Universal Rights as National Identity?
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?
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