Complex belonging

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American  concept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

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5 Comments on “Complex belonging”

  1. Vince Says:

    OK. I’d read this one and the last one in reverse order but this comment is a follow on from the last.
    I mentioned when people stop History is important to their world view. Profoundly important I think.
    We are going through an economic churning at the moment. And on top of it you have for the last 40 years the western States removing the buttresses that stabilised peoples lives, housing for instance. So no matter what people do they cannot form a measure of protection in order to do the normal.
    This of course has been going on for a while now. But it’s really only in the last 15 years it began to encroach upon those that thought themselves safe. They that thought they were doing the right thing only to find themselves in a debt slavery unheard of previously.
    But how does someone without the education when it’s taken years for the Democrats in the US to unpick and still haven’t gotten there hang a hat on what’s going on. How do they understand the causes and levers that has roads in Russia looking like German ones and those in the US looking like African farm tracks when they were told they are the 1st in the world.
    Basically you hang a hat on the hook you have. And the hook most have is the nationalistic one.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    Much of the complexities related to belonging can be understood through the conceptual lens of nostalgia, the late Svetlana Boym, Harvard professor, novelist, and public intellectual, highlighted an inherent paradox in modern nostalgia, in that:

    “the universality of its longing can make us more empathetic towards fellow humans, and yet the moment we try to repair that longing with a particular belonging—or the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity and especially of a national community and unique and pure homeland—we often part ways with others and put an end to mutual understanding. Algia (or longing) is what we share, yet nostos (or the return home) is what divides us”. (“Nostalgia and Its Discontents”, 2007)

    In my latest research paper I commented on how the above passage is not only persuasive, but exemplary in its understanding of contemporary intolerance towards migrants and related, misguided intentions to build walls, unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters, a whole nation of moral monsters – James Baldwin famously argued that by refusing to face up to racial injustice, America was becoming “a nation of moral monsters.”

    A sense of belonging is necessary, as the post states, for stable societies and individuals, as psychologists have acknowledged, however we need to be particularly alert to the dangers inherent in what I would define as a blind sense of belonging, one where what define us is exclusively what divides us (ethnicity, class, gender etc.) and we become oblivious to the longing which we all share. This communal sense of longing knows no national boundaries, it is often found in intellectual curiosity, in the pursuit of knowledge through art and science. F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed it most poignantly when he wrote: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

    • Yes, I agree with the drift of your argument. I do wonder sometimes whether belonging sometimes inevitably leads people to value what distinguishes them rather than what connects them; and this is easy for the more unscrupulous politicians to exploit.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Not sure belonging leads *inevitably* to value divisions over connections, we can (and should) value both simultaneously, and universities have an important role to play in highlighting the benefits of universal longing over the parochialist tendencies of belonging. This has become a matter of urgency now…

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