Thinking about the old Ignatieff

Speaking of free speech, Steyn speculates about what the Liberal leader can’t say now

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Thinking about the old IgnatieffIn Ottawa on Monday, I kept getting asked—including by three stray passersby on Wellington Street—what Beatles song Michael Ignatieff should sing. Oh, come on, you don’t really need a professional for this, do you? Help! Yesterday (All my troubles seemed so far away). The Fool On The Hill. Hello, Goodbye. Get Back (to Harvard and a little light BBC hosting) . . .

I wasn’t really in the mood to pile on Iggy, poor chap. I was in town to testify to the House of Commons Select Committee on Justice and Human Rights about the Canadian “Human Rights” Commission’s assault on individual liberty and freedom of expression. And, mainly because I’ve been yakking about this subject for a couple of years now and have pretty much exhausted my stock of free-speech quotations from Milton to Salman Rushdie, just for variety’s sake I decided to cite Michael Ignatieff to the committee. I was talking about the assertion by Chief Censor Jennifer Lynch that, Canada’s constitution notwithstanding, there is “no hierarchy of rights,” only a “matrix” in which “freedom of expression” has to be “balanced” by modish group rights and collective rights. And I responded with a blast of Professor Ignatieff:

“Collective rights without individual ones end up in tyranny. Moreover, rights inflation—the tendency to define anything desirable as a right—ends up eroding the legitimacy of a defensible core of rights . . . The right to freedom of speech is not, as the Marxist tradition maintained, a lapidary bourgeois luxury, but the precondition for having any other rights at all.”

Bingo! In my battles with the “human rights” enforcers, I am an Ignatieffite—okay, that’s a bit unwieldy, but I’m certainly an Iggybopper. As I told the Select Committee, I support the Ignatieff position—on freedom of speech, on individual vs. collective rights, and on the way “rights inflation” damages the core of real rights.

Until a recent mid-life career change, Ignatieff used to say stuff like that all the time. Now, not so much. At least not to the point of joining his fellow Liberal Keith Martin in calling for the repeal of Section 13, the appallingly drafted “hate speech” law even more appallingly interpreted by the Canadian “Human Rights” Commission. But throughout the ’80s and ’90s you could switch on the BBC almost any night of the week and find a dark-shirted tie-less Ignatieff deep in furrowed-brow conversation about freedom of speech with some novelist or philosopher. I well remember him discussing a play he found morally repellent, but declaring nevertheless: “Nothing should be beyond speaking about.”

One day, and perhaps sooner than he thinks, he’ll be back at an Ivy League college or a public broadcasting sinecure and free to start saying and writing stuff like that all over again. But for now he’s the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Not that I’ve got anything against the Liberals. In the spirit of my free speech comrade Ezra Levant, who’s developing a nice line in Mister Bipartisan shtick, I was pleasantly surprised by the opposition questions from the committee. The Liberal members retreated immediately to a discussion of the Criminal Code provisions. The Bloquistes, who seemed hitherto unaware of the issues, had some sharp procedural and constitutional questions. The Dipper, after listening to our revelations of Canada’s “human rights” enforcers joining Nazi organizations, attempting to hold secret trials and imposing lifetime speech bans, asked to be sent the underlying documentation and enquired if we could make ourselves available for further testimony. Not one member attempted to make a principled case for Section 13—or even a low, unprincipled, sneeringly political case. Whatever its formal fate, nobody is prepared to say a good word for this law in public.

Nonetheless, I would love to have heard somebody other than yours truly deliver the Ignatieff line: the right to freedom of speech is the precondition for having any other rights at all. That’s a classically small-l liberal position, so it would be nice to hear a big-L Liberal take it. My only contact with the Leader of the Opposition was a long ago dinner party, but I would bet deep down in the darkest recesses of his soul where the spinners and managers don’t penetrate, he feels exactly the same way on free speech and human rights that he always did.

He just can’t say it. Which is kind of a sad comment on Michael Ignatieff’s own freedom of speech, and the shrivelling of Canadian political discourse.

At least one of my Maclean’s colleagues reckoned that Ezra Levant and I blew it in Ottawa, but I felt we made modest incremental progress. There was a spring in my gait as I left Parliament, and then I thought about the difference between the Big Thinker Ignatieff and the Small Leader Ignatieff and it left me vaguely depressed. I chanced to read a Tarek Fatah column in the National Post headlined “Has Jack Layton Converted To Islam?” As is now traditional—a tradition going all the way back to 9/11, oddly enough—Ramadan and Eid were marked by the usual Islamoschmoozing from the political class, but Mr. Layton went a little further than just the usual enthusiastic pose with burka-clad women (the Ignatieff photo op: I assume they were Muslim women, and not just fellow Liberal MPs preferring to go incognito). The NDP leader’s Ramadamagram to his Muslim “brothers and sisters” informed them that “We are not celebrating the end of Ramadan, but thanking Allah for the help and strength given throughout this special month.”

As Mr. Fatah added: “We? Oui!”

As far as one can tell, Mr. Layton is not technically a Muslim, he just plays one at Eid. Maybe next year he could grow out his moustache and turn up with the full Khomeini. Given that he’s a secular lefty, I doubt he could stick Islam for a week. But nonetheless he feels it’s entirely natural for him to go around “thanking Allah” as “we” celebrate the end of Ramadan: Believer For A Day.

Tarek Fatah’s National Post colleague Jonathan Kay noted the curious evolution of Jack Layton’s NDP: on the one hand, it runs candidates who support gay marriage; on the other, it runs candidates who favour the introduction of sharia. This is the practical model of philosopher Ignatieff’s musings on “collective rights.” An effective political leader (if you’ll forgive me applying the designation to the head honcho of the NDP) collects specimens of approved identity groups and presents his party as the smoothest mediator between these jostling collectivities. And for the moment, as long as he doesn’t get confused and turn up to the Eid banquet in his outfit for the Gay Pride parade, he can just about pull it off.

But do collective rights come at the expense of individual rights and thus, as Ignatieff suggested, lead to tyranny? The evidence suggests so. In Britain, a land with rampant property crime, undercover constables nevertheless find time to dine at curry restaurants on Friday nights to monitor adjoining tables lest someone in private conversation should make a racist remark. An author interviewed on BBC Radio expressed, very mildly and politely, some concerns about gay adoption and was investigated by Scotland Yard’s Community Safety Unit for Homophobic, Racist and Domestic Incidents. A Daily Telegraph columnist was arrested and detained in a jail cell over a joke in a speech. A Dutch legislator was invited to speak at the Palace of Westminster by a member of the House of Lords, but was banned by the government, arrested on arrival at Heathrow and deported. The state, in mediating group relations in a multicultural society, is ever more assertive. If you point out that, for example, European Union prohibitions on “xenophobia” would be unconstitutional in the United States, the more thoughtful Europeans will respond ruefully that things like the First Amendment presuppose a social consensus that across the Atlantic simply doesn’t exist. There are certainly points of tension between post-Christian Euro-hedonists and the Continent’s restive Muslim populations. But Hindu businessmen and gay parenting and all the rest? The reality is that, as Ignatieff discerned, collective rights inflation diminishes the core rights, and provides a very wide licence for tyranny.

In Canada, I feel our campaign these last two years has made some modest progress on the restoration of lost liberties. But one small step forward for this northern Dominion, and a whole bunch of backward stumbles elsewhere. Under President Obama, the United States has now joined the UN Human Rights Council, an entirely fraudulent body which protects the world’s thugs and on which the Organization of the Islamic Conference dominates. In 2008, it rammed through a resolution restricting speech that “constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination”—in effect, a planetary group-defamation law to insulate Islam from criticism: collective rights on a global scale, and at the cost of individual ones. The U.S., as part of its outreach to the Muslim world, has decided to go along with that after weeks of negotiations with that well-known human-rights beacon, Egypt. “Freedom of expression,” said Hisham Badr, the Egyptian ambassador, “has sometimes been misused.”

Indeed. The good news is such “misuse” seems unlikely to be much of a problem in the future. The free world is conceding great principles, inch by inch but faster and faster.