce, Ignatieff says, but wrong to blame it on liberalism and rights.”

    But the whole point of liberal rights is that once you have them, no one can tell you how to use them. I’ve never heard of a “right” the exercise of which was curbed by liberalism, except insofar as that “right” was said to conflict with some other “right”. But hey, I haven’t read Ignatieff’s book, so maybe that’ll explain everything.

  2. “In Canada, any institution that is identified as an icon of national identity is automatically transported to a plane of mystification and deep lobotomization, where the thing itself retreats from view and the anxiety that Canadian distinctiveness will be lost repels all criticism, legitimate or not.”

    Hee. “Mystification and deep lobotomization.” I could not agree more.

  3. A.M., thanks for republishing your 2000 review, which remains timely and interesting. Not being an Ignatieff reader, I can at least share your pleasure at what has obviously been a major conceptual shift for him from untrammeled liberalism to a more realistic kind of communitarian liberalism (if one can simplify it in this way). But in reading your review, I was struck just now by the fact that while our modern notions of group rights do indeed offer a justifying and protective philosophical framework over our de facto system of majority and minority national cultures (both here and in the U.S., as you rightly point out), the origin of the system itself lies not in rights theory but in the military conquest of Quebec and the legal and economic usurpation of the continent’s original inhabitants. Indeed, I would be fascinated to learn how the rights that the Romans (or the Persians, or the Austro-Hungarians, or the Russians) granted to their myriad subject peoples differed in theory or in effect from the rights Ignatieff high-mindedly discusses in his books. In other words, is it possible that group rights — which are better to have than not to have, I admit — are simply rules made up by a conqueror to assure a peaceable dominion? If we were being truly enlightened, after all, wouldn’t we want to at least start with the idea of simply giving the land back to its owners?

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