12/17/2003

The Global Citizens' Dual Address

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who last month amid much media fanfare won the first $1 million John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, once wrote: “When I am asked where I would like to live, my standard answer is: deep in the virgin mountain forest on a lake shore at the corner of Madison Avenue in Manhattan and the Champs-Elysees, in a small tidy town.”

I like this answer very much, but part of me distrusts it, too. If this is a picture of global citizenship, the touchstone idea of this column, I don’t approve. Rootless cosmopolitanism is unserious and often parasitic. It speaks of being lost and confused, as in a bad dream.

In a world like ours, already strange and surreal enough, I want to know exactly where I stand and live. Where I come from. I want the nourishment of those roots, and I want to get my mail. I want the security of a simple address in a single town, a specific avenue at a specific street.

I don’t normally curl up with Polish philosophers. It’s just that when I heard “Silent Night, Holy Night” playing at Barnes & Noble downtown, I became meditative as befits the season. And I had a definite problem to gnaw, which is that I’ve been feeling a little bit the fraud lately.

Global citizenship?” What is that? Don’t we need to know what it truly means to be a “citizen” before we move to being a “global citizen?” And do we really know what it means to be a citizen in the United States today?

Healing Society

I read recently about a Korean grocer in Los Angeles, one Charles Kim, who definitely knows what it means. He apprehended a black teenager robbing his store and called the cops. When the cops came, the kid talked about his life, and Kim, instead of pressing charges, had him work off the penalty in his store. Then he hired him. Then he organized many other Korean grocers to hire young black teenagers from the neighborhood. When a reporter asked what payback he got from all this, Kim said “the priceless taste of love.” What a citizen! But how uncommon!

When was the last time we as a society thought about citizenship, as Charles Kim does, as a spiritual path? Not just as a dutiful yearly slog to the polling booth, but as a means of personal growth – a way to heal the self by healing society? Or as a form of expression available to every person that’s every bit as potent as writing a book or singing an opera, and just as necessary?

The “Self-Improvement” section at B&N is piled high with tomes on diets, meditation, massage, astrology, career counseling, divorce guides, sex guides, and so on. Every one of these books is valuable and useful, I’m sure. Yet in the aggregate they form a tower to the lonely Self.

Ideal-Surreal

Then there is the “Current Events” section, a tower to Society you might say, with its own prescribed solutions in foreign affairs, education policy, crime, and the horribly biased news media (liberal or conservative, take your pick).

I’d like to see a new section called “Society and Self” with books on how to heal the individual self by healing society. How to cure your headache by volunteering at a shelter, for example (it really works). This third section of books would take some imagination, which, getting back to Leszek Kolakowski, is why I also like his ideal-surreal address. Because if there’s one thing we need these days, it’s imagination.

Not only to imagine how the U.S. is connected to China and Somalia and Mexico and Iraq; but also how the Chinese and Somali and Mexican communities in southeast Minnesota are connected to each other and how they are, in fact, us. Hopefully, we are all becoming one.

In the meantime, we are still many. The pasts and the passions of these foreign lands are all now well planted in our soil. It’s a good idea to go to them and visit them before they come, possibly in conflict, to visit us.

Seeing Beneath

And to do that kind of travel takes imagination – to peer behind the strange languages, customs, and costumes, to see the human beings beneath.

We all need two addresses. A specific address to keep us rooted, to assure us who we are and where we are from, and to point us home. And an address in the imagination to connect us to the far reaches of humanity, to show us the possibilities for global travel in our small tidy towns.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report