Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cosmopolitianism --A Must Read Introduction to a Vital 21st Century Issue



I am grateful to Professor Fernando Reimers for recommending Cosmopolitianism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah (the Laurence S Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University)writes in an urbane introduction to the issues multiculturalism poses for our society and should be must reading for all those who want to really understand the complexity of our new century. After reading this book we might all be able to agree (to paraphrase what someone famously said about Keynes) that we are all cosmopolitian (ists) now. No one can truly escape into their own monocultural island --our cities, our media and most important our language and culture are infused with layer upon layer of global cultures whether we are aware of them or not. Appiah begins by examining the root meanings of cosmopolitianism--

"A citizen--a polites--belonged to a particular polis, a city to which he or she owed loyalty. The cosmos referred to the world, not in the sense of the earth but in the sense of the universe. Talk of cosmopolitianism originally signaled, then a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities."

Appiah's easy non academic style helps you understand the role of the Enlightenment thinkers such as Wieland--(once called the German Voltaire Appiah adds) who wrote
"Cosmopolitans..regard all the people of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state, of which they, with innumerable other than rational beings, are citizens, are citizens, promoting together under the general laws of nature the perfection of the whole, while each in his own fashion is busy about his own well-being."

Appiah's learning is worn lightly as he answers the all important question --what does it mean to hold the view that we are citizens of the world? What happens to local allegiances--for Virginia Woolf it meant--"freedom from unreal loyalties" and Leo Tolstoy wrote about the "stupidity of patriotism"--on the opposite side of the equation are people like Hitler and Stalin who are deep foes of cosmpolitianism and we all know how that ended up. Appiah's huge store of reading helps him navigate through the issue of loyalties which lies at the heart of the question. George Eliot's creation of Daniel Deronda-the very English gentleman who discovers his Jewish heritage only as an adult--explains his interest in studying his heritage in these terms, "I want to be an Englishman, but I want to understand other points of view. And I want to get rid of the a merely English attitude in studies."

The issue comes down to self definition and how we claim it--we have to be open to the idea that our cultural background creates a way we can connect with others--Eliot talks of the "closer fellowship that makes sympathy practical."

And this is just the introduction! The cluster of questions Appiah considers are truly wide ranging -but often remain invisible in debate--questions such "as what we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?, can culture be "owned" ?

Appiah's essential model for negotiating all these points is a conversation--between people from different places and cultures--there are no absolutes but there are some places where people can meet--agree and discuss--that is the realm we can all in this globally connected world participate in.

As a philosopher he can be skilled with applying some important distinctions--so for example when we talk about objective values we are really talking about desired values --some of which depend on certain facts--he gives the example of universal vaccination as being a value --but we are often prepared to give this value up when the disease has been eliminated. Where we often go astray Appiah argues is where we view an individual's moral vocabulary as belonging to one individual--all the important values-such as kindness, cruelty are public and shared across cultures. It is first and foremost evaluative language we are using--a way of communicating to each other our preferences--if your values were not shared in language --there would be no way we could refer to them. The reason why values are important in our society is that they allow us to get things done together--we appeal to those values in order to act in the public forum--whether it is building a road, going to the moon, or making peace. Our stories that we share embody our values and certain stories are more important than others in our national culture because they enshrine some key values. So one of the purposes of studying a foreign language and reading books in translation is to appreciate the nuances of other people's values.

Not all chapters are discursive essays--some are personal meditations based on growing up in Ghana and the ways that the culture and beliefs shape someone so that conversation sometimes becomes problematic. The author gives the example of medicine and how the conversation between someone who believes in witchcraft to accept the findings of modern medicine. Why should they believe in viruses--that you cannot see? Just because you said so? You can say that you can predict who can get well but not who will get sick. In the end you have to appeal to a community of people who can test the evidence that goes beyond the anectdotal and subjective.

There are insights all along the way--for example the independence movements in Africa and elsewhere that brought to an end colonial rule were arguments about values--not African values per se --but values embodied in the rhetoric that had
guided the Allies in their conflict with the Axis powers--"It was a conflict of interests couched in terms of the same values."

Important points are made about so called cultural purity and cultural contamination--we see so many examples of ethnic communities within hetrogeneous cultures choosing to live within their own cultural borders--but as Appiah so eloquently argues--"cultural purity is an oxymoron"--multiculturalism is in some shape or form in all our lives--in the Middle East, in China, in Ghana and in our own western world. The entire history of culture has been related to mixing one cultural strain with another--from the Roman through to the Alexanderian and British empires to the American century--cultures are continually reinterpreted and reinvented. Intolerance for others is bred of universalistic fundamentalist creeds whether they be Islamic or Christian or Jewish can as we know all too well lead to dangerous consequences--however as Appiah reminds us the truly toxic aspects of this are not so much in terms of those beliefs but their fear and sometimes prohibition of conversation. Without conversation they can extend their belief that "not everyone matters" and other equally savage ideas and not owe anyone a justification as to why. They don't want to be drawn into explaining precisely because they don't want to have to justify themselves or their beliefs to others--because they know that their values are not ultimately defensible. Reason is at the center of it all--"come let us reason together" should be the motto of every civilized person--it offers a ground for your thinking and my thinking.

In terms of the central question--what are our obligations to others--Appiah's answer is to be common sensical--it is to do "our fair share"--we cannot be required to do more. But what is our "fair share"? How do we deal with the fact that so many people are not doing their fair share? He discusses this and other issues--such as the paradox that one of the world's greatest capitalists is providing billions to help eradicate preventable diseases around the globe and our economic system allows the average cow to live on a $2.50 a day subsidy when 3 billion people live on less than $2 dollars a day. Appiah points out that Jeffrey Sachs has argued that we can eradicate extreme poverty for about $150 billion a year for 20 years. Clearly we can do better, as Appiah argues it is a "demand of simple morality" and we can also agree with him that this end might be more achievable "if we made civilization more cosmopolitan"

2 comments:

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