Review of Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship by

Book cover for Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship

Occasionally copies of the Massey Lectures show up in my hands (I think it’s usually my dad’s fault). Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship is the collection of Adrienne Clarkson’s 2014 lectures. As the title implies, she examines what it means to “belong” to a nation, with specific reference to her experience as an immigrant Canadian. Clarkson is definitely a fascinating author for this topic. Given her background, her career as a journalist, and then her time as Canada’s Governor General, she has a diverse wealth of experience. She can certainly pursue this topic from a variety of angles, and this comes through in her lectures. On the other hand, I was never completely sold on what I saw here.

In the first lecture, “The Circle Widens”, Clarkson examines how we build trust networks. She relates a few historical anecdotes: a village in France whose inhabitants today can trace most of their lineages back to the 1400s; a man who was impersonated for decades yet his closest family either didn’t realize or went along with it. This is an effective beginning to the question of Belonging, I guess, and the anecdotes were all right. However—and this is a critique that’s going to recur—I lost the central thread of her argument until she sums up at the end of the chapter.

In the second lecture, “The Glory That Was Greece”, Clarkson looks at ancient Greece as a birthplace of democracy and the concept of citizenship as a specific political class. My main takeaway from this chapter is the emphasis on participation as a necessary condition to belonging; i.e., the real evolutionary idea within democracy is that these “citizens” are otherwise ordinary people who participate in the co-creation of their society’s norms in a very direct, egalitarian, overt way. Towards the end of the chapter, Clarkson critiques elements specific to Athenian democracy, then segues briefly into how this relates to Canada as a beacon of a country that has experimented with democracy in a more inclusive way. More thoughts on this soon.

In the third lecture, “The Cosmopolitan Ethic”, Clarkson examines how growing up in a more diverse, inclusionary, or multicultural society might influence one’s sense of belonging. She takes us all across the globe and history, looking at the Icelandic althing, as well as her own experience growing up in southern Ontario, and the general experience of what an immigrant to Canada might discover as they learn about this country. Although Clarkson by and large tries to acknowledge and include Indigenous perspectives on these issues in her lectures, this chapter uses the phrase, “The primitive tom-toms linking blood to nationality are somewhat slow to lose their resonance…” and I’m not sure how that got past the editors. Much side-eyeing should be directed here.

In the fourth lecture, “Ubuntu”, Clarkson uses the titular concept to discuss what connections between people lead to feelings of belonging. (N.B.: I am typing this using the operating system Ubuntu.) This chapter features more detailed discussions of Indigenous perspectives and how they contrast with European values that colonized Turtle Island. Clarkson’s experience as Governor General, and therefore as a representative of the Crown in many a ceremony, negotiation, or meeting with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit representatives, exposed her to a lot of unique and interesting moments that no doubt shaped her thoughts on these subjects. But with so many topics and ideas to discuss here, nothing really gets the time or focus it deserves.

Finally, “Gross National Happiness” proposes alternative ways to measure and maintain a nation’s satisfaction. To make people feel like they belong, Clarkson argues, you need to cultivate that sense of belonging. You need to have conversations as a whole society that very deliberately discuss and debate and then determine the values by which we decide who and how we belong to this body. This is a compelling point of view, I suppose, although also kind of self-evident?

I guess what I’m trying to get across is that there isn’t really a lot in these lectures that jumps out at me as particularly objectionable or outright wrong. Yet there also isn’t anything that made me sit up and go, “oh, whoa, you’re right”. Clarkson tries to cover so much, jumps around from topic to topic and theme to theme, that no unified thesis emerges over the five lectures. Despite ostensibly discussing “belonging”, Clarkson meanders over far too much territory to leave me with a strong enough impression of what she actually wants to say.

I’m also really ambivalent about the rah-rah Canadian exceptionalism that seems latent to her tone. Yes, she offers some critiques of how settler Canadians and the European settlers before them treated Indigenous peoples. She points out racism, such as the Chinese Head Tax that affected her own family’s immigration. Yet underneath this all, Clarkson suggests that Canada is better than some other places, positions us as this beacon to which many people travel and seek belonging. Given her history, I’m not at all surprised by this position … yet I can’t really agree with it.

Belonging lacks the structure or the bite to really make it as thought-provoking as it could be. It’s a richly-layered, well-told set of Massey Lectures that nonetheless leaves little in the way of a memorable impression.


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