Sunday, March 27, 2011

Politics and Belonging

Michael Ignatieff has been on my radar for decades. During that time, I have managed to read twelve of his seventeen books of both fiction and non-fiction, and I will confess that we don’t always see eye to eye. Fair enough. I don’t even agree with myself all the time. Still, I agree with him for the most part. In fact, the opening quote in my own book, Some Become Flowers came from his: The Needs of Strangers

If we need love, it is for the reasons that go beyond the happiness it brings; it is for the connection, the rootedness, it gives us with others. Most of the things we need most deeply in life – love chief among them – do not necessarily bring us happiness. If we need them, it is to go to the depth of our being, to learn as much of ourselves as we can stand, to be reconciled to what we find in ourselves and in those around us

It is a rare person – let alone a politician - who explores serious questions with that depth of feeling and understanding. In Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, published in 1993, he builds on this understanding of what we need both as individuals and as citizens. There is always a dance between these two kinds of needs. He explores the consequences of the kind of nationalism that is based upon ethnicity, religion and race – the kind of nationalism that we see boiling over in so many countries nearly two decades later - resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The concerns he explored in this book were prescient.

His argument was that we would all be safer if we could nurture a kind of civic nationalism that included everyone and was backed by democratically determined law, order and transparency. The questions he posed in this and other books are as valid today as they were then. How do we get there? How do we sustain this? How do we fix things when they get broken? In any culture, when narratives take root that are based on stories of us against them, using the approach of bringing out the guns usually deepens the divide. Eventually, there may be a truce, but the rage that has been fuelled by grief and loss usually festers on for a few more generations.

Blood and Belonging was written in conjunction with a BBC documentary series, but the book is not simply a mash-up of television-suitable images. It is also a book of ideas, and it is this fusion of ideas and images that elicits deep feeling and thought.

I recall crying as I read the passages where Ignatieff described visiting his grandparents' homelands in the Ukraine. He described running his hands over the cuts in the white marble of his great-grandfather's grave, and thinking of the fact that three million people in this region had died of hunger between 1931-32, and that a further two or three million more had been deported to Siberia. The cuts in this marble slab had come from butcher's knives. In the 1930s, the crypt had been turned into a slaughterhouse, a deliberate profaning of the dead which had actually been encouraged by the communist regime. It was part and parcel with the shift that they wanted people to make, a change in narrative. In spite of this, Ignatieff appreciated that the people that he was meeting with and listening to in Ukraine in the the early 1990s were rooted in their land in a way that he could never be, as a descendant of recent immigrants to Canada. He also came to understand: 

...what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other, but to the dead buried beneath their feet.

If there is a common thread in all of Ignatieff’s books, it is that community is not built and sustained by fanning hurts and divisions, but rather it is kept alive and can only remain vital when there are people who are prepared to listen and to work across the fault lines of disagreements. I particularly appreciated his work in The Warrior’s Honour, in a chapter where he explored the Freudian notion of the narcissism of minor difference in the context of late 20th century feuds and wars. 

The transformation of brothers into enemies has puzzled the human imagination at least since Genesis. For Genesis begins the story of mankind not with a murder between strangers, but between brothers.

When I recently reread this passage, I asked myself: Why does this make me think of the Canadian House of Commons these days? How do we go about healing this dysfunction? One part of the answer from where I sit in the quiet town of Roberts Creek would be: not by keeping on with more of the same. On this score, I’ll give Ignatieff the last word, from his book The Needs of Strangers, a book which was published in 1984 when he was in his mid-30s:

...if you ask me what my needs are, I will tell you that I need the chance to understand and be understood, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, and the chance to create something which will outlast my life, and the chance to belong to a society whose purposes and commitments I share.

Yesterday, I received word that my son-in-law’s grandmother had died at 7:00 AM that morning. She was a woman whose generosity of spirit was frequently voiced in political action throughout her long and effective life. I wrote this to be, in some way, in honour of this life - Sarah Berkovitz, d. March 26, 2011.


  1. Interesting post!

    Macleans posted the audio of Ignatieff's opening campaign speech and I was surprised at how good it was. Here's a link:

  2. I listened to the speech, and I have to agree.

  3. Thanks for this post, Sharon. I've never read any of Ignatieff's books, but you have made me want to search them out.

  4. Could this please be on the front pages of every type of media available? People need to know. Thanks for sharing this Sharon.

  5. I agree with Wizard... I could never vote for Harper, but he's not a stupid man - the trouble is a willful misapplication of intelligence.

    The fact that we can have a candidate for Prime Minister who is well-read, never mind a prolific and astute writer who understands that without soul, no economics will ever make sense. Capitalism without compassion is an atrocity; an ego that is not right-sized is arrogance (get your name out of my Government, Harper).