Thursday, August 03, 2006

Review: Repression and Resistance

[Ross Lambertson. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.]

Most of what I read growing up was speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But for some strange reason when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I picked William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich off the shelf containing my father's old university books and read it. It didn't initially spark me to seek out other such works very often -- even when my nonfiction consumption rose dramatically as a politicized adult, for a long time the largest part of my reading was contemporary theory and analysis, some historical biography, and only the occasional non-biographical history -- but it did leave me with a lasting fondness for a certain kind of historical writing that I'm sure most readers would consider ponderous and a little dull but which I find goes down very smooth.

This fondness was very much operative as I read Repression and Resistance. Its framework is unapologetically liberal but with the intellectual rigour of the better representatives of that approach. It therefore does little to challenge the reader with new ways of thinking about history or the social world, but assumes the dominant Western commonsense understandings of both and proceeds to describe carefully and with thorough documentation What Happened In The Past. The writing is academic, of course, and has no feeling of haste or urgency to it, but Lambertson has a gift for selecting anecdotes and quotations that make the intended point, entertain the reader, and keep the text moving even while maintaining the "appropriate" decorum and disinterest.

The subject matter is the evolution of struggles organized around the idea of "human rights" in Canada between 1930 and 1960. It explicitly intends the book to complement but come before some of the scholarship on human rights in Canada after 1960 by intellectual, Liberal Party leadership candidate, and apologist for imperialism and war Michael Ignatieff. It covers struggles around both libertarian rights, like the right to express your political opinion without getting locked up, and egalitarian rights, such as the right not to be locked up because you're Japanese-Canadian. Specific struggles covered include: Quebec's Padlock Law, the federal government's assault on civil liberties during World War II, the Gouzenko Affair and related cases during the early Cold War, the important contribution of Jewish groups to the evolution of human rights in this period, the struggle for Fair Employment Practices and Fair Accommodation Practices legislation in Ontario in the early '50s, the impact of the Cold War on civil liberties, the struggle against anti-Black racism in Dresden, Ontario, and the final efforts which lead to the passage of a (largely toothless) federal Human Rights Act in 1960.

This is important material and I do have a soft spot for the approach even if it differs significantly from what mine might be both in terms of writing and politics. However, those things only get you so far, and there were aspects of the work that were grating on me by the end, and others that did not bother me in an experiential sense but really do need to be named.

Many of the issues that I have with the story told by this book flow from the way that it conceptualizes its central focus: "human rights." It mentions the fact that several groups whose rights are integral to human rights discourse in the early twenty-first century were largely ignored by the human rights policy community at the time under study. It is also quite clear that the period in question resulted in a few unqualified successes, some ambivalent results, and a number of failures for those trying to advance human rights in Canada. Yet its understanding of the concept is largely uncritical.

In the first paragraph of the book, Lambertson asserts that the only negative words about human rights come in the form of "occasional criticisms of 'human rights imperialism' by non-Western authoritarian states, or philosophical arguments that question the validity of 'socially constructed' values." In other words, the only people who have anything that is not glowing to say about "human rights" as a concept are tyrants (probably assumed to have brown skins, given the use of the adjective 'non-Western') and wacky postmodern social relativists. The fact that critical theorists and some on the left in Western coutries mount criticisms as well, and often quite nuanced ones rather than blanket rejections, ones that are grounded in a very concrete search for justice and liberation rather than a desire to maintain personal power or indulge in navel-gazing abstraction, is ignored. In the last number of months on this site I've reviewed work by legal theorists Sherene Razack and Patricia Monture-Angus, both of whom have critiques of the liberal rights paradigm as a tool for ending the oppressions they experience and write about (and in fact point to ways in which that paradigm has been part of those oppressions for centuries). Engaging with some of this sincere criticism in deciding what to investigate and how with respect to the evolution of human rights in Canada would have immeasurably strengthened the work.

Part of why this omission is possible is the typical liberal substitution of the ideal for the actual, the mystification of the particular by waving the universal in front of the reader. Lambertson writes, "It is generally agreed that the concept of human rights is rooted in the notion of human dignity; human rights supporters maintain that every person is morally entitled to certain standards of decent treatment by virtue of that person's membership in the human race (rather than membership in a particular state or the possession of certain qualities such as wealth, gender, race, age, or religion)." That sounds good to me, but on its own that statement leaves a lot to be decided. And in the way that this book treats "human rights", most of that is assumed -- that there will be a universal abstract framework for thinking about these things; that said framework will be liberalism; that the liberal-democratic and capitalist state will be assumed and not questioned; and that reforms related to human rights that are acceptable to the owning and professional classes that dominate such a political economy can be unquestioningly accepted as the only path that will ultimately take us to recognizing universal human dignity. In this way, the advances chronicled in the book can be treated purely as steps towards the more advanced and progressive recognition of human rights achieved in Canada later in the century, rather than as very partial victories coming out of struggles by ordinary people but also fitting into and supporting the ongoing development of highly destructive and oppressive political economies.

A good example is the rights of indigenous peoples. Lambertson admits that they were not on the human rights agenda during this era, and so does not really talk about them. But it is widely (though not universally) accepted among indigenous writers and activists in northern North America that an undifferentiated liberal rights paradigm will not ever be sufficient to achieve their human rights (as understood in the general one sentence ideal given above) and in fact the imposition of a totalizing liberal-democratic capitalist political economy in which a liberal rights approach to human rights can be assumed to be natural is an integral part of the colonial oppression that needs to be dealt with. Analyzing the development of human rights discourse in Canada in a way that respected this rejection and other critiques of the liberal rights paradigm rather than erasing them would need to take a broader look at both the formation and evolution of the Canadian state and how it has been complicit in creating and/or reinforcing oppressions which are ameliorated in small ways by a particular implementation of rights discourse.

What are the theoretical limits of "human rights" as a focus and tool for responding to experiences of oppression and exploitation? What forces have shaped the ways in which the universal idea of human rights encapsulated in one sentence above has been translated into action by the Canadian state and by Canadian intellectuals? In what ways have assumptions grounded in white supremacy, male supremacy, heteronormativity, and capitalist social relations crept in to such action? How have elites benefited from this? What kinds of problems can it address and what kinds cannot be touched by it? What alternatives are there for implementing the grand vision of human rights, and is "human rights" as it has coalesced in Canadian/Western thought and practice over the last 60 years the best approach? "Human rights" as a concept and practice does not have to be perfect to still be worthwhile, so why not probe its limitations, its oppressive content?

One of the most fascinating things that I learned from this book, which to me serves as evidence that a more critical and comprehensive approach to studying the evolution of "human rights" in Canada is necessary, is the evolution of the terminology. Before the end of World War II, the expression "human rights" was not a common one in Canada in reference to the kinds of egalitarian and libertarian rights studied in this book. It seems largely to have been adopted because its use in the United Nations charter and other United Nations document made it popular, and common throughout the world. The term used in similar ways by similar (or even the same) people when a nascent human rights policy community started to form in Canada in the '30s, and by older theorists with similar (though often just libertarian, not egalitarian) concerns, was "British liberties." Now, the importance of such "British liberties" should not be dismissed -- they evolved over hundreds of years, I think largely in response to struggles against arbitrary authority, and each one was an important victory for people who tended to be on the receiving end of that authority. But these liberties were part of a state and culture that happily engaged in war, empire, and genocide across the globe, which should make you stop and think about what baggage might come with the term/concept. I would imagine you could find ways in which they helped solidify the "homeland" to make imperial adventures abroad more effective, for example. And given the continuity of "human rights" with this concept, at least in Canada, I would say a critical approach is doubly important.

It also points towards the utility of "human rights" in English Canadian nation building. The switch towards that vocabulary over "British liberties" came during an era when that was an important project for English Canada's liberal elite -- Canada received formal sovereignty, ended the right of legal appeals to the Privy Council in London, and first created the legal category of "Canadian citizen," among other things.

The book does talk about the fact that another elite reason for supporting human rights was as part of the propaganda campaign against Communism. To put this a bit more generally, granting or extending or recognizing human rights was a way of shoring up legitimacy for a system that placed great power in the hands of certain small groups, and arranged everyone else in hierarchies as well. The book did not situate the propaganda value of some limited concessions in terms of human rights for creating the liberal mythology of Canada that has played a role in sustaining state legitimacy for much of the last 60 years. Before World War II, Canadian liberalism was a classical liberalism, with all the harshness that entails and with much weaker respect for the associated "British liberties" than one would actually have found at the time in Britain itself. But since this time a mythology of Canada as peacekeper, as tolerant, as generous to its citizens, as benevolent, as wise, has been constructed, which in the face of hierarchies of power and privilege at home and complicity in war, empire, and economic plunder abroad, prop up state legitimacy and international reputation by obscuring ongoing harsh realities. This comes out of elite liberals taking the more useful-to-them ideas that came out of the social democratic and reform-liberal professional groupings that formed in the '30s, granting some actual concessions to ordinary people, and then using those modest progressive changes in PR to distract people from what hasn't changed. I had appreciated how this was true in terms of social programs, but this book (even though it doesn't talk about it at all in these terms) helped me see how "human rights" discourse has been part of the same process.

Also related to nation building in an unsavoury way was an argument that some commentators put forward early on for the formal codification of human rights in such instruments as the ineffectual Bill of Rights passed by the Diefenbaker government in 1960, and later realized in a more useful form by the repatriated constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, was because there were lots of non-British folks arriving and, well, they didn't have the same traditions of liberalism, so maybe we'd just better write it all down because we can't depend on the people to safeguard our liberties any more. Which is a pretty gross kind of argument.

Related to all of this was Lambertson's interesting description of
the evolution of "human rights" as a focus of social policy and public activism in Canada as very much an elite process. Particularly once the Cold War made the contributions of the Communist Party (which were many) deeply suspect to the state and to most conservatives, liberals, and social democrats, but even earlier on, much of the actual change that occurred was a matter of lobbying and writing and opining by well-connected individuals or respectable small groups. Again, I would argue with how it is contextualized in the book, in that not enough credit is given to the struggles of oppressed peoples themselves in creating the environment that produced elite social democrats and reform-liberals, but getting to see elite phase of the change process in detail is useful too, I think.

Another criticism, which I suppose is related to the issue of framework discussed above, was the way the book talked about the Cold War divisions. This was the one that really started to grate on me by the end. Now, I am not at all unwilling to criticize the Communist Party of Canada, nor to acknowledge some of the ridiculous things that it said and did during the period in question. It used excessive rhetoric at times, it by and large did what Moscow told it, and it was not above taking some pretty awful positions, like supporting the deportation of Japanese Canadians for a period of time. But the book was predictably one-sided in showing the divisions, not treating the more radical analysis of human rights espoused by the CPC as worthy of serious consideration -- i.e. consideration that would allow the liberal-democratic capitalist frame of the book to be problematized, even temporarily -- and not subjecting the reform-liberal/social democratic side of the divide to the same sort of scrutiny. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in '56 is decried in moral terms, while the U.S overthrow of a number of regimes in the same decade are not even mentioned, for example. And so on.

This book is what it is: a piece of academic liberal nationalist history. With that characterization in mind, it is quite well written and has a lot of useful material that Canadians in general and Canadian activists in particular would benefit from knowing about. True to liberalism at its best, it does not shy away from showing how easily the Canadian state fell into repressive practices in those years, and those are lessons very relevant to our post-9/11 world, particularly with the current bridge crew on the Canadian ship of state. Yet despite its intent, the book also functions as an urgent argument for going beyond liberal nationalist history, and the ways in which its distortions of the past feed in to supporting oppression in the present.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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