Market Forces and Mister Softee
June 5, 2008
I’m not really sure how best to approach the topic of cosmopolitanism. Dash’s post earlier this week covered many facets of cosmopolitanism; however, I don’t know that I possess the genius to understand the method connecting said points. I generally think that cosmopolitanism is a good thing, but not so good as to be worth embracing without reservation. So here’s my take on cosmopolitanism, in perfectly drab MLA-style.
The simplest benefit of cosmopolitanism is that it promotes a variety of options. This holds no matter what venue in which we choose to consider it. In terms of economics, cosmopolitanism allows a buyer to choose from many options to find the most fitting; note the success of the chain “Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors,” and the abject failure of “Bruce-Robbins’ 1 flavor” where all you can get is postcolonialist peach crumble. Even through the ways in which we structure our social lives, cosmopolitanism allows us to choose from many potential arrangements. Such liberty-in-choice is a key ingredient in Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism, and while he would probably approve of the considerable (and growing) latitude with which we can choose our lifestyle in this country, he might suggest that we still haven’t gone far enough in promoting cosmopolitanism.
Even if we don’t avail ourselves of the options that cosmopolitanism may provide, the mere presence of alternate options can improve the options that we do take. Returning to economic terms, cosmopolitanism can be seen as synonymous with competition, and is fundamentally beneficial to the consumer: if a seller knows that you have no option but to buy their product, they can take advantage of you; but, if other options become available, a seller will be more inclined to revise their offer and give you a better deal. For a pop-culture digression, devotees of the West Wing may recall how the Bartlett administration recruited Ainsley Hayes as an opposition researcher, helping them to incorporate elements of opposing positions, or at least address the major concerns of the people who hold those positions, thereby making their original arguments stronger and more persuasive.
What happens when there isn’t a dissenting voice is seen in the advent of Lysenkoism, the bogus Soviet approach to genetics. Lysenkoism, which essentially argued that traits derived from experience could be inherited (e.g. if you lift weights, your children will have strong muscles), was a theory conceived without the benefit of evidence, but the terms in which it was presented harmonized well with Soviet doctrine, with which no one dissented. The end result of this was that Soviet agriculture and medicine were set back for decades, and untold deaths ensued.
Cosmopolitanism also has its limits. If I am in a bad mood, and want to buy a whole pie to eat, too many choices can make the act of choosing paralyzing, and afterward, when I should be feeling remorse for having eaten an entire pie, I am instead filled with remorse over the fact that I got the apple pie when I really wanted a cheesecake. Having to address multiple opinions can also be distracting, particularly when a right opinion exists, or when the effective outcome of all choices is the same (such as in choosing which J.J. Abrams production to watch). But the most difficult issue of unbridled cosmopolitanism is that it entails accepting opinions that are bluntly anti-cosmopolitan. If we truly allowed any opinion in our society, we would have accept opinions that violently opposed the right to hold differing positions, and such a purely cosmopolitan society would not remain so for long.
Ergo, cosmopolitan is a major benefit to us as individuals and as a society, because it grants us choice and helps to improve the choices that we make, but in order to preserve cosmopolitanism, we must be cognizant of its limits. Such a bland conclusion may put readers to sleep, and I apologize for not coming up with a more bold approach to the topic. So here’s one: Cosmopolitanism allows for multiple options, but it is not always a good thing. Neapolitan allows for multiple options (one may eat chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla, as well as any combination thereof), so it is therefore cosmopolitan as well. However, Neapolitan is also ice cream, and ice cream is always good. Thus, the Neapolitan is decidedly superior to the cosmopolitan. Good night.