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Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry Hardcover – October 1, 2001

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Product Details

  • Series: University Center for Human Values Series
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (October 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691088934
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691088938
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,019,546 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry may raise some hackles for its controversial approach to a sacrosanct subject, but Michael Ignatieff's arguments are carefully wrought and compassionate. Ignatieff is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, and his work is part history of the evolution of human rights in international politics and part caution that it not become a new religion. He writes, "We need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation."

The book centers on two essays by Ignatieff. In the second, "Human Rights as Idolatry," he identifies three main challenges to the universality of human rights: Islam, East Asia, and, most interestingly, the West itself. According to Ignatieff, the West is forsaking its political heritage of individualism and thereby eroding the foundations upon which a truly universal system of human rights may be built. In addition to the author's intriguing essays, there is an introduction by Amy Gutmann, as well as comments from K. Anthony Appiah, David A. Hollinger, Thomas W. Laqueur, and Diane F. Orentlicher. The critical reactions to Ignatieff, together with a short response of his own, have the makings of an intelligent and accessible debate. --Eric de Place

From Publishers Weekly

The strength in this sensible, dense collection of essays about the burgeoning human rights movement lies not in the answers it gives but in the questions it raises. Based on lectures Ignatieff delivered at Princeton in 2000, the book opens with two long essays by the historian, journalist and novelist who directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, followed by comments from four leading scholars, including K. Anthony Appiah, with a final response from Ignatieff (Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond). A philosophical liberal and a strong believer in the power of constitutions, Ignatieff boldly confronts difficult issues. He tries, with some success, to balance the often conflicting needs for human rights and for the sovereignty of nation-states: "the problem in Western human rights policy is that by promoting ethnic self-determination, we may actually endanger the stability" necessary for human rights, because "we can be certain that self-determination for some groups will be purchased with the blood of the minorities in their midst." He also laments rhetoric that casts human rights as what Elie Wiesel called a "secular religion," maintaining that this notion alienates cultures wherein religion dictates governmental policy. Only when these trends are tempered, he contends, will human rights make serious inroads throughout the world, which he believes is more ready for these rights than is generally thought. The respondents cordially critique Ignatieff's practical arguments as watered down and morally relativist. Those looking for specific policy proposals for addressing these difficult issues may be unsatisfied. But Ignatieff illuminates complexities likely to make headlines as the call for intervention regarding worldwide human rights continues to grow. This book will undoubtedly provoke controversy within the human rights community.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Reihan M. Salam on December 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Ignatieff offers a measured, limited, and explicitly political, i.e., dialogic, nondogmatic, nonmetaphysical, pragmatic, approach to human rights advocacy and questions of international jurisdiction. Excellent, compelling, convincing. I can't say I'm entirely convinced, mind you. One surprise is that I found Appiah's essay--I am a great admirer of Appiah and, in my estimation, his reply to Taylor in _Multiculturalism: The Politics of Recognition_ is among the finest essays ever written--unconvincing, particularly with regards to the question of "rights and majorities." On this, see Jeremy Waldron's _Law and Disagreement_.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Reader From Aurora on November 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
'Human Rights' is a small book that discusses some current issues pertaining to human rights from an idealistic western foreign policy perspective. Ignatieff is a Canadian born foreign policy commentator who has spent the majority of his professional life in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Ignatieff's two opening essays are followed by observations from other commentators; which in-turn are followed by closing remarks from the author. This type of discussion format is normally quite beneficial in helping readers to gain an appreciation of a given subject from a different perspectives. Unfortunately, in this work the additional commentators are to close to the author's ideological view to be of any real value. Dianne Orentlicher's observations were ok, however, the others were weak - characterized by too much flattery and self-aggrandizement.

The opening essays introduce a range of concerns within the contemporary human rights movement. Ignatieff identified relevant concerns such as; the tension between individual and collective rights, the view that the human rights movement is a type of Western imperialism, whether secular human rights is a form of cultural relativism as well as the need to balance rights and security/stability. I have heard the author speak on foreign policy issues and find him to be a generally capable foreign policy commentator.

Overall, there is not much of value in this book. If handled from a broader perspective these issues could be a worthwhile read. In its current form, however, I do not recommend it.
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Format: Paperback
Ignatieff presents a broad analysis of human rights, and human rights theory. His first of two essays focuses primarily on the politics and application of human rights, while his second essay engages more deeply into human rights theory. His arguments are generally logical and well thought (I have yet to find a writer whose ideas I agreed with in their entirety). He is a good writer in that he presents his arguments in a manner that is clear, intelligent, and followable. This book seems capable both as serving as an introduction to human rights theory, and as an important next read for the human rights researcher/activist.
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36 of 109 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Ignatieff's credibility, particularly in the field of human rights, is forever tarnished by his marked appeasement of Serb ethnic cleansers in Bosnia several years ago. It is only because Bosnia was ignored, and those responsible never held accountable, that their appeasers still publish and get read. I recommend, for those who want some perpective on Ignatieff, to read his works pertaining to the Balkans written during the period 1992-1995.
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