Cosmopolitans and False Consciousness
Early this month, Ross Douthat derided the false consciousness of self-styled “cosmopolitans”:
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
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.”
Question: Suppose you go outward into the world, ready to be transformed by what you find. How should you decide which transformations to embrace? Chance? Quotas? No. The cosmopolitan with common sense takes the best mankind has to offer – the path of meritocracy without borders. This approach inevitably “homogenizes” us: When everyone has the best of everything, there’s a sense in which diversity vanishes – but only because mankind’s cultural cornucopia is available to all mankind. Douthat seems to criticize elites for embracing the only kind of cosmopolitanism that makes sense.
Do I misread him? Here is what Douthat considers “genuine” cosmopolitanism:
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
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.)
This really does sound like cosmopolitanism by chance or quota – and a complete waste of time. If you’re searching for greatness, you should start in the centers of civilization and judiciously branch out, not aimlessly wander the Earth or spend five minutes a day speaking in tongues.
The punchline of Douthat’s piece is that self-styled “cosmopolitans” are merely another tribe:
But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our
global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
But if “tribe” has any distinctive feature, it’s that membership is not based on merit. If he wanted to dismiss self-styled cosmopolitans as a mere tribe, he should have denied that their claim to merit is justified.
I agree with Douthat that global elites overrate themselves. But their chief failing is that their devotion to global meritocracy is superficial: In their hearts, and in absolute terms, most “cosmopolitans” are nationalists. They’re like all those “international” socialists who backed their national governments in World War I: Internationalists on the outside, jingoists on the inside. Or to take a modern example, consider the audience at my Intelligence Squared Debate on “Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere.” While initially keen to affirm the cosmopolitan position, many changed their minds when my opponents pointed out that “anyone” includes foreigners who will compete with the American working class, and “anywhere” includes the United States. As Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute – a prime example of a Douthatian “global citizen” – stated in our debate: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favor.” An employer thinks a foreigner is the best person for the job? Tough luck; this is our country.
The problem with modern cosmopolitanism is not that it’s meritocracy in disguise. Cosmopolitanism without meritocracy is pointless. The problem is that elite commitment to meritocratic cosmopolitanism is a veneer. They should reject nationalism and all its works and all its empty promises, but do not. Cosmopolitanism has not failed. It has barely been tried.