Does global humanitarianism weaken national citizenship?

We can — and must — help others, but without compromising the fundamentals that make Canada great


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humanitarianismCALGARY, Alta. Jan. 14, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Canadians care about the world and about non-Canadians. Many therefore consider themselves humanitarians. Our effort on behalf of Syrian refugees is but the latest instance of Canadians engaging in global humanitarianism.

What Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls an “increased humanitarian role for Canada” should not, however, change our perspective on what it means to be Canadian. While acts of aid by Canadians are laudable, it would be wrong to conclude that our global humanitarian activity is a substitute for our fundamental duties as Canadian citizens and our commitment to the nation.

To be sure, humanitarianism is not unique to Canada, but is common among most modern democratic peoples. The historian of humanitarianism [popup url=”http://amzn.to/202GT6m” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Michael Barnett[/popup] speaks of an “empire of humanity,” as a giant global industry of care has emerged. This “empire” is not without certain ethical ambiguities and moral conundrums, as Barnett illustrates.

Such a development is perhaps unsurprising. As Alexis de Tocqueville—a profound observer of democracy and modernity—wrote in his great work [popup url=”http://amzn.to/202H01Z” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Democracy in America[/popup]: “In democratic centuries, men rarely devote themselves to one another; but they show a general compassion for all members of the human species.”

Tocqueville suggests that under democracy the local civic bonds among citizens in a particular nation weaken, while a general compassion for humanity strengthens. In fact, diminishing rates of [popup url=”http://amzn.to/202HfKj” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]civic participation[/popup] and social capital in Western democracies seem to coincide with growing support for—as well more careers in—global humanitarianism, the latter ever expanding in its scope and aims.

While many humanitarians effect good in times of crisis, a global humanitarian disposition may carry tendencies at odds with one’s own political community. The danger of what French political philosopher [popup url=”http://amzn.to/1n3abUP” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Pierre Manent[/popup] calls the “humanitarian temptation,” is its cultivation of disdain towards traditional forms and institutions of politics, including nations and their constitutional frameworks. Such disdain obscures the fact that the world is divided into diverse concrete communities, and that this division provides the opportunity for each people to determine its own fate.

The humanitarian temptation follows upon a larger sense of “the spiritual conviction that, whatever our political membership, there is something more profound, that is, our being a part of humanity.” Manent refers to this conviction as “spiritual” because it is not linked to any actual political institution or experience. Instead, it is born of the hope or belief that the world’s peoples are unifying, and that such apparent unity is the most significant premise of our times.

Yet humanity does not constitute a political community, as it is altogether incapable of self-government. Moreover, real concrete differences among the people of the world remain of greater political significance than any increase in the degree of global communication or perceived homogenization. Speaking or texting English and wearing Nikes aren’t infallible indicators of a firm commitment to liberal democracy or the rule of law.

Nevertheless, this spiritual conviction regarding unity can be found in the language of many today who refer to themselves as “citizens of the world,” something even expressed by [popup url=”https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-citizen-of-the-world-presidency-1/” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]certain national politicians[/popup]. The greatest experiment yet in grand-scale unification is the European Union, and while many believe unity is imminent, the project’s success is greatly questionable. Despite any history and culture Europe’s peoples share, the individual nations and the sense of nationality appear more profound than many presume.

As Canadians rightly seek to help others in times of crisis, it is important to resist the broader humanitarian temptation. The best way to do so is through understanding our duties as citizens and an allegiance to our national form: its parliamentary institutions and traditions, and its constitution.

By knowing more intimately our own political traditions and practices, we can impart them to new citizens—newly born or newly arrived—so that they too may appreciate and engage in the great way that Canada, as a particular nation, exemplifies some of the best in humanity.

Troy Media Columnist Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His book, “Liberalism and Globalization,” will be published in 2016 with St. Augustine Press. Trevor is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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