The Needs of Strangers

2 02 2009

Since Michael Ignatieff is the new leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, and might conceivably become Prime Minister one day, I decided to look into his writing a bit. He’s been a writer, a historian, an academic, a cultural personality, and is obviously a man of intelligence, so the potential for interesting reading seemed high. I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been reading his 1984 book The Needs of Strangers, a romp through the history of western thinking regarding the responsibility of society to its members, and the nature of human need and desire. I know, heady stuff. I wear nerdy t-shirts in my spare time, and I also read nerdy books, what can I say?

If he can apply the same sort of analytical rigor to politics as he has to the subject of this book, then he’s pretty much got my vote already. Some of his observations have been really interesting. Discussing belonging, fraternity and the idea of citizenship in our modern, fractured society (circa 1984, but to my mind even more relevant today) he offers this:

“…our language has not caught up with modernity. We still think of belonging as permanence, yet all our homes are transient. Who still lives in the house of their childhood? Who still lives in the neighborhood where they grew up? Home is the place we have to leave in order to grow up, to become ourselves. We think of belonging as rootedness in a small familiar place, yet home for most of us is the convulsive arteries of a great city. Our belonging is no longer to something fixed, known and familiar, but to an electric and heartless creature eternally in motion.”

The framing of the city as an “electric and heartless creature” seems to me to sell the city short, but the descriptions are evocative. And this is something I have struggled with as a planner-on-the-move, going away for university and now attempting a move to a city “eternally in motion”. Is there not a conflict between my desire to be rooted in place, to plan for places that I am fully connected to and have intimate knowledge of, and this desire to live the life I want to live, in a place that is entirely new and exciting? I seem to want both.

Luckily, Mr Ignatieff also tells me:

“Modern secular humanism is empty if it supposes that the human good is without internal contradiction. These contradictions cannot be resolved in theory, only in practice.”

So, I can have both. And he might become Prime Minister, so he must know what he’s talking about. Okay, but seriously, he’s captured something here that we have either never come to fully understand, or are just too nostalgic to fully embrace. As planners we seem unerringly interested in the creation of a sense of belonging, and yet there are few, if any, uniting narratives of belonging in our lives these days. Religion doesn’t unify us anymore, intense patriotism has been discredited, and our consumable culture is intimately personalized, with most advertising prompting us to define ourselves as unique individuals. 

We are awash in communities of interest, but those communities are rarely geographically-based.




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