Review Essay: Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship; Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, Citizenship in Diverse Societies

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Subject: Review Essay: Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship; Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, Citizenship in Diverse Societies

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Review Essay: Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular:
Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship; Will Kymlicka and
Wayne Norman, Citizenship in Diverse Societies

Squaring the Circle? Towards a Theory of Liberal Democracy,
Citizenship, and Minority Rights
Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism,
Multiculturalism, and Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2001. 383 pp., bibliog., index; 12.99 (paper), ISBN: 0199240981; 40.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-19-829665-7.
Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, Citizenship in Diverse Societies,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 383 pp., bibliog., index; 15.99
(paper), ISBN 0-19-829770-X; 57.12 (cloth), ISBN: 0198296444.
Reviewed by Stefan Wolff (, University of Bath,
England, UK
At least since his 1995 book on Multicultural Citizenship, Will
Kymlicka has been recognised as one of the foremost political
philosophers addressing the sensitive issue of how liberal democracies
should deal with the rights of (ethnic) minorities, and his work has
been most strongly associated with a school of thought that believes
that special group (or collective) rights are not only compatible with
general liberal principles, but are indeed the way forward to
accommodate minority claims within liberal-democratic frameworks of
governance. No matter if one subscribes to this view or not, Kymlicka
is a provocative and intellectually stimulating writer whose ideas
have much to offer and have become part of a wider philosophical and
political discourse on minority rights.
In the 2001 collection of essays Politics in the Vernacular, Kymlicka
has put together fifteen articles and three review essays written (and
mostly previously published) since 1995. They document his own
intellectual development since the publication of Multicultural
Citizenship and are at the same time an interesting account of the
debate within the discipline. In four parts, Kymlicka explores The
Evolution of the Minority Rights Debate (chapters 1-3), Ethnocultural
Justice (chapters 4-9), Misunderstanding Nationalism (chapters 10-15),
and Democratic Citizenship in Multiethnic States (chapters 16-18). In
responding to objections to, and criticisms of, his own theory of
minority rights as well as in critically reviewing the work of other
writers in the field, Kymlicka seeks to strengthen his own argument.
The degree to which he succeeds in doing so will depend very much on
the convictions of his respective readers. The debate between
individualists and collectivists in the discourse on minority rights
has become too much entrenched by now as that conversions from one
school of thought to the other seem likely, and even those who
question the rigidity of the division will find enough evidence in
Kymlickas essays that they can use in support of their particular
Does this then make this collection a point- or worthless publication?
Certainly not. It is an excellent analysis of a wide variety of issues
of great importance in the current discourses on democracy,
nationalism, minority rights, ethnic conflict, etc. from one
particular point of view. Chapter 5, for example, analyses democratic
(as opposed to communist) federalism as a means of taming the force of
nationalism (p. 92), arguing that it has this capability precisely
because it respects individual rights and freedoms alongside those of
minority groups. Yet, the chapter is not simply an exercise of praise,
but it addresses how boundaries of federal subunits are drawn, and how
powers are distributed between different levels of government as these
are pivotal issues for the fair accommodation of minority nationalisms
(p. 93). To give another example, n chapter 14, American
Multiculturalism in the International Arena, Kymlicka examines the
positive and negative impact that the particular conception of
multiculturalism in the United States has had on the development of
the discourse on, and practice of, multiculturalism elsewhere.
Focussing particularly on Central and Eastern Europe in his analysis
of the negative impact of American ideas on multiculturalism, Kymlicka
argues that the American mantra that the solution to ethnic conflict
is individual rights not group rights (p. 273) has not just been
unhelpful, but has been potentially dangerous to democracy itself for
two reasons. It helped marginalize liberal intellectuals in these
countries [in Central and Eastern Europe  S.W.] (p. 273) who sought
guidance from American liberals where the latter had very little to
offer. The second reason Kymlicka gives is that the language of civic
nationalism used in the United States in debates on multiculturalism
can be, and has been, used in Central and Eastern Europe to justify
policies that inhibit national minorities from expressing a distinct
national identity and demanding national rights. (p.273) What Kymlicka
fails to acknowledge by focussing on the American intellectual debate
is that there has been a significant shift in American political
practice on the issue of group rights over the past several years,
most notably in relation to the Balkans and as early as the Dayton
The final three chapters deal with the issue of Democratic Citizenship
in Multiethnic States, and here Kymlicka explores the role of
education, globalisation, and ideology (more precisely his preference
of procedural liberalism over civic republicanism) in how to retain
the viability of the concept of democratic citizenship in a changing
and increasingly diverse world. These chapters identify some of the
crucial issues that will dominate the public discourse in the years to
come and Kymlicka makes a worthwhile effort to position his liberal
theory of minority rights within this debate.
The notion of Citizenship in Diverse Societies is also at the centre
of attention in the volume edited by Kymlicka and Norman, in which the
editors and contributors seek to connect the rights and status of
ethnocultural minorities in multiethnic societies  and the virtues,
practices, and responsibilities of democratic citizenship (p. 3).
Although this does not amount to a full-fledged theory of citizenship,
the individual essays deal with important issues that any such theory
would have to address: education and religious diversity, political
participation and representation, immigration, gender issues, language
issues, the rights of indigenous peoples, and federalism. While some
of the issues are treated on a more abstract level rather than in the
context of concrete case studies (e.g., Jeremy Waldron on cultural
identity, and Rainer Baubck on secession and federalism), the
discussion in general goes beyond purely normative considerations
about the rights and wrongs of different approaches to any of these
individual aspects. Quite a number of authors place their elaborations
in concrete policy debates, primarily in Canada (e.g., Eamonn Callan
on religious schools in Ontario, and Denise Raume on official language
rights) and the US (e.g., Jeff Spinner-Halev on religion in public and
private education), but also in Europe (Tariq Modood on ethnic
minorities and their identities in the UK, and Sawitri Saharso on
female autonomy in the Netherlands). This mix of theoretical debate
and policy orientation makes the book fairly accessible to a wide
range of readers, especially those who have had little or no exposure
to the debate so far. This accessibility is also helped by a
comprehensive introduction Kymlicka and Norman provide to their
subject that positions the issues raised in later chapters in the
context of two broader debates on minority rights and citizenship; and
overall the volume succeeds in bridging the still-existing gap between
the two.
The two books make a significant contribution to the further
development of both theory and practice of accommodating population
diversity within liberal democracies. They highlight the difficulties
that many such systems of governance have with the recognition of
group rights, but also show the amount of progress that has been made
in this respect of the last several years. As such, all the individual
essays in both books also make an important contribution to the
further development of the theory of democracy, even though they are
unable to deliver such an enhanced theory. This is hardly the fault of
their authors/editors, who never claimed to pursue such a venture, but
it highlights the need for more conceptual thinking to overcome the
(probably increasing) gap between the challenges contemporary liberal
democracies face and our intellectual tools to address them.

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