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Identities, Politics, and Rights

by Austin Sarat Thomas R. Keams

The subject of rights occupies a central place in liberal political thought. This tradition posits that rights are entitlements of individuals by virtue of their personhood and that rights stand apart from politics, that rights in fact hold at bay intrusions of state policy. The essays in Identities, Politics, and Rights question these assumptions and examine how rights constitute us as subjects and are, at the same time, implicated in political struggles. In contrast to the liberal notion of rights' universality, these essays emphasize the context-specific nature of rights as well as their constitutive effects. Recognizing that political disputes throughout the world have increasingly been cast as arguments about rights, the essays in this volume examine the varied roles that rights play in political movements and contests. They argue that rights talk is used by many different groups primarily because of its fluidity. Certainly rights can empower individuals and protect them from their societies, but they also constrain them in other areas. Frequently, empowerment for one group means disabling rights for another group. Moreover, focusing on rights can both liberate and limit the imagination of the possible. By alerting us to this paradox of rights--empowerment and limitation--Identities, Politics, and Rights illuminates ongoing challenges to rights and reminds us that rights can both energize political engagement and provide a resource for defenders of the status quo.

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