Appiah's Cosmopolitanism

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's lovely essay on cosmopolitanism in the NYT Magazine is mandatory reading. It was very heartening, even a little exciting, to find that there was almost no point on which I disagreed with Appiah. He has lucidly articulated what I think grown-ups ought think about the complex pluralism of a globalized world.

Some highlights:

When people talk of the homogeneity produced by globalization, what they are talking about is this [small, traditional African village]: Even here, the villagers will have radios (though the language will be local); you will be able to get a discussion going about Ronaldo, Mike Tyson or Tupac; and you will probably be able to find a bottle of Guinness or Coca-Cola (as well as of Star or Club, Ghana's own fine lagers). But has access to these things made the place more homogeneous or less? And what can you tell about people's souls from the fact that they drink Coca-Cola?

. . .

Human variety matters, cosmopolitans think, because people are entitled to options . . . [quotes Mill's On Liberty re: the need for a plurality of “moral climates”] . . . If we want to preserve a wide range of human conditions because it allows free people the best chance to make their own lives, we can't enforce diversity by trapping people within differences they long to escape.

On cultural authenticity:

[T]rying to find some primordially authentic culture can be like peeling an onion. The textiles most people think of as traditional West African cloths are known as Java prints; they arrived in the 19th century with the Javanese batiks sold, and often milled, by the Dutch. The traditional garb of Herero women in Namibia derives from the attire of 19th-century German missionaries, though it is still unmistakably Herero, not least because the fabrics used have a distinctly un-Lutheran range of colors. And so with our kente cloth: the silk was always imported, traded by Europeans, produced in Asia. This tradition was once an innovation. Should we reject it for that reason as untraditional? How far back must one go? Should we condemn the young men and women of the University of Science and Technology, a few miles outside Kumasi, who wear European-style gowns for graduation, lined with kente strips (as they do now at Howard and Morehouse, too)? Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren't authentic; they're just dead.

Earlier, on the same note:

Talk of authenticity now just amounts to telling other people what they ought to value in their own traditions.

Appiah's discussion of the interpretive power of cultural consumers could have come straight our of Reason:

Dutch viewers of “Dallas” saw not the pleasures of conspicuous consumption among the superrich – the message that theorists of “cultural imperialism” find in every episode – but a reminder that money and power don't protect you from tragedy. Israeli Arabs saw a program that confirmed that women abused by their husbands should return to their fathers. Mexican telenovelas remind Ghanaian women that, where sex is at issue, men are not to be trusted. If the telenovelas tried to tell them otherwise, they wouldn't believe it.

Talk of cultural imperialism “structuring the consciousnesses” of those in the periphery treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which global capitalism's moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn't true.

I can't quote the whole thing, but it deserves your attention. Appiah's account of tolerance not as “understanding” but simply as “getting used to” differences is also illuminating.

Appiah's essay led me to reflect on the relationship between my libertarianism and my cosmopolitan liberalism. I became a cosmopolitan liberal because I was a libertarian first. I believe that if you lay enough weight on the natural human liberty to exchange, the moral significance of national boundaries dissipates, and cultural mixing will be seen as an inevitable consequence of people jointly satsifying their preferences through conversation and trade. But I have since met some puzzlingly anti-cosmopolitan libertarians. If I had to choose between pushing a button that would make the U.S. government 75% smaller, or pushing a button that would end the oppression of women the world over, for example, I'd choose the latter without a millisecond's hesitation. I was astonished when I first discovered that there are strangely nationalistic “libertarians” who would push the smaller-US-government button instead. That is, I think, a regrettable sign of moral immaturity or brokenness.

In some sense, my cosmolitan liberalism, though initially motivated by my libertarianism, has taken precedence in my own philosophy. However, I stick to my libertarian guns largely because I believe that cosmopolitan liberalism demands it. My “Understanding Political Libertarianism” essay I think makes that case pretty well.