Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1989 233 pp., $21.95 paperback.
The New Totalititarians
This book should be read by all Canadians worried about the impact of die human rights commissions on traditional Canadian social/moral values. It should be read twice by all evangelical Christians who think that they can ignore the current constitutional debates. This human rights movement (HRM) is a major ideological force currently controlling political thought in Canada and the Western world. As a result, political power is shifting from elected legislatures—parliament—to nonelected institutions, such as courts and commissions. These bodies now decide how to interpret the law, and they have recently been given powers to impose such opinions.
The underlying argument in the book is that many seemingly diverse social “causes” are in fact motivated by the same political fervour which Knopff calls “the new war on discrimination.” His central thesis is that this war “promotes social equality at the cost of undermining private liberty and the democratic political process, and that it implies an exercise in ‘social technology’ which, despite its rhetoric of human rights, actually deprives the idea of rights of any solid foundation.” (p. 11) This movement cuts across all political parties and is worrisome for an additional reason. The logic of the new vision of human perfection is decidedly totalitarian. It is Knopff’s fear that the logic of the ideas will inevitably destroy the classical liberal concept of human freedom and subvert the broad democratic institutions which we now cherish.
The book goes into great lengths to explain the conceptual structure of the new rhetoric of human rights. It shows how the definition of discrimination is changed radically from individual intent to a subconscious social pattern. This change accompanies the shift from equal opportunity to equality of results in social policy. It analyses the central arguments involved in determining who is a protected group, an oppressed minority, and outlines individual treatment categories showing that in each case the new definitions create new bureaucratic powers glossed over by the human rights rhetoric.
A great deal of effort is devoted in the book to the various definitions and strategies for conformity promoted under the heading of “systemic discrimination” and “affirmative action.” Along the way, the author provides summaries of contrasting liberal and socialist political theories. The book is especially valuable because it exposes the political and ideological roots of the human rights movement. The current ideology is completely reversed from the classical liberalism of the 19th century. In the older view, a human right used to demarcate a sphere of private liberty in which individuals could choose their own way of life. All men were presumed to be equal and free by nature and have the right to make a mistake and to be politically incorrect. That is true democracy!
However, the new 20th century liberals/socialists do not like the results of most private choices, so by way of state-imposed legislation and human rights commissions, they are attempting to reconstruct reality in order to stamp out every kind of discrimination. In the process, virtually every social role in Western society has been castigated as discriminatory and inhuman. Thus, from now on every job must be subject to a complex set of new politically correct judgments described (poorly) in the human rights code of every province. The Ontario Pay Equity Commission just announced the existence of “invisible skills” to be calculated in establishing pay equity.
In short, the book exposes the philosophy of total social reconstruction which is at the heart of the human rights movement. In the end, nearly all private decisions will be subject to retrospective review by secondary agencies such as human rights commissions. Everything will become public, i.e., subject to laws…and lawyers!
The book is not perfect—happily. It suffers from too much repetition in various chapters. On occasion the definitions could be improved; for example, such key ideas as logic, war, group, constitutionalism, animist fallacy, and neutrality, are used often without clarification of philosophical origins. I was puzzled why Knopff did not use the shorthand “technocracy” for the longer and obtuse phrase “social technology.” It is clear that the new rationalistic social order will be administered by legal technicians, not engineers. The determinism underneath the social reconstruction is really a mechanistic social theory with a behaviourist psychology.
The main problem of the book is that the underlying political dilemma is not solved. The author is well aware of the philosophical dilemma presented by his argument. On page 23 he hints at it and offers a modest analysis, but no political solution. How can we save the classical liberal notions of freedom and rights without being forced to also admit the modern antiliberal version now current? My answer to that is that modern “liberalism” is not a direct descendent of “classical liberalism.” Thomas Sowell has exposed the vast differences in worldview between the two visions in his A Conflict of Visions. The history of philosophy is not a seamless web of interlocking rationality despite George Grant’s view of Plato.
More seriously, Knopff seems to be arguing that parliament ought to be given a better chance at correcting itself. But the book does not provide a good solution to the shortcomings of parliament itself. Knopff admits, in passing on page 175, that the parliamentary traditions in Canada were very elitist. In fact, I would say that Canada has nothing to brag about in terms of tolerance for minorities. To hint that parliament will help minorities is nonsense, just ask any labour or education historian. The Canadian treatment of natives and non-English/French immigrants is as dismal and exploitative as any in the 19th century. Canadian democracy is not designed to be open and multicultural but assimilationist and hierarchical.
Further, while I too, like Knopff, am a great admirer of Canadian philosopher George Grant, I do not think that he had an answer to the modern political dilemmas either. As long as he and his followers keep looking at philosophy through bifocals, namely, the “ancients versus moderns” schema, there is no solution to the Locke versus Rousseau controversy on the foundations of freedom. Further, Grant, like Reginald Bibby, laments the failure to pursue “the good life” while not facing the fact that in Canada there is no viable orthodox version of “Canada.”
In my view, human rights will only be put on a solid foundation if the role of Christian theology in Western society is openly admitted by philosophers and politicians. Human rights in the “classical” sense were made possible legally because the European social order was historically determined by a Christian morality, not one based on natural theology but on divine law administered and enforced by the church (canon law). The ancients did not believe in freedom or human rights. The crisis we have today is the de facto collapse of the Christian moral tradition. It is this theological structure of Western morality that provided the modern concept of human dignity, while the institutional church provided the political weight against the ambitions of the state. With the disappearance of the political power of the church as a check on the state, we are now facing the prospect of the triumph of secular totalitarianism cloaked in the language of human rights. That should cast fear and terror in the hearts of even the most avid human rights fan.
Professor Knopff has unmasked the new ideology of human perfection. Perhaps we can soon see another book expanding on his ideas of the political solutions. In the meantime, read this book!