Time was when “human rights” was a truly large and noble idea. I associate the concept with, and its birth out of, some of the great horrors of the past century: the bestial depredations of the Nazis, their ‘race science’ and death camps, the horrors of unbridled totalitarianism – under which, the whim of the rulers was sufficient to mutilate, torture and destroy lives, collectively or individually – send millions to arctic slave camps – the debasement of internal exile and psychiatric rehabilitation.
More currently, I associate real human rights advocacy with the case of a young Saudi woman, who very recently was repeatedly gang-raped – and then she – the victim – charged and sentenced by a Saudi court to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being in a car with a male not her relative. The sentence, after international protest, was voided — but that young woman’s case represents a real example of the violation of basic human rights.
What I do not associate with this deep and noble concept is getting ticked off by something you read in a magazine – or for that matter hear on television – and then scampering off to a handful – well, three – of Canada’s proliferate human rights commissions – seeking to score off the magazine: this is what four Osgoode Hall law students and graduates — a very definition of the ‘marginalized’ — under the banner of the Canadian Islamic Congress have done after reading an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s America Alone in Maclean’s. The complainants read the article as “flagrantly islamophobic”.
Maclean’s magazine? Well, we all know what a hotbed of radical bigotry and vile prejudice Maclean’s magazine has been. Go away … for what seems like a century Maclean’s was no more “offensive” (that is the can’t term of choice these days) than a down comforter on a cold day and if Mark Steyn’s article offended them: so what? Not every article in every magazine of newspaper is meant to be a valentine card addressed to every reader’s self-esteem. Maclean’s published a bushel of letters following the article’s appearance: some praised it: others scorned it. That’s freedom of speech: that’s democracy: that’s the messy business we call the exchange of ideas and opinions.
But where does the BC Human Rights Commission, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Human Rights Commission come into this picture? Has anyone been publicly whipped? Has someone or some group been hauled off to a gulag? Is there a race frenzy sweeping the land?
Why is any human rights commission inserting itself between a magazine, a television show, a newspaper and the readers or viewers? Is every touchy, or agenda-driven sensibility now free to call upon the offices of the state and free of charge – to them – not their targets – to embroil them in “justifying” their right to write and broadcast as they see fit? The Western Standard magazine, during the so-called Danish cartoon crisis got hauled before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for publishing the cartoons that all the world was talking about. The action drained the magazine’s resources – but it was free to the complainant.
Meantime real human rights violations – threats of death against Salman Rushdie, riots after the cartoons, death threats against the artists, the persecution of Hirsi Ali, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, neither inspire nor receive human rights investigations.
Maclean’s and its columnists – especially of late – are an ornament to Canada’s civic space. They should not have to defend themselves for doing what a good magazine does: start debate, express opinion, and stir thought. And most certainly they should not have to abide the threatened censorship of any of Canada’s increasingly interfering, state appointed and paradoxically labeled human rights commissions.