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Risking Utopia: On the Edge of a New Democracy

by Irshad Manji

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have your cake and eating it, too. In fact, it’s darn healthy. But there is something coy about saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and then wolfing down a whole slice à la mode. In Risking Utopia, 20-something Toronto broadcaster and New Left politico Irshad Manji strongly intimates she has had it with identity politics – the tribal labelling of people as feminist, woman of colour, lesbian, disabled, et cetera – only to later say: “Let us be honest, then: Identity politics is like sex. Everybody does it. So what is responsible and what is reckless?” Much of the book is spent in conversation with young Canadians – some activists, some not – who are inspiring and fiercely individual, and yet have practically made a career of their various degrees of “otherness.” Manji does gamely acknowledge the internal contradictions of her own life and politics, however.

This odd book is presented as a quest for a new kind of democracy, with the jacket and press material all trumpeting an iconoclastic new political vision. But it turns out to be largely about feminism. A major theme is the racism of white, middle-class Western feminists – an issue that dominated another recent book from the same publisher, Judy Rebick and Kiké Roach’s Politically Speaking, as well as the Arsenal Pulp anthology Bringing It Home: Women Talk About Feminism in Their Lives.

Manji’s political views will hardly be revelatory to anyone who hasn’t been immersed in the chilly puddles of either the right or left for the past 10 years. Many of us thinking folk are quite familiar with the warm, swampy-grey waters of liberalism. The idea of responsible individualism is one I embrace and it’s the ideal mode of citizenry in Manji’s “Utopia of Complexity” – a republic that’s “more a notion-state than a nation-state.” This is a place in which communication is key, listening to your enemies rather than demonizing them. The main message of the book, if I understand it correctly, is voiced by 28-year-old Wen Do instructor Claire Huang Kinsley: “I’m working towards the day when we care about each other’s needs in the same way we care about our own.”

Then she adds, “I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime.” In a world where most people can’t even get along with their own families, can we really hope the butcher, the banker, and the dreadlocked tree spiker will one day all join hands and sing “Kumbaya”?