The McGill Report 4/04/02

Spicy Cosmopolitanism

There are lots of problems with cosmopolitanism, the ancient idea that people should consider themselves as citizens of the world.

There is the practical problem that a person who isn’t deeply rooted in a local culture doesn’t have the skills to navigate cultures around the world. There is the moral problem of declaring that one’s responsibilities to strangers equal those owed to fellow citizens and family members. And there is the semantic problem that "global citizenship" can mean very little outside the context of an actual and existing state.

But the biggest problem of all with cosmopolitanism is simpler than all of these.

Simply put, it’s boring. It’s an interminably long and flat word. One nearly falls asleep saying it: Cos-mo-pol-i-tan-i-zzz-zzzzz…

As an idea it’s not much better. Can you see anyone getting overcome with emotion, singing loud and proud, writing a stirring poem, yelling themselves hoarse, stamping their feet, or going off to fight a war to defend his identity as a cosmopolitan? "Cosmpolis the beautiful?" "I’m proud to be a cosmopolitan?" Hardly.

And yet if we know anything we know there’s a grain of important truth in the idea of global citizenship. If our hearts don’t trill to the idea, our minds at least respectfully salute.

We know that five out of six articles of clothing on our bodies were made outside the United States; that five out of six toys used by our children were made in China; that our car wouldn’t run if you removed every part made in Mexico. In short, we’re already 5/6 cosmopolitan. Yet where is our sense of responsibility to the sweatshop workers who made our clothes, to the factory workers who stuffed our children’s toys, or to the Mexican grease-monkeys who tightened the bolts in our Fords and Chevies?

Air pollution released in Canada today means people will be coughing in Michigan tomorrow. Thai and Indonesian food and flavors such as lemongrass, curry, and peanut sauce are already more familiar – more American -- to people living in Los Angeles than are many indigenous American foods. A nuclear suitcase bomb made in Pakistan is a threat to any place in the United States. Our lives are already thoroughly interpenetrated by the world beyond American borders. We know this.

Yet this saturation of American society by foreign foods and folkways and flavors has not yet reached the point that a single new culture has crystallized, with its own flag and national song and patriotic stories that can be told in history class. There is a gap between the reality of life in America, which is cosmopolitan, and the official narrative of life in America, which remains national and regional.

Now here is the funny thing. When the stories that human beings use to explain reality no longer match reality, people don’t respond in the way you might expect. They don’t change the story to fit the new reality. Rather, they continue to explain the new reality with the old story.

This leads to problems. Recently, America was still telling itself outdated Cold War spy stories and jailing Chinese "spies" on concocted charges, as the old story dictated they should. Meanwhile, a new set of enemies was designing new weapons of mass destruction aimed at American cities and citizens. There were plenty of early warning signals that this was going on. But few of us paid attention because it was much easier to continue seeing the world through the old story, than it was to see the world anew and to write a new story to fit.

Here’s the point: we need a new story in America. The new story needs to fit the new reality, which is cosmopolitan. This cosmopolitan reality is defined not only by the manufacturing sources of our clothes, toys, food, and cars, but by the global reach of the Internet, the globalization of finance, and the fact that 28 million people born in foreign countries now live in the United States – more than ever in our history.

One would think these facts alone would be enough to grab the American populace by the underwear and, with a sharp upwards jerk, bring to our collective attention the fact that we are all global citizens now. But this has not yet sunk in. After 9/11, there was a brief period when the mainstream U.S. media turned its attention outwards, especially to Central Asia and the Middle East. Seven months later, it’s not clear that many more American schoolchildren than before could find the city of Kabul on a map.

What I am suggesting is that legislators, educators, political leaders, journalists and everyone else might consider what a truly vivid cosmopolitanism would be like. What would it look like? What would it feel like?

What language would we use to describe ourselves as global citizens in such a way that we’d feel our pulses race for justice, goodness, and identity, defined in a cosmopolitan way? The word brings on the deed; the idea precedes the event. We’ve seen the consequence of failing to renew our sight in this way. We’ve seen the price of failing to renew our great story. How should we tell our new story?

The new story will be set not just in our homes, our cities, our states, our nation – great as all those are. It will be set on that pale blue lonely planet called earth. It will be a story of cosmopolitanism, and in order to reach deep and be truly useful, to compete with our fight songs and our rallying cries and our national anthems, our new narrative must follow certain rules: It can’t be abstract. It’s got to really matter.

It should spring from real life.

It's got to be spicy.


Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report