August 28, 2011


Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor (Mark Oppenheimer, August 29-September 5, 2011, The Nation)

Taylor is particularly animated by the problem of Québécois nationalism, which concerns--and perhaps has determined--two of his chief sympathies: liberal democracy and multiculturalism, not just within societies but among them. Those sympathies conflict, of course. On the one hand, Taylor knows that liberal democracies are supposed to treat all people equally; on the other hand, he is sympathetic to his concitoyens' desire for a French Quebec, an assertion of ethnic chauvinism that mandates legal privileges for one ethnic group and disabilities for another, such as the law prohibiting commercial signs in English.

As Taylor sees it, Quebec is not merely his worry but all of ours. For what he is asking--along with contemporaries like K. Anthony Appiah, Seyla Benhabib and Amy Gutmann--is how the Western liberal can reconcile a preference for liberal democracy with the illiberalism necessary for cultural preservation or self-preservation, which many accept as understandable goals. To those who feel that this tension is not easily resolved, the Jewish character of Israel, say, is not just a case of ethnic chauvinism--it is also the embodiment of a people's aspirations to endure and thrive. At the same time, the believer in cultural preservation will be sympathetic to the Palestinian people--not just as individuals seeking justice but as a community with collective aspirations that could not be fulfilled by citizenship in some other Arab country.

The tension between liberal democracy and certain kinds of preference--whether the preference is construed as ethnic, religious, national or all three--at times feels unbearable for the Western liberal. Americans, as it happens, are particularly ill suited to dealing with the claims of religious and ethnic pride. We get to eat our cake in a country that is basically nice to us all, Scientologist and Sikh alike. The United States, for all its paroxysms of xenophobia, is unusual for being a country where ethnic chauvinism has basically no popular support or institutional sanction.

The point, of course, is that beliefs are nothing like ethnicity and not all beliefs are similar. Americans eschew "ethnic chauvinism," and even religious chauvinism, precisely because we are a Christian nation and believe not only that all men are Created Equal but that all men can conform themselves to the same moral standards set down by the Creator.

And while philosophers fret about these questions the End of History is universally bending men to our views.

Posted by at August 28, 2011 5:59 AM

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