SundayReview | Op-Ed Columnist
The Myth of Cosmopolitanism
By Ross Douthat
July 2, 2016
New York Times
NOW that populist rebellions are taking Britain out of the European Union and the Republican Party out of contention for the presidency [non sequitur alert!], perhaps we should speak no more of left and right, liberals and conservatives. From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. From now on the loyalties that matter will be narrowly tribal — Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England — or multicultural and cosmopolitan.
Well, maybe. But describing the division this way has one great flaw. It gives the elite side of the debate (the side that does most of the describing) too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”
[But it’s not a meritocratic order. It plucks the “best black” or Hispanic, while freezing out vastly more talented but impecunious whites.]
This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
Indeed elite tribalism is actively encouraged by the technologies of globalization, the ease of travel and communication. Distance and separation force encounter and immersion, which is why the age of empire made cosmopolitans as well as chauvinists — sometimes out of the same people. (There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)
It is still possible to disappear into someone else’s culture, to leave the global-citizen bubble behind. But in my experience the people who do are exceptional or eccentric or natural outsiders to begin with — like a young writer I knew who had traveled Africa and Asia more or less on foot for years, not for a book but just because, or the daughter of evangelical missionaries who grew up in South Asia and lived in Washington, D.C., as a way station before moving her own family to the Middle East. They are not the people who ascend to power, who become the insiders against whom populists revolt.
In my own case — to speak as an insider for a moment — my cosmopolitanism probably peaked when I was about 11 years old, when I was simultaneously attending tongues-speaking Pentecostalist worship services, playing Little League in a working-class neighborhood, eating alongside aging hippies in macrobiotic restaurants on weekends, all the while attending a liberal Episcopalian parochial school. (It’s a long story.)
Whereas once I began attending a global university, living in global cities, working and traveling and socializing with my fellow global citizens, my experience of genuine cultural difference became far more superficial.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this. Human beings seek community, and permanent openness is hard to sustain.
But it’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.
They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”
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They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.
They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.
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