Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Ignatieff, Taking Liberties, and the Rights Revolution

This week in my Everyday History class I was lecturing to my students on the history of human rights in Canada. In particular I was giving a talk on the 'rights revolution' that occurred in Canada in the decades from the Second World War and leading up to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Ironically I was also supposed to be going to see what promises to be a great gathering of historians of human rights in this country at the 'Taking Liberties' workshop being hosted by the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. You can see the details here.
Alas, the mind is willing to go, but the body (or the bodies of my sick wife and children) are not.

It's too bad as I was particularly interested in seeing Michael Ignatieff give the keynote talk on the Thursday night. I would be intrigued to see him make the return back to academic life.

One of the most amazing things about the last few years in Canadian politics was watching a brilliant intellectual be manhandled and shoved into what appeared to be, for him, the pretty uncomfortable box of 'the poltician.'

But life does change people. It changed Ignatieff a good deal. All you have to do is compare recent events with his early book on the history of the rise of the penitentiary in England, A Just Measure of Pain.The book is a brilliant Marxist isnpired social history that, as I remember it, links the rise in all kinds of new punishments and penal reform in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the rise of industrial capitalism. It has been more than a decade since I read it. But it was a great book.

 And of course there is Ignatieff's little book, The Rights Revolution, that came out of his Massey lectures. It's not as tightly argued or well researched as the other, but it is a thoughtful evaluation of just what the rights revolution had done to Canada and how it could be improved upon. It would have been interesting to see what, if anything, he took from this if he got into office. But it was not to be.

It just goes to show you: politics and smarts don't always sleep in the same bed, let alone reside in the same head.

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