Nonfiction: Is Globalization Drawing Us Together or Tearing Us Apart?

Ignatieff concludes that globalization has, in fact, shaped certain fundamental aspects of the moral reasoning of his interlocutors. The spread of democracy and of the idea of human rights universalized the notion that citizens have a right to be heard. The people Ignatieff speaks with have not only a sense of standing, but of equal standing. And even nondemocratic leaders find they must satisfy the aspirations of ordinary citizens.

But more democracy does not necessarily lead to more respect for human rights. Ignatieff furnishes the dismaying example of Myanmar, where brutal military dictators agreed to a peaceful transition to a political party led by the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. “Her example,” Ignatieff writes, offered Westerners “vivid, personal proof that the yearning for freedom, democracy and rights was universal.” But it was not so. “The Lady,” as she is reverently known, now presides over a regime that persecutes its Muslim minority, known as Rohingyas. Ignatieff finds that scholars and activists – the typical bearers of global moral discourse – support the ugly crusade.


What went wrong? Ignatieff explains that Myanmar is a plural society that never answered the primal question of who is “us,” and who “them.” Majority rule thus unleashed resentments that autocrats had suppressed, just as it had in the former Yugoslavia. In fact, globalization had not only failed to overcome an ancient divide but had widened it, for now local Muslims were seen as the advance guard of a mighty wave. Not just these Buddhists, but “Buddhism,” was now at war with “Islam.” All politics is not local, Ignatieff writes, but political responses are rooted in local loyalties and antagonisms.

Yet this stubborn resistance to the universalisms that govern moral thought in the West is itself an alternative source of just behavior. This is the collection of habits and intuitions that Ignatieff calls “the ordinary virtues.” People need a sense of moral order, he argues; they need to feel that their life has meaning beyond the mere struggle to survive. They need to feel that they have acted rightly. But before whom? Not before an abstraction like “mankind.” They think instead about themselves and people like them, family and friends, caste and community. This sense of kinship is in turn the foundation of the ordinary virtues: loyalty, trust, forbearance. This is what Ignatieff finds in Rio’s favelas, in the municipal workers of Fukushima, in the haggard, persistent survivors of genocidal violence in Bosnia.

Of course if we flip over the card of the ordinary virtues we find the ordinary vices: resentment, pettiness, chauvinism. The sense that moral obligation extends only to “us” is the source of the blood-and-soil nationalism now spreading across the world like a virus. The saving grace, Ignatieff argues, is that these intuitive moral systems are in constant contact with those of other people, and of the institutions that surround us.

Thus in a polyglot neighborhood like Jackson Heights, in Queens, diversity works not because immigrants believe in it as a principle, but because their “moral operating system” has been shaped by the community’s “tacit code of welcome,” its respect for privacy and, above all, the prospect it offers everyone of “a way up and a way out.” Collective behavior is the consequence of a series of pragmatic accommodations. Difference is tolerated in the interest of group survival; it is not intrinsically admired. Ignatieff notes that people in Jackson Heights live “side by side,” not together, and concludes that “it may be the case that the only realistic way for diverse populations to live together is to live side by side.” To adopt the ordinary-virtues perspective is to accept that such liberal principles as “cosmopolitanism” will probably not flourish outside laboratory settings like the university campus.

The ordinary virtues and vices are a human given. So is the inner world of moral intuition. The variable is what lies outside, which is to say institutions, understood in the broad sense of social structures of belief and practice, whether in the form of the corner barbershop or the political party. Ignatieff concedes that the centrality of institutions has become a cliché of development economics and state-building. What distinguishes the ordinary-virtues perspective is the claim that institutions matter above all because they shape private behavior. “If the test of a decent society is that it allows people to display these virtues easily,” he writes, “what policies and institutions do we need to create so that virtue can remain ordinary?”

The problematic word in that sentence is “we.” If “we” believe that we should, and can, promote democracy abroad, then we seek – humbly, of course – to help democratic practices take root. But if people resist the moral abstractions we peddle – if that resistance is “an enduring element in ordinary people’s defense of their identities” – then our humility must be so much the greater. The moral choices of people in Bosnia, or even Jackson Heights, are founded on a world they know, and one we don’t. Think, for example, of the lives lost and the billions of dollars wasted trying to install a Western legal system in Afghanistan. Perhaps we would have been better off helping Afghans achieve Afghan justice.

If globalization will not save us, then there are no big, all-inclusive answers – not technology or democracy or spiritual rebirth or anything that happens to everyone everywhere. There are only small, local answers, though they may well incorporate the technologies or policies dreamed up by the benevolent globalizers.

The little solutions will not bring us to heaven; but they must keep us from hell.

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