Review: Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship

Posted 18 December, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship
By: Adrienne Clarkson
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase

Never has the world experienced greater movement of peoples from one country to another, from one continent to another. These seismic shifts in population have brought about huge challenges for all societies. In this year’s Massey Lectures, Canada’s twenty-sixth Governor General and bestselling author Adrienne Clarkson argues that a sense of belonging is a necessary mediation between an individual and a society. She masterfully chronicles the evolution of citizenship throughout the ages: from the genesis of the idea of the citizen in ancient Greece, to the medieval structures of guilds and class; from the revolutionary period which gave birth to the modern nation-state, to present-day citizenship based on shared values, consensus, and pluralism. Clarkson places particular emphasis on the Canadian model, which promotes immigration, parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law, and the First Nations circle, which embodies notions of expansion and equality. She concludes by looking forward, using the Bhutanese example of Gross National Happiness to determine how we measure up today and how far we have to go to bring into being the citizen, and the society, of tomorrow.

I was pretty excited when I learned that Adrienne Clarkson was the guest for 2014’s Massey Lectures: Canada’s former Governor General, a prolific career in journalism, writing on a topic sort of in line with what I studied previously, what’s not to like?

Belonging is a meditation on the subject of human belonging, mixing examples from history with sociological and anthropological explanations about early societies into her discussion. As the chapters progress and she chronologically moves forward (for the most part) in history and examples, the discussion becomes more political, using familiar political science frameworks to support her thoughts on human communities and belonging in a given society. Thus for the most part this book leans more on the political structures and frameworks about society and citizenship rather than a historical/cultural/sociological context, which can be a little boring if you’re not into that kind of nonfiction exploration.

This book is distinctly Canadian in the way she applies the notion of belonging in Canadian society. She spends a lot of time discussing the Aboriginal communities in the country, long on the outside of any Canadian public debate, which was informative and good in its inclusion on a topic like this. However, I couldn’t help but feel like she doesn’t directly address some of the pressing and trickier issues that our country currently faces; it comes across as a little too idealistic, of an almost bygone golden era of Canada’s place, even outside my more morose and realist outlook on politics and our present society. Or perhaps this book should serve as a reminder to me of how we view ourselves as Canadian or how we should define ourselves as Canadian rather than dwell on some of the issues that we face as a nation.

The Massey Lectures often feel a bit informal in their presentation, a little more free-flowing, but the structure of this book also felt like a mish-mash. I wasn’t quite sure where each chapter was heading, as well as how it lent back to the original premise about belonging. It couldn’t been clearer. I also didn’t really get a clear sense of how belonging was such a paradox; it seemed to me she was definitely leaning towards the active civic notion of citizenship and belonging. It was just too disjointed for my liking.

Overall, Belonging has some interesting thoughts to reflect and think about, but it wasn’t as succinct as I would’ve liked it to be. I did learn quite a bit from the book–the example she used from Bhutan was one that stuck out for me, but I think that was also because I don’t know much about the customs of that country–which is always a good thing. I think this might be a good book for people who are not Canadian and who wish to acquaint themselves on our country and how our society conducts itself. As a Massey Lecture though, it left me rather wanting.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

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