Feb 13

Universal Rights as National Identity?

Written by Allen on Saturday, February 13th, 2010 at 8:45 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, aside, General, Opinion, politics | Tags:, ,
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Going along with my intention to write about things that are lighter during this New Year’s season, I’d like to share with you an article I came across Time magazine today. The article is titled Why France’s National Identity Debate Backfired. Here is a short excerpt.

It was launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government three months ago with much hype and patriotic ebullition — a series of 100-plus town hall meetings across France to debate what it means to be French in the 21st century. But after opponents on the left and right alike criticized the initiative as a Machiavellian way of casting immigrants, their French-born children and especially Muslims as a threat to France’s national identity, government officials slowly began to distance themselves from the initiative and it ended this week with a whimper. Authorities issued a list of largely symbolic measures that are intended to shore up patriotism, but which critics say will ultimately have little impact on society.

Many observers saw the exercise as a political ploy — an effort by the conservative government to seduce extreme right-wing voters by fanning nationalist flames ahead of regional elections next month. Other critics said that while discussing French identity isn’t objectionable in itself, people used the scores of open debates and the government’s online forum to voice opinions that only served to offend public sensibilities.

Indeed, the proposals put forward by Prime Minister Francois Fillon this week to bolster patriotism are hardly revolutionary in scope. They include a requirement for schools to fly the French flag (most already do) and for each classroom to display the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ditto). Authorities also called for naturalized foreigners to meet unspecified linguistic and integration requirements and instructed schools to issue “Young Citizen’s Logs” to children in which they can record their civic actions.

One reason I am bringing this up is because we’ve had discussions here about Chinese national identity, and people have snickered at the efforts. Do the French efforts seem equally “dumb” and “clumsy”?

A second reason relates to the bolded sentences above. I can understand that the French flag to be a symbol of French identity, but why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is truly universal, wouldn’t that make it a symbol of humanity instead of French identity? Shouldn’t the French pick something more uniquely French?  If the French must pick some “natural” “self-evidence” law, shouldn’t the French pick something more concrete and perhaps more profound like say F=ma or e=mc^2?

Perhaps the answer is that the French believe they “discovered” the Universal declaration on behalf of humanity and feel pride the same way the Chinese feel pride about inventing the compass or the paper or the printing block?

Do other nations in Europe feel the same?  That is – do the Germans, Spanish, or Italians also see the Universal Declaration of Human Right as part of their national identity?

Could it be … maybe … that the human rights as narrowly articulated in the West is just a cultural artifact? That their promotion around the world is an attempt to spread cultural – and perhaps political – influence?

There are currently 2 comments highlighted: 61459, 63554.

25 Responses to “Universal Rights as National Identity?”

  1. Pompinelli Says:

    I think the reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is mistaken. What was probably meant was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which is a uniquely French document and is a treasured symbol of their revolution. Here’s a link to the wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen

  2. Otto Kerner Says:

    Do the French efforts seem equally “dumb” and “clumsy”?

    Yes, the French efforts seem quite dumb and clumsy. Doesn’t the article you’re referencing have a generally negative tone?

  3. Allen Says:

    @Otto Kerner #2,

    Maybe I have missed something, but in general I thought the article was quite balanced. I didn’t get any sense that the article had a generally negative tone.

    The article described a failed attempt by politicians to assess French identity and perhaps stoke some French nationalism but never attacked French identity or nationalism. Negative comments about the currently bogged down “process” were qualified assigning them to “critics.”

  4. Allen Says:

    @Pompinelli #1,

    You wrote:

    I think the reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is mistaken. What was probably meant was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which is a uniquely French document and is a treasured symbol of their revolution.

    This is interesting. If you are right, I wonder if the mistake itself may be revealing. When people in the States study about the Bill of Rights, they study them in the context of “natural rights” – of “God given rights.” People hold up and equate Constitutional rights with universal rights.

    The symbol of American nationalism (as I understand it today) is “liberty” and “freedom.” (hear for example this popular country song). Voicing those words (“liberty” and “freedom”), especially in the aftermath of 911, has become tantamount to waiving the American flag.

    Obama has told students in Shanghai that he was not going to be shy about standing up for “American values.” Of course, the problem occurs when Americans believe their values to be the only truth.

    I was just wondering if the same thing may be happening in France. That is they mistake for what they strongly believe in to be something Universal. Bloggers about China care because citizens in such nations can become easy prey to leaders who then mislead them to agree to use force against others in the name of promoting universal rights.

  5. Otto Kerner Says:


    I guess we’re referring to different things. When you said, “efforts”, I thought you meant this specific initiative and/or previous related initiatives. I didn’t notice the article taking any position whatsoever on French identity and nationalism except regarding the specific initiative — not even a balanced one. Assigning criticism to third-party critics is a time-tested method of disguising editorial opinions, but you’re right that the article isn’t a strongly-worded denunciation of the current process.

  6. Pompinelli Says:

    Allen (#4),

    I wouldn’t worry about the French. Their main concern as far as rights and values goes is cultural distinctness in its immigrant communities, which they dislike. In particular is a fear of the Muslim community brought about by 9/11 and terrorist attacks in Britiain which has been more tolerant of cultural diversity. There has been controversy in France in recent years over the banning of overt religious dress and jewelery (aimed mostly at Muslim hijabs and veils) in schools and the proposed banning of the aforementioned clothing from public altogether.

  7. ChinkTalk Says:

    Gung Hee Fat Choy everybody…………………….for those who are giving out Lisees (red envolopes), I am here to graciously receive them…………………….

  8. jxie Says:

    OK, just trying to get some ideas out and hopefully getting some intelligent discussions…

    You can pretty much sum up the desires of a typical human, being an individual, as material well being, liberty, property, life, security, personal enlightenment, freedom of movement and migration — not necessarily in that order, with the part in italic covered by the French declaration and the American declaration in the late 18th century. I would think, for a human society as a whole, the ideal and the goal are maximum total achievement of those desires. However, are those desires “natural rights”, as claimed by the declarations? Is it possible by putting those desires on a pedestal as “rights”, that the total achievement of those desires may not be maximum?

    With those desires get promoted to a somewhat holy level “right”, to me, there are some unintended consequences for a society. Case in point, the rebuilding of the WTC after 9/11. By my count, the victims’ families, environmentalists, NYPD, NY state governor, NYC mayor, Larry Silverstein, Donald Trump (solely as a concerned citizen), a Yale student who accused the architect stealing his idea, all managed to delay the process by exercising their freedom of speech, through a combination of lawsuits, threat of lawsuits, and media pressure. As of now, the official completion date is 2013, and according to some NYC media it may be as late as 2018. What many don’t seem to realize is with the new WTC not built, the additional office space and many job opportunities won’t exist. While the “right” to freedom of speech of a handful is fully respected, the achievement of the desires of many others is denied.

    After Qin Shi Huang united China, the bulk of time China was ruled by stable dynasties peacefully. Overall tyrannical emperors were few and far in between. An ideal Confucianism society is built upon educated, enlightened and honorable individuals. In many of those dynasties, most of the time emperors were subject to many limitations for the good of the nation (天下社稷). A few examples:

    * The power was balanced between the emperor, various government branches, some of which led by 宰相 (prime minister). The power structure and the arrangement varied from dynasty to dynasty, and from period to period.

    * A set of government officials named 台谏, which has no Western equivalent. Their duties and setup varied in time. A lot of time their duties included audit, monitoring of other government officials, impeachment of officials up to prime minister, advice and critique to emperor. There were times that those 台谏 even rejected the directives by the emperors.

    * Property was well respected in many dynasties. For example, in Song, once an emperor’s expansion plan of the royal palace was denied by property owners in the capital not willing to give up their land. Also when Ming was near its end and faced the rebellion army outside of Beijing, the Ming court ran out of money to pay its army. The emperor tried to borrow money from the wealthy families to fund the army, and he was rejected — that was a mistake by the wealthy families because when the rebels sacked the city, their properties were forcefully taken.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is not a quixotic attempt to revive some ancient Chinese empires. It’s rather a musing that drawing from its own rich history, modern China should and can have its own distinctive path to its ideal society of maximum total achievement of individuals’ desires.

    BTW, it is interesting that such declarations were in the US and France, not in the Dutch Republic and the UK of which the living standards were quite a bit higher than the former two. The US was trying to gain independence from being a British colony, and the France just emerged from an odiously oppressive monarchy and still in a bloody revolution — in other words, both were in a state that personal desires were far from being achieved. On the other hand, in the case of the UK, it was a progressive monarchy with a functional parliament. There was no Louis XV in the UK.

  9. Allen Says:

    @ChinkTalk #7,

    Here you go. Take your pick!

  10. ChinkTalk Says:

    Why, Allen, very generous of you. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the tradition is that if you are a single person, you are supposed to give one Lisee and if you are married, you are to give two, one from you and the other for your spouse.

    Now, Allen, with all those Lisees you are giving me, how many wives do you really have?

  11. kui Says:

    Happy new year to everyone at FM.

  12. ChinkTalk Says:

    Speaking of human rights, I have been reading from this blog where foreign expats living in Shanghai post their opinions.

    This particular post is about traveling in Tibet. According to the comments there appears to be quite a military presence and strict control on liberty in Tibet, I am just wondering if this is true or it is just a bit exaggerated.


  13. marianne Liberte Says:

    Many missunderstanding within this post:

    It is the declaration of human right and citizen written in 1789 (one month after the french revolution). This declaration is not the one of the UN of 1948.

    The whole french law system and culture is based on the ideas within this declarations, a few impressive example:
    –> illegal Chinese immigrant (or whatever nationality) can in France get married officially by the local french government mayor of any city because getting married is a basic human right. They will not get arrested just after getting married.
    –> illegal immigrant will also be receive and cure in the hospital, as the basic health care is a basic right. (We do not let people die because of money like it is done in China).
    –> illegal immigrant even organize some official demonstration (many do it to ask to become legal), and they are not arrested as demonstration is a basic right.

    It might sound strange, but in french mind, basic universal right are basic universal right, thus you need to apply them for everybody, even illegal immigrant who are also human like any french.

    According to the preamble of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic (adopted on 4 October 1958, and the current constitution), the principles set forth in the Declaration have constitutional value. Many laws and regulations have been canceled because they did not comply with those principles as interpreted by the Conseil Constitutionnel (“Constitutional Council of France”) or the Conseil d’État (“Council of State”).

    We can understand that they want to put this declaration in classroom, thus if the guys writing this post go to emigrate in France and go to school, he will have the opportunity to read this text and thus better understand the culture of the country in which he now live.

    And if the declaration of human right should be a commonly apply of all the world, just checking the reality make you realize that we are very far away in many country… and even the democratic countries do not fully apply it. Thus, every country should maybe put the declaration of 1948 (or the french one of 1789 if they want) in their classroom.

  14. Josef Says:

    to answer that:

    Do other nations in Europe feel the same? That is – do the Germans, Spanish, or Italians also see the Universal Declaration of Human Right as part of their national identity?

    Definitely not. Like Marianne Liberte wrote this ideas were born during the French revolution. All other European countries staid far behind, they had similar minor achievements, like jixie wrote that they happened in ancient china, but to my knowledge this radical formulation of human rights was unheard before.

    jixie, on “declarations were in the US and France, not in the Dutch Republic and the UK “:
    To my opinion this is not so surprising. From cultural point of view (musicians, writers, scientists) Dutch and UK staid behind, especially in the 18 century. If you want: Trade was their game and they were just to busy to collect all the money from their colonies to reflect on other things.

  15. jxie Says:

    @marianne #13

    illegal immigrant will also be receive and cure in the hospital, as the basic health care is a basic right. (We do not let people die because of money like it is done in China)

    So long as we are clear that the basic health care “right” is funded by the current and future tax payers, and you don’t need a vivid imagination to think of a scenario that the system becomes unsustainable in the near future. If you build your society on the foundation that this “right” is inviolable, the society as a whole will be in trouble.

    Sure it’s a comforting thought your fellow citizens will take care of you.

    @Josef #14

    I wouldn’t sell Austria and Prussia short culturally in the late 18th century. Neither did they make any similar declaration.

  16. Josef Says:

    In Austria and Prussia you had this so called “Freimaurer” movement, – Mozart, for example, is regarded to have joined one of the lodges. I am not aware of any declaration either, but there were similar ideas around.

    The more important point is: I do not see France using their national identity to justify exceptions to any human rights ideas. But again, here formulated as question like:

    >> Could it be … maybe … that the human rights as narrowly articulated in the West is just a cultural artifact?
    That their promotion around the world is an attempt to spread cultural – and perhaps political – influence?<<

    human rights for China are challenged. It is again surprising for me, that people, who exactly enjoy this freedoms (as living in the U.S.) denies them for China and even support their suppression to be exported i.e. to Taiwan.

  17. S.K.Cheung Says:

    “Could it be … maybe … that the human rights as narrowly articulated in the West is just a cultural artifact? That their promotion around the world is an attempt to spread cultural – and perhaps political – influence?”
    —what constitutes such rights, and how they are articulated, may vary somewhat from nation to nation and culture to culture. What’s more important is that each nation’s people get to decide what they hold most true and dear, and consider inalienable. Then what’s needed is for a legal system that ensures that such rights are preserved in the face of political influence, both from without, and in some cases, from within.

    As for an attempt to spread influence, you need someone prepared to spread it, and someone prepared to take it in. There’s an element of choice on both ends of this “spreading” arrangement.

  18. TonyP4 Says:

    The yardstick of a developed country on human rights is different from a developing country. I wrote the following satire for fun.

  19. Rhan Says:

    Hi SKC,

    “As for an attempt to spread influence, you need someone prepared to spread it, and someone prepared to take it in. There’s an element of choice on both ends of this “spreading” arrangement.””

    Is the same apply to let say CCP and propaganda?

  20. S. K. Cheung Says:

    “Is the same apply to let say CCP and propaganda?”
    —absolutely. We know the CCP is willing, able, and prepared to spread it. The question is whether the people are prepared to take it in. The ancillary question is whether they are availed to the element of choice in the matter.

  21. r v Says:

    Same people who enjoy trash news, are more than willing to “take it”.


  22. S. K. Cheung Says:

    To 21:
    ummm, I talking about Chinese people. Care to rephrase? Or maybe just save yourself some time and don’t bother.

  23. Josef Says:

    @S.K.Cheung. That is correct, “Human Rights” might vary. To my opinion an overall condemnation as “cultural artifact” is as wrong as an strict word-by-word interpretation.
    The more important it is, to be specific. Let’s take, as an example FM and the opinions published in there. Allen wrote in his farewell that:

    >>What is also missing is that for more than a year now, Foolsmountain has been blocked in China – reducing the possibility for Chinese in China to participate.<<

    I would call the possibility to publish your opinion and to read other opinions within FM as "Human Right". At least in this case it is not just a "cultural artifact".
    A provocative question: Tony4P, do you think China, as a developing country, has the right to block FM?

  24. TonyP4 Says:

    #23, Josef, I do not understand the logic of China blocking FM at all. FM has been debating for China, helping the west to understand China and Chinese in mainland understanding the west. It used to be a two-way communication although we do not always agree with each other.

    It shows CCP is not confident in their leadership to compare itself to the west, but time will change for the better. China is pretty much opened up today. A richer China leads to more demand from the citizens after the basic necessities.

  25. Wukailong Says:

    @TonyP4 (#24): Web censorship is a semi-automatic process mostly working on keywords. In a few cases, such as with YouTube, the whole site was blocked because it contained a group of videos somebody didn’t like. Some sites, like Wikipedia or Blogger, are blocked for the very same reason.

    From what I’ve gathered, this site was blocked because of references to Tibet and Xinjiang. The government probably doesn’t care much about a dialogue between people in the West, and currently the dialogue here is mostly between Chinese Americans and other Westerners, rather than between Chinese and Westerners.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to sound cynical. It’s a great discussion forum and I do believe it does have an impact, but these ideological things do not work the same way. Most people in the US or Europe have been living under the “rule of law” (法治) for too long and expect things to have causes that can be written into a document. Here it’s still very much the “rule of man” (人治) and it gives you a different intuitive set. Most of the time, people know how to avoid to pat the tiger’s butt. 🙂 Avoid sensitive topics and you will be fine.

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