Blood and Belonging

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism is a useful and deeply felt addition to a growing literature on nationalism. The companion volume to a BBC documentary series, Blood and Belonging is intentionally a period piece, a book that could only have been written in the first half of the 1990’s, as the great wave of Western optimism engendered by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union ebbed bitterly away. It is also the work of a disillusioned man. Michael Ignatieff, willing, indeed eager, to hope for the best, concedes finally his bewilderment in the face of the inexplicable obduracy of nationalism. Like the Western statesmen of 1993-1994, Ignatieff respects the immense power and appeal of nationalist movements. More honest than these leaders, he cannot bring himself to say that this renascent nationalism is a good thing, or even something that can be endured.

Ignatieff is spiritually as well as politically and ethnically a stranger to the nationalisms he explores. He calls himself a cosmopolitan. He is a creature of the teeming multiethnic metropolises of the West. Like his fellow cosmopolitans, Ignatieff is indifferent to the passport status of the people with whom he lives and works. National cuisines, arts, and customs are treasures to be shared in common and valued at will. For the cosmopolitan, cultural chauvinism is the epitome of bad form. Ignatieff embodies the cosmopolitanism he admires. His father was an aristocrat exiled by the Russian Revolution. His mother was English. Born in Canada and educated in the United States, Ignatieff has spent most of his adult life in Great Britain and France. He is candid enough to admit, however, that cosmopolitanism and the postnationalist consciousness it inspires are frail blossoms in a hostile world. Cosmopolitanism flourishes only in the cities of the wealthiest Western states. Even there, he observes, it survives only because of the general respect for the law and the efficiency of the policy. Racial and ethnic disturbances in many Western cities, most notably in Los Angeles in 1992, demonstrate the fragility of cosmopolitanism and the propensity of even Western societies to lapse into ethnic warfare.

Like many, Ignatieff had confidently expected that the closing of the Cold War era would usher in a period of peace and ever-ramifying liberty. He thought that the world would come to accept the tolerant, democratic, and market-oriented cosmopolitan ethos. Instead, as old empires broke down, satraps were replaced by warlords, men armed not only with the arsenals of their former masters but also with ideologies based on fealty to blood and tribe. For a man of Ignatieff’s sensibilities, this could be seen only as a fall, a return to a more primitive and barbarous level of existence. Ignatieff is too sophisticated a man of the world and too imbued with contemporary social theory to assert in print that people in the throes of nationalist enthusiasm have actually regressed to a more savage estate. Instead, he falls back on Freudian metaphor, envisioning nationalism as a part of humanity long repressed by modern civilization and now suddenly bursting loose from constraint. For the time being at least, humanity’s id seems to be mastering its superego.

Ignatieff is uncomfortable with nationalism in any form. Nevertheless, he does distinguish among different types of nationalism through a brief discussion of the concept of nationalism, defined as a belief that the natural division of the world’s peoples is into nations. Underlying this conviction are two assumptions. First, the nation provides people with their primary form of identity and belonging. Second, and because of this, defending the nation against external threats is both righteous and necessary. Ignatieff finds all these assertions debatable but generally accepted by his contemporaries. Yet, Ignatieff notes, there are real differences in the world over defining exactly what constitutes a people or nation. Here he makes the distinction between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism.

Civic nationalism holds that a nation is composed of all the individuals who subscribe to the laws and ideals of a state, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender. The nation is conceived of as an association of free and equal citizens who have voluntarily joined themselves to one another for their mutual benefit. This understanding of nationalism is rooted in the seventeenth century political philosophies of thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. It is the incarnation of their theory of a social compact as the origin of a state’s sovereignty and legitimacy. Civic nationalism emerged gradually in Great Britain. By the eighteenth century, four nations, the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish, were united by the British Crown, Parliament, and common law. The American and French revolutions, with their written constitutions and their aggressive and missionary appeal to universal principles, established civic nationalism as the dominant ideal in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The great exception to this pattern of civic nationalism in the West was Germany. Long split into a welter of small principalities, Germany lagged behind states such as Great Britain and France in the development of a...

(The entire section is 2184 words.)