04 April 2006

Ignatieff on the French Revolution

The following is taken from Michael Ignatieff's The Rights Revolution (p. 127):

The elements that hold a country like Canada together run deeper than rights: the land, shared memory, shared opportunity, and shared hope. Yet [Edmund] Burke and his fellow conservatives underestimated the power of rights as a source of legitimacy and cohesion in modern societies, just as they sentimentalized the legitimacy of the ancien régime. The ancient and immemorial tissue of connections was insufficient to keep the France of the ancien régime together, and the democratic republic that succeeded it, which was based on consent and contract, has endured for two hundred years.

House of Anansi has a reputation for rushing into print the CBC Massey Lectures before the authors have had sufficient opportunity to rethink what they've said. One hopes that, if he had had more time to revise his own lectures, Ignatieff would have seen the absurdity of that last sentence and deleted it. Far from having a two-centuries-old democratic republic, France in the wake of the French Revolution experienced five republics, a reign of terror, two empires, two restored monarchies, the Paris Commune and the pro-nazi Vichy régime. If Ignatieff wants to defend a contractarian account of political authority, he needs to come up with a better example than France.

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