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The Ordinary Virtues combines powerful moral arguments with superb storytelling

Michael Ignatieff's book of essays explores “moral globalisation”.

Michael Ignatieff’s career falls into two halves. He is still best known here as a writer and broadcaster. During the 1980s and 1990s, he presented Channel 4’s Voices and BBC Two’s The Late Show and was a columnist for the Observer; his novel Scar Tissue was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize; and he wrote a number of other acclaimed books including The Russian Album and The Needs of Strangers. He was the embodiment of the era’s literary intellectual: liberal, cultured, smart.

In the mid-1990s, Ignatieff’s writing took a darker turn. He responded passionately to the savagery in Bosnia and Western intervention in Iraq and started exploring the new nationalism, human rights and how to reconcile the values of Enlightenment universalism with the emerging world of genocide and violence against minorities. Over the past two decades, this has been at the heart of his work, teaching at Toronto and Harvard universities and writing numerous books and articles about what he calls here “Moral Order in a Divided World”.

The Ordinary Virtues is a book of essays about “moral globalisation”. Globalisation is dividing us. British steelworkers and American car workers are fighting for their livelihoods against cheaper imports from Asia. Brexit and Trump’s election show how this is affecting our politics. We are living through a time of “explosive, disorienting, and destabilising change” that is turning our world upside down.

How do we make sense of this, and what kinds of values do we look to? In an increasingly divided world, do we “speak the same ethical language when we confront such issues as corruption and public trust, tolerance in multicultural cities, reconciliation after war and conflict, and resilience in times of uncertainty and danger”?

Ignatieff and a team from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs travelled in America, and from Rio and South Africa to Bosnia and Myanmar, to talk to ordinary people and see how questions about political morality look from street level. They explore 21st-century political ideas through the eyes of survivors of ethnic conflict in Bosnia, the poor in multicultural cities in North and South America and black people in South Africa after Mandela. We know what liberal academics think about different forms of conflict, but what about ordinary people from very different cultures? What kinds of virtues and institutions do we need in order to flourish at times of huge change and growing conflict?

The essays fall into two groups. The best are on South Africa and Bosnia. Ignatieff combines powerful moral arguments with superb storytelling. There are unforgettable accounts of the massacres in the former Yugoslavia and how people try to live with memories of loss and – perhaps even harder – with neighbours who were among the perpetrators. He meets Shahida Rakmanovic, now in her fifties. Her husband was killed by a Serb paramilitary group 25 years ago. Her children left long ago but she has stayed. “If I’m the last Bosnian woman in this village, then they will not have won.”

He meets Sudbun Mujdzic. His father was shot by the Serbs, who threw his body down a well. He shows Ignatieff a field where a forensic team recently found a thousand bodies: “It has taken a year of patient DNA work to identify the mangled hair, teeth and bone tissue.” When the DNA samples are identified, people such as Mujdzic take the remains and give them a decent burial.

Ignatieff wrote about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, the heyday of post-apartheid optimism. He returns to South Africa almost 20 years on, when the questions seem darker and less hopeful. What does reconciliation mean, precisely? Does it mean “being reconciled to the facts of apartheid? Being reconciled with the perpetrators?” How do these questions sound under Jacob Zuma, with corruption prevalent and poverty and inequality still widespread? “South Africa was supposed to be different,” Ignatieff writes. Is it? And how do people live with their sense of disappointment?

Some of the other essays here are not as powerful. Ignatieff is less familiar with Rio, Los Angeles, Japan and Myanmar. Curiously, the Muslim world is almost entirely absent. It is no coincidence that the best pieces in this collection draw on his experiences of Bosnia and South Africa in the 1990s. The issues speak to him more powerfully. The personal stories, contrasting the past with the present, are more moving. They are also more extreme, and Ignatieff is particularly good on disillusion, contrasting Zuma with Mandela, and exploring the troubling legacy of Aung San Suu Kyi, as tens of thousands of Muslims flee for their lives from Myanmar.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Ordinary Virtues is the contrast between the hopes and aspirations of the 1990s and the realities of the early 21st century. What does this say about liberalism and about the debate between confident liberals such as Ignatieff and Steven Pinker and the darker visions of those such as John Gray? The liberal revolution, so optimistic about progress, democracy and human rights, is not looking great almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela. 

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World
Michael Ignatieff
Harvard University Press, 272pp, £22.95

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist