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
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
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.