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Cosmopolitanism's limits

Last winter when I was in Hyde Park to interview for a residency spot, I stopped in at 57th Street Books and found two books on the front table. One was Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. The other was by Italian politician Marcello Pera and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam.

I thought it would be fun to read them together. One offered "cosmopolitanism" as an antidote to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a globalized "world of strangers." The other saw a threat to "tolerance and civility among peoples of diverse convictions" in Europe's "apostasy toward . . . the spiritual roots of European civilization" as George Weigel's preface puts it. Nonviolent coexistence demands some degree of toleration, and toleration seems to demand that we embrace some kind of relativism. Could one really argue for a renewed commitment to religious values on the grounds that this apparent absolutism is more conducive to toleration than some form of relativism? This post addresses Appiah's book; I'lll talk about Pera and Ratzinger separately.

Anthony Appiah: Virginia Postrel on steroids

I admit that the comparison might not be entirely fair, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to call Kwame Anthony Appiah the thinking man's Virginia Postrel (or perhaps Thomas Friedman, if you prefer).

Appiah argues that we can't be cosmopolitans until we give substantial weight to our shared humanity, relative to the weight we give to our shared identity with our co-religionists, countrymen, or ethnic group. The "golden rule of cosmopolitanism" according to Appiah is something like the Roman playwright Terence's "I am human; nothing human is alien to me." When it comes to culture, we ought to recognize the empirical reality that there is no such thing as cultural purity. Every culture has been "contaminated" by others, whether by trade, migration, or Hollywood movies. "We do not need, have never needed, settled community, a homogenous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron."

This does not mean that there are no differences among peoples. In fact, the threat of cutural imperialism shouldn't be overstated, because even when the same television show is seen worldwide, different peoples have different reactions to it. Even when Coke is marketed around the world, local people often prefer local beverages when they're available. "And whatever loss of difference there has been, [people] are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to time, new religions."

But if homogenization isn't a problem, why do so many people think that it is? According to Appiah, it's because they don't like change. "So why do people in [the world's villages] sometimes feel that their identity is threatened? Because the world, their world, is changing, and some of them don't like it."

Well, duh. It isn't that people don't like change per se; they don't like change that threatens their identity. The problem with all of this breezy talk about sources of conflict that, illusory or not, lead people to kill each other in mass numbers, is the same problem that Postrel and Friedman have also failed to solve. Appiah never takes the proper measure of the non-cosmopolitan's objections to our modern circumstances. You can see this when he equates threats to a person's identity with a mere distaste for change in general. These are clearly problems of a different order of magnitude. We can't conjure away the problem Postrel-style by describing millions of people who feel the need to kill or be killed in a war against modernity as merely stubborn.

Appiah also sets up an all-too common straw man to represent those who argue that elements of our tradition should be preserved. He speaks as if all these people simply want to foreclose choice, and force everyone to be small farmers. For instance (p. 103-4):

Above all, relationships are changing. When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his [family] would work it with him. If extra hands were needed in the harvest season, he would pay the migrant workers who came from the north. . . . Nowadays, everything has changed. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the trasportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world. Once, perhaps, you could have commanded your nephews and nieces to stay. Now they have the right to leave; in any case, you many not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family has gone; and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as some of the American family farmers whose lands are being accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture; and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

This is simply modern superstition thoughtlessly repeated. The economy (conceived of as a natural "force" for which we are not responsible) has made it impossible to pursue a way of life that has sustained many generations of people. Despite the economic impossibility of pursuing the old ways of life, the abandonment of these old ways and the adoption of the modern ways is glorified as a "choice" that young people freely make. Appiah doesn't recognize the contradiction, perhaps because he's so eager to condemn those who would "force" their children to remain on the farm as enemies of free choice. But who are these people? We here a lot from Anthony Appiah and Virginia Postrel about these family-farming tyrants, but we're never told who they are. It's just assumed that they exist. But I haven't met one, or read their articles or books, or seen any of the draconian stay-on-the-farm laws that they're trying to pass.

I suspect that, if we were really more concerned about "freedom" than about defending modernity as such, we'd be willing to acknowledge that much of what young people do when they leave the family farm is done because there isn't any other real choice to make. Economic realities, to the extent that they make the family farm unprofitable, make moving to the cities a necessity and not a choice. Appiah (and Friedman) can argue that the family farm doesn't make economic sense, but they can't have it both ways and simultaneously claim that the abandonment of the farms is a glorious example of personal freedom.

The fact is that the modern economic realities that are condemning family farms in favor of global agribusiness are not natural events. We subsidize global agribusiness, not family farms. Much less do we subsidize "thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity," whatever that might mean.

Appiah does discuss more serious sources of conflict than changing hairstyles and new slang. He points out that the conflict in the United States between people who favor and who oppose legal abortion is not a conflict over fundamentally incompatible values. Instead, it's a conflict over how the shared values of life and freedom ought to be applied in a particular case. The conflict between observant Muslims and observant Jews wouldn't be as fierce if they didn't both share similar beliefs about the importance of Jerusalem. The resistance to British colonization of Ghana was fiercest among the most Westernized Ghanaians, who shared with the British the values of nationalism and self-determination.

Appiah comes close to acknowledging that when people disagree like this, reason will often fail. These differences don't arise because people aren't being reasonable. There are going to be winners and losers, and the losers will be very angry, and they may respond with violence. But I suspect that to just say this and stop would be to admit the defeat of cosmopolitanism, and Appiah is unwilling to do this explicitly. Instead, he turns quickly away from a discussion of winners and losers to a discussion of habit. He acknowledges the limits of reason: "I have learned in a life of university teaching and research that even the cleverest [why not simply "most intelligent"?] people are not easily shifted by reason alone. . . " The point of conversation and cultural interchange isn't to arrive at a consensus about values. "...[I]t's enough that it helps people get used to one another." End of chapter.

Sure, living with someone different teaches us about them and makes them less unfamiliar. But if Appiah wants to suggest also that it makes us more tolerant of them, he leaves it as merely a suggestion. Who wants to kill Iraqi Sunnis? Iraqi Shiites, not Alabama Baptists. Who routinely killed Irish Catholics? Irish Protestants, not Buddists in Japan. Will cosmopolitan cultural interchange lead to a safer and less violent "world of strangers?" Appiah doesn't argue convincingly that it will.

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