This is a critique of the book, Blood and Belonging, by Michael
Ignatieff. This paper will explain the subject of the book and its
relevance, discuss Michael Ignatieff’s methods and conclusions on the
subject and finally include a personal critique of the book by the
author of this paper.
The author of the book travels on what he terms “the six
journeys.” On these “journeys” he encounters different cultures, as he
travels to six different coinciding areas of the world. He examines
the unique expression of nationalism that each populace displays by
interviewing various members of that particular society. The six areas
that he travels to are specifically chosen for the clarity which
nationalism is expressed in society. Nationalism is a factor
contributing toward both present possible future instability in these
These areas are former Yugoslavia (specifically Croatia and
Serbia), Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan and Northern Ireland.
According to Ignatieff, in Croatia and Serbia there is a desire for a
separate identity between the two nations. The fear of losing one’s
national identity has caused ethnic hatred. A terror so strong and
historically persistent, it has driven people to a desperate state to
do anything. This is a large contributor to the reasons for the extreme
violence present there today. The author states, “A Croat, thus, is
someone who is not a Serb. A Serb is someone who is not a Croat.”
This quotation profoundly expresses the short-sighted mentality present
in their conflict.
In his travels in Germany, the author points out an important
question. Does the nation make the state, or the state the nation?
This question by far does not stop here, especially when Germany is the
subject. The essence of the German people is seen by some as aggressive
and offensive, thus the existence of the German problem. If the nation
makes the state then Germany will always be a threat. If the state
makes the nation, then the aggressive nature of the German nation, which
lead the world into two global wars, can be harnessed and redirected.
The question has its roots and answers in the recent reunification of
The Ukraine is concerned with not being Russian. It is here
Ignatieff receives a complete vision of what nationalism is. He states,
“I 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.”
Quebec is a model that presents a possible future of the state
system. Ignatieff uses the example of Quebec to illustrate the
relationship between nationalism and federalism. He implies that “if
federalism fails in Canada it can fail anywhere.” If the balance
between “ethnic and civil principles” is not maintained in Canada, who
is not an impoverished country and has a large, successful economy; then
perhaps the modern world has not transcended the grasps of nationalism.
The Kurds represent a nation without a state, who find
themselves surrounded by other nations who are more aggressive
nationalists. The term Kurdistan is a definition of the areas used by
Ignatieff to explain the area of major Kurdish populace concentration.
There is no real borders, no flag, no government and Kurds must
acknowledge the state in which they reside (i.e., – Syria, Turkey, Iran
and Iraq), of which, is not Kurdistan.
Finally, the sixth journey ends in Northern Ireland. He makes
the observation that this is the ideal place to conclude his project.
Northern Ireland contains a recurrence of the themes that seemed so
prevalent in the other journeys. In Ireland ethnicity, religion and
politics are all bound into one expression or identity. These are also
evident in the five previous studies.
Is Michael Ignatieff’s work relevant? The answer to this
question is, yes it is. The issue is important. Nationalism presents
itself as a phenomenon. The questions of why people need to retain a
cultural identity and the way they go about preserving it is still
unanswerable. Evermore unfathomable is the violence permeated through
nationalistic expressions, which are “necessary” by the parties
involved. The very existence of the enigma created by nationalism
dictates the need to explore the subject in more depth.
The situations in the book are not isolated events. Nationalism
exists in every state all over the world. There is a dichotomy
presented by Ignatieff between nationalism and federalism. He explains
the political doctrine of nationalism by stating “(1)that the world’s
peoples are divided into nations, (2) that these nations should have the
right of self-determination, and (3) that the full self-determination
requires statehood.” Federalism, though not a particular ideology, is a
means of sharing political power among different peoples within a state.
The various systems of government which fall under the definition of
federalism are not problematic to the people; unless, of course, they
are not completely legitimate. If the government is illegitimate, then
ideally nationalism steps in to demand a completely self-determined
government, which renders proper representation to its populace.
Despite the diversity of a state’s population, theoretically, harmony is
maintained since the people are properly represented or controlled.
This situation with variation is experienced throughout the world.
States are dynamic, also their government and populace. If the dynamics
of the government or the state do not keep up with the pace of change in
the populace, then instability will rise in the name of nationalism and
shake the very foundation of the state if left unchecked or not
The method used by the author of the book was personal
interviews with both prominent people and the normal everyday person in
the areas visited. He also uses descriptions on the surrounding areas
to accent the point of discussion. His intent was to objectively take
the reader on a stroll through the areas he visited. Through his style
of writing, he allows the reader to sit in on his interview by
highlighting specific questions and the responses that take place in his
conversations. Finally, he creates visual images that he had viewed as
ironic and analogical in support of his observations.
Ignatieff comes to the conclusion that nationalism is not the
problem of this world. Continuing, he goes on to say that when one
loses their individuality to become a “patriot,” that is where the
danger lies. Being yourself is something that ethnic nationalism does
not allow. Political ideologies can become blinding to its possessors.
At the beginning of the book mentions that he is a liberal. The
traveling and experiences did not change that at all. He notes the
importance of “liberal virtues – tolerance, compromise, reason,” but
concludes in an observation about how these virtues are opposing human
Ignatieff addresses the violence factor that surrounds
nationalism like a plague, concluding that, nationalist rhetoric is an
excuse to commit acts of violence. He observed that most of the
violence is performed by young men between the ages of 18 to 25. His
explanation is that the liberal mind set forgets that not everyone hates
violence. He also says that there exists in males a basic loathing of
peace. Human nature is the reason for the violence or Ignatieff thinks
that it is specifically male human nature.
I personally enjoyed the book and found it to be interesting
reading. It had the aspect of a novel without losing its academic
nature. Michael Ignatieff’s writing style was creative and supported
his observations well. He portrayed the destruction that he found in
his journeys in a way that allowed the reader to experience the same
despair and hopelessness of seeing it first hand.
Another interesting perspective that the author added to the
book was his own identity. He traveled to places that he had either
lived at or where his family originally came from.His family roots
add a personal touch that would otherwise have been left out.
Religion and its role in society are important concerning
nationalism. It is in this author’s opinion that religions not be
viewed as a secondary facet to nationalism. The Islamic uprisings in
France and the peace talks in southwest Asia between Israel and Syria
are two different perspectives to the argument. Claude Barreau, advisor
to the minister of interior in France says, “Foreigners arriving in
France . . . now have a new fatherland. Islam has a place in France,
provided it is willing to stay discreet as the other religions. But
Islamist are coming as colonisers.” This illustrates an underlying
principal that splits Europe down the middle. France is a
representation of Europe according to the late Charles De Gaulle.
France has adopted internal policies to control the growth of Islam by
limiting both social expressions of that faith and by specific
immigration procedures. Are not the three million plus population of
Moslems in France entitled to nationalistic expression of their identity
as French Muslims?Where does that leave the Bosnian Muslims, the
Turks or any other non Christian state located near or inside Europe?
The second point deals with Israel and Syria. The two countries
have been at odds with each other since 1947 when Israel was recognized
as a state. The main reason for the clash is the difference of
religion, not national identity. However, both countries have evolved
since their beginnings and have strong nationalistic tendencies. Both
countries are now leaning toward compromise rather than a holy war. As
the talks continue for the return of the Golan Heights to Lebanon the
Moslem Jew factor still remains tense. Of the recent peace talks is the
strip of land called the Golan Heights in north of Israel. Avoiding an
attempt to explain an extremely complex situation or to oversimplify the
matter, it is a fact that many heads of state in the region are choosing
political solutions to old religious problems. However, the foundations
of their society are religions, to be specific Islam and Judism. This
religious factor will never cease and always cause instability in the
region because of fundmentalism present on both sides.
In conclusion, the subject of the book, Blood and Belonging,
has been discussed. The relevance of the book’s theme was examined
along with the authors methods and style of writing. This critique also
addressed the conclusions drawn by Michael Ignatieff concerning
nationalism and its expressions in the world. Perhaps the world will
allways have to deal with the dichotomy dicussed in this paper, however
one can only hope that a long lasting solution will be found.
1. Ignatieff, Michael Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New
Nationalism. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.
2. “It Depends on Rabin.” The Economist, 24th-30th September, 1994, pp.
3.”Secularity Defied.” The Economist, 8th-14th October, 1994, p.53.
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