Cosmopolitanism: Contents and Discontents

June 7, 2008

I’d like to speak of two very different contexts in which cosmopolitanism flourished in an attempt to draw out some of its broader lessons.  The first is 17th century Amsterdam; the second is Soviet Russia in the 1920s and 1930s.

It can be argued that Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, that great harbinger of modernity, is the most famous heretic of all time.  The scientific revolution and the retreat from ecclesiastical authority are at the very heart of modernity, and Spinoza’s pantheistic universe and ultimate excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam are widely pointed to as events signifying the changing times.  But what was it that allowed Spinoza to become a celebrated western (and later, Jewish) philosopher while the conversos who came before him, like Uriel da Costa who expressed skeptical views and criticized the Jewish community (kahal), were to suffer ignoble and medieval punishment only to be tossed to the margins of history?

The answer has largely to do with the nascent cosmopolitan atmosphere in Amsterdam at the time.  With the Dutch East India Company securing tea and coffee from abroad, the seat of the empire boasted a cafe culture into which Spinoza could escape.  The true power of excommunication lied in the social separation it enforced – one could neither engage in business with nor talk to a Jew placed in herem.  Acosta killed himself when he could not bring his worldview into line; Spinoza, a mere 50 years later, enjoyed the company of a coterie of fellow religious skeptics, Jewish and gentile alike.  If the mercantilist-capitalist success of the Dutch empire at home and abroad provided the base, the superstructure was pure cosmopolitanism.

Fast forward some three hundred years.  Stalin’s campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans”, mentioned by our able and knowing Dash, made worldliness in culture a political liability.  Fear of infiltration and of insufficient allegiance to the Party lead to a rash of political assassinations among the cultural elites.  Stalin’s ever increasing paranoia, combined with the fact that Communism was, despite its ideological origins, essentially a Russian nationalist political movement, made the “citizen of the world” a danger to the Revolution.  Incidentally, the young radicals at the City College of New York who would eventually become the New York intellectuals bewailed these very purges and used Stalin’s repression as fodder in their debates with those who towed the party line.  Cosmopolitanism gave birth to neoconservatism and American exceptionalism?  Perhaps it’s an overly teleological narrative but the argument can be made.

My ultimate analysis is ambivalent and disjointed.  Cosmpolitanism, whether in the age of the first multinational corporation or today when the multinational rules the world in this era of globalization, represents both opportunity and potential danger as NWABang has already explained.  Greater global interdependence means greater cultural awareness and provides us with more options.  If the 20th century saw nationalism go awry, perhaps a New World Order is very much…in order.  The values that could govern such a world be, de facto, be cosmopolitan.  Then again, human beings need an in-group, a sense of “we” and “us”, despite the othering this requires. – its good for our socialization to have a tradition and an inherited body of custom. Though Stalin was unequivocally wrong, there is logic to his thinking.  The cosmopolitan is by definition loyal only to his or her sense of cultural attainment.  He or she is often a free-thinker in the society he or she inhabits.  While there is an important role for such intellectual activity, allegiance to king and country has its virtues as well, a sentiment the intelligentsia on the left would do well to remember from time to time.  What do I know?  I know enough to say I do not know.

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