Michael Ignatieff has written eloquently from some very cruel places–Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan. In this collection of five essays, he asks what made these wars so brutal, what is the best way to help their victims, what outsiders can and should do–questions as difficult as they are obvious, questions that disturb us all. His viewpoint is that of someone looking back at those few years when a concerned world rushed to intervene before it started to pull away in disgust. “The twin catastrophes of Srebrenica and Rwanda brought to a close a brief period of hope that had opened up in 1989,” he says, and now “the absence of narratives of explanation is eroding the ethics of engagement.” Ignatieff wants to find a way to stop this erosion, and though clear explanations elude him, he does find a place to rest his own hopes. Do not make the mistake of thinking the book’s title is ironic.
The title comes from the most recent essay. To get there it’s helpful to begin, as the book does, with the chapter on television, first published in 1985. The modern conscience is moved by images of Third World disasters, Ignatieff says, even though these images are only “a single banalized commodity of horror,” shallow and voyeuristic. Television mobilizes a “myth of human brotherhood” that developed from Christianity, the Enlightenment and our reaction to the Holocaust. This myth has lost its original optimism; contemporary universalism comes from “a century of total war [that] has made victims of us all” and rests “less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”
The essay has obviously been revised since 1985, as it mentions Rwanda and Bosnia; yet Ignatieff pays no attention to the actual coverage of events, the way any particular atrocity has been filmed, edited or presented. He sees TV news as a flawed genre, a form that frustrates the intentions of its best practitioners; that it’s a business goes unmentioned. Despite some splendid insults, his indictment is limited to a general distaste for the commodification of suffering; and his ambivalent praise for TV’s acts of witness is just as abstract. We are left wondering at the nature of a humanitarian ethic that could flower from such a medium.
Almost ten years later, Ignatieff hunkered down with a Serb soldier in a farmhouse basement in eastern Croatia, trying “to understand how neighbors are turned into enemies.” When the militiaman, on guard against Croats who were former schoolmates and co-workers, attempted to explain the difference between Serb and Croat cigarettes, Serb and Croat class pretensions, he ended up saying, “We’re all just Balkan shit.” Ignatieff sees nationalist myth struggling with lived experience, and violence momentarily dissolving the contradiction. Before the war this man was many things; now he is only a Serb, “and because he is only a Serb for his enemies, he has become only a Serb to himself.”
Ignatieff goes on to say that nationalism is best understood through the story of Cain and Abel, as a version of Freud’s narcissism of minor differences. “There are no wars more savage than civil wars, no hatreds more intractable than those between the closest kin.” Really? Rome wasn’t sacked, Auschwitz wasn’t staffed, Hiroshima wasn’t bombed, by kin. Milosevic’s television, when it manipulated that Serb soldier into nationalism, didn’t talk about minor difference but about atrocities and massacres.
Never mind. Ignatieff’s main point seems to be that ethnicity “is not a skin, but a mask, constantly repainted.” Yet he quickly modifies this obvious truth, and claims that only brothers are merely masked and painted into difference; outside the family, others are much otherer. The modern universalizing ethic–the belief in one similar being under the mask–is a “liberal fiction.” “It requires a self-conscious screening-out of certain empirical realities… judge and jury are supposed to ignore [defendants’] visible identities–as men, women, black, white, rich, poor–and construe them as if they were simple equal units.”