The philosopher Charles Taylor is a sadly endangered type: the philosopher-statesman. Born in Montreal in 1931, Taylor studied at McGill and Oxford, where he was a pupil of Isaiah Berlin and G.E.M. Anscombe. In 1961 he returned to his hometown to teach at McGill, and during the next decade he lost four races for the House of Commons, most notably in 1965 to future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. By the end of the decade, Taylor was sufficiently well-known as a politico that even his writing two successive books on Hegel could not tarnish his public reputation. Taylor later taught at Oxford, then McGill again, and more recently at Northwestern. Over the years his interests have shifted from analytic philosophy to the concrete political realm; he has made major contributions to the fields of human rights, multiculturalism and communitarianism.
Taylor is particularly animated by the problem of Québécois nationalism, which concerns—and perhaps has determined—two of his chief sympathies: liberal democracy and multiculturalism, not just within societies but among them. Those sympathies conflict, of course. On the one hand, Taylor knows that liberal democracies are supposed to treat all people equally; on the other hand, he is sympathetic to his concitoyens’ desire for a French Quebec, an assertion of ethnic chauvinism that mandates legal privileges for one ethnic group and disabilities for another, such as the law prohibiting commercial signs in English.
As Taylor sees it, Quebec is not merely his worry but all of ours. For what he is asking—along with contemporaries like K. Anthony Appiah, Seyla Benhabib and Amy Gutmann—is how the Western liberal can reconcile a preference for liberal democracy with the illiberalism necessary for cultural preservation or self-preservation, which many accept as understandable goals. To those who feel that this tension is not easily resolved, the Jewish character of Israel, say, is not just a case of ethnic chauvinism—it is also the embodiment of a people’s aspirations to endure and thrive. At the same time, the believer in cultural preservation will be sympathetic to the Palestinian people—not just as individuals seeking justice but as a community with collective aspirations that could not be fulfilled by citizenship in some other Arab country.
The tension between liberal democracy and certain kinds of preference—whether the preference is construed as ethnic, religious, national or all three—at times feels unbearable for the Western liberal. Americans, as it happens, are particularly ill suited to dealing with the claims of religious and ethnic pride. We get to eat our cake in a country that is basically nice to us all, Scientologist and Sikh alike. The United States, for all its paroxysms of xenophobia, is unusual for being a country where ethnic chauvinism has basically no popular support or institutional sanction. (Representative Peter King’s recent hearings on American Muslim support for terrorism are a shameful exception.) Here, even outright bigots tend not to think anymore that their bigotry should be written into the law. With two possible exceptions—affirmative action and the case of self-governing Indian reservations—America pretty uniformly sides with liberal democracy, one adult/one vote, hedged by colorblind constitutional rights. Yet this is decidedly not the case for many other countries, even our closest cousins: Britain contends with Scottish nationalism and, of course, the once-violent conflict in Ireland; while Canada has, in addition to its native peoples, the far more politically charged issue of Québécois nationalism.