culture or sex; on the other lies the communitarian view that situates rights in a ‘‘ thick’’ soup of traditional religion, ethics and custom against which members of that community can make claims. And underlying these conceptual frameworks are the exigencies of real life. Despite the multiplication of international human rights agencies and instrumentalities in the past few decades, it is still states that guarantee the rights, and exact the obligations, of their citizens — exemplified originally by the US constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
This is what makes the plight of the millions of uprooted and stateless across the world so desperate. In the real world, the cosmopolitan ideal is more narrowly defined within the boundaries of one’s own country: in liberal, Western, secular countries, that means the law is blind to personal biographical details and also to individual conceptions of values and the good. It is not the place of government to take any religious or cultural viewpoint: these belong in the private sphere and within civil society, and the government’s only role is to uphold the individual’s freedom to believe in whatever he believes in as long as he does not impede the freedom of others.
When liberal principles were first developed — most notably by 17th-century British philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke — they were intended to calm communities that were culturally monolithic but murderously separated on religion. In today’s Western immigrant societies, and especially in the wake of monstrous 20th-century nationalisms, the relationship between nationalism and liberalism is uneasy. It is difficult enough to celebrate one’s own nationality, let alone privilege that nationality, and even harder to form a conception of what it means to be of that nationality: that is, who belongs and who doesn’t. If Nazism is too long gone to summon as a spectre, its watery local version, Hansonism, is not. Patriotism still seems the last refuge of scoundrels, invoked by rabble-rousing politicians.