Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ignatieff's lesson from the crypt

One interesting result in the Canadian election was the victory of Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard academic who has written widely on the issue of nationalism.

Ignatieff set out his views on nationalism in his book Blood and Belonging, published in 1993. In this work Ignatieff explains that whilst he himself is a cosmopolitan, he nonetheless supports a civic nationalism.

Why a civic nationalism? Ignatieff is a liberal. As such, he believes that individuals should be self-defined. Therefore he rejects ethnic nationalism (in which national identity is based on a common ancestry, culture, language and so on) because,

Ethnic nationalism claims ... that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited not chosen. It is the national community that defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community.

The kind of nationalism preferred by Ignatieff is the “official” one operating today based on a common citizenship. He believes that it functions within liberal ideals for the following reason:

According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community.

For traditionalists, the Ignatieff view seems radical. It spells the end of the European ethnies, as it opens up membership of a nation to anyone who can obtain citizenship. It allows no principled basis for maintaining the distinct European peoples and cultures.

However, the unfortunate fact is that Ignatieff is actually at the more conservative end of the liberal debate on nationalism. Ignatieff still believes in making a distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Many liberals believe that such a distinction is immoral according to liberal principle.

And they have a point. After all, it is a myth that most people choose their citizenship any more than they choose their ethny. In other words, most of us are born into membership of a civic nation, just as much as we are into an ethnic identity.

Furthermore, civic nations still place restrictions on who may or may not become citizens. This means that civic nations are practising “discrimination”, by excluding some people from certain benefits and impeding what they can choose to become.

The more radical position, of rejecting even a civic nationalism, has been explained in a more difficult, academic style by Jeffrey Friedman as follows:

In attacking the privileges of birth, political or economic, liberals of both classical and contemporary vintage give voice to the conviction that one’s humanity, rather than accidental circumstances, should determine one’s rights.

This egalitarianism is traduced by the inescapable particularism of the modern state. A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary boundaries... (Critical Review, Spring 1996)

The former Australian Prime Mininster, Paul Keating, supports the radical Friedman view. He has lashed out at civic nationalism, complaining that its “exclusiveness” relies on,

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is “citizenship”. Who is in and who is out.

Not all liberals, then, support a civic nationalism. Why does Ignatieff?

There are two factors involved in Ignatieff’s answer. The first is straightforward. Ignatieff declares that he is not a nationalist at all, but a cosmopolitan and that cosmopolitans require a strong nation state to enforce social stability and human rights. In his own words,

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation-state for granted ... The cosmopolitanism of the great cities – London, Los Angeles, New York, London – depends critically on the rule-enforcing capacities of the nation state ...

In this sense, therefore, cosmopolitans like myself are not beyond the nation; and a cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation-states to provide security and civility for their citizens.”

I am a civic nationalist, someone who believes in the necessity of nations and in the duty of citizens to defend the capacity of nations to provide the security and rights we all need in order to live cosmopolitan lives.

This is not an illogical argument for a liberal to make, but it’s quite a formal and dry kind of reasoning. There’s a more direct and personal reason given for Ignatieff’s reluctance to totally discard the nation state later in his book when he describes his visit to Ukraine.

Ignatieff’s great grandfather was a Russian aristocrat who bought an estate in Ukraine in 1860 when he was the Russian ambassador to Constantinople. The Ignatieffs lost control of the estate in 1917, and they became Russian emigres who settled in Canada.

When Michael Ignatieff visited Ukraine after it gained independence from the USSR, he toured the estate once owned by his ancestors and described his experiences as follows,

Then to the church, where the bell is tolling and the parishioners are assembling for a special pannihida in memory of our ancestors.

... Now another feeling began to steal over me, a feeling that, like it or not, this was where my family story began, this was where my graves were. Like a tunneler, I had gone through suffocation, and I had tunneled myself back to at least one of my belongings. I could say to myself: the half-seen track of my past does have its start, and I can return to it.

The choir sings, the priest names my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, the names, some of them Anglo-Saxon, peeking through the seams of his prayers, the choir and their voices singing, the sound filling this church my great-grandfather built.

The priest then shows Ignatieff the crypt in which his aristocratic ancestors are buried and he learns that under the communists it was used as a slaughterhouse. There are cuts made by butchers' knives in the marble of the tombs. Ignatieff continues,

We stand and sing the viechnaya pamyat, the hymn of memory, the priest blesses the graves and then they leave me alone, with a candle.

Nations and graves. Graves and nations. Land is sacred because it is where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves. The graves were profaned. The butchers slaughtered on top of the marble. A person would fight to stop this if he could.

Looking back, I see that time in the crypt as a moment when I began to change, when some element of respect for the national project began to creep into my feelings, when I understood why land and graves matter and why the nations matter which protect both.

So Ignatieff is not entirely denatured. As an emigre, he might not respond to the Canadian ethnic identity, nor, given his Russian origins, to the Ukrainian. But he has illustrious ancestors. And in the crypt of these ancestors he feels a connection to a larger identity which it is right to defend.


  1. My late father's parents were born in Ireland, but he thought of himself as Australian, with Irish memories to be reminded of, as he got with his life in Australia.

  2. Outstanding post. It evoked the growing feelings I have myself of a desire for a tie to a place that is the place of my people, protected from those who would desecrate their graves and so on.

    Perhaps another way of arguing against this idea that "citizenship is all about who is in and who is out" and should thus be eliminated, is to say that if you take that idea to its logical conclusion, you have to advocate the elimination of families as well. Because if allowing mere blood ties to decide who is "in" and who is "out" is verboten, then really a family should be required to allow any stranger who walks up to their door to come in and join the family. It's interesting that liberals have such scorn for the concept of the ethnic nation, yet I don't think most of them are completely comfortable with the idea of doing away with the family. And really there is little difference between a family, an extended family, and one's ethnic group, who are simply cousins.

    Of course if you go back far enough, all human beings are cousins. But it does definitely matter how distant the blood relationships are. I have loyalty first to my family, because they are closest kin. Next, to my extended family. Next, to my people. Next, to my nation, which includes many different peoples. And finally, to my species. This is not an arbitrary and unimportant distinction either. Liberals want us to ignore all sense of a tie to one another except at the humanity-wide level - which would have to mean eliminating the family as something important as well as eliminating the importance of the ethnic group.

  3. Stackja, it seems to me your father's parents were representative of most of the Irish who came to Australia.

    Mark, well argued. I don't see how a liberal could make a principled reply to your case.

    I have only ever come across three instances in which the principle of denying unchosen, inherited forms of connection was applied to families. None of these three cases worked out well.

    The first is Professor Peter Singer, who used to argue that we are morally obliged to spend our money helping poor strangers rather than our own family if that would create greater utility.

    Then Professor Singer's mother got sick. He did the right thing and spent much of his money providing her with nursing help. But when journalists asked why he was acting against his own principles, he was unable to reply.

    The second is Germaine Greer, who in her book The Female Eunuch, argued that babies should be raised collectively on farms, with parents helping to raise all the children, so that the children might not even know who their "womb mother" was.

    But by 1991 Greer had changed her mind and she complained that whereas "Most societies have arranged matters so that a family surrounds mother and child" this was decreasingly so in the West with "our families having withered away" and with relationships becoming "less durable every year".

    But the political moderns who made the most radical attempt to drive things to the logical end point were the Russian Bolsheviks.

    The Bolshevik spokeswoman on the family, Alexandra Kollontai, wrote soon after the Revolution that,

    "in the new state there will be no more room for such petty divisions as were formerly understood: These are my children, to them I owe all my maternal solicitude, all my affection ... Henceforth, the worker-mother, who is conscious of her own social function, will rise to a point where she no longer differentiates between yours and mine ... The narrow and exclusive affection of the mother for her own children must expand until it embraces all the children of the great proletarian family."

    Of course, it didn't work. By Stalin's time there were awards for women raising their own large families.

    And yet, as you say, if liberals were to be consistent, then they should make preferencing one's own family illegitimate for the same reason they have rejected an identification with one's own ethny.