7/7/2003

A New Global Story for a New World

Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- 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 is deeply rooted in a local culture doesn’t always have the skills to understand global cultures. 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 sovereign state.

The biggest problem of all with cosmopolitanism is simpler than all of these.

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

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

We know that nine out of ten articles of clothing we wear these days are made outside the U.S.; and that nine out of ten toys used by our children are made in China; and that our cars wouldn’t run if we removed all the parts made in Mexico.

Salsa, Tabasco, lemongrass, curry and a hundred other flavors are already more familiar – more American – than 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 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 as you’d expect. They don’t usually change the story to fit the new reality. Rather, they continue to explain the new reality with the old story.

Throughout the 1990s, America was still telling itself outdated Cold War spy stories and jailing Chinese "spies" on concocted charges. 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 signs 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 create a new story to fit.

We need a new story in America. The new story needs to fit the new reality, which is cosmopolitan. The new cosmopolitan reality is defined not only by where our clothes, toys, food, and cars are made but also by the Internet’s global reach, the globalization of finance, the porosity of borders to viruses, and the fact that 28 million people born in foreign countries now live in the United States – more than ever in our history.

How can we tell our new story in a way that we’d feel our pulses race for justice, goodness, and identity defined in a cosmopolitan way? We’ve seen the consequence of failing to renew our vision of ourselves in this way. We’ve seen the price of failing to renew our great story.

So how should we tell our new story? It will need to be set not just in our homes, our cities, our states, or our nation – as great as all those are. It will be set on that pale blue planet called earth.

It will be a story of cosmopolitanism, and in order to compete with our present-day fight songs and rallying cries and our national anthems it will need to be dramatically raw, universally human, and heartfelt.

In a media world shaped by consumerism and fantasy, our new story must be rooted in the world’s present-day reality and essential human need.

It can’t be boring! It will have to show how common people can achieve world-changing epiphanies like the one described by Paul Simon in his song called You Can Call Me Al:

          A man walks down the street,
          It's a street in a strange world,
          Maybe it's the Third World,
          Maybe it's his first time around;
          He doesn't speak the language,
          He holds no currency,
          He is a foreign man,
          He is surrounded by the sound,
          The sound,
          Cattle in the marketplace,
          Scatterlings and orphanages;
          He looks around, around,
          He sees angels in the architecture,
          Spinning in infinity,
          He says Amen! and Hallelujah!

Our new global American story will need its sexy Cleopatra, its blood-drenched Achilles, its ridiculous clowns and buffoons. It will need its Mother Earth. It will need to be as now as the war on terror, as here as cornfields, as hot as The Simpsons. It needs to be spicy!

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report