These are dark times for cosmopolitans. Discontent with globalization and resentment towards minorities, immigrants, and intellectuals have fueled the rise of nationalism in Europe and the United States. Dressed in faux-neutral neologisms like “post-truth” and “alt-right,” propaganda, racism, and xenophobia have elbowed their way back into the mainstream. And cosmopolitans are being portrayed as a detached and indulgent elite.
Cosmopolitanism—the aspiration to become a citizen of the world—has become a tainted luxury good.
It might seem prudent, in this climate, to take distance from cosmopolitanism. That choice, however, leaves a distorted image of cosmopolitanism unchallenged and lets it become a casualty in the clash between nationalism and globalization. We must do better than that. If we want to fend off the globalization of ultra-nationalism, now is the time to take a stand for cosmopolitanism—extricating its broadminded attitude from its elitist parody, and putting it to work to temper nationalism and humanize globalization.
Taking such stand begins with remembering where contemporary cosmopolitanism came from and acknowledging how it lost its way.
How We Became Cosmopolitans
I became a cosmopolitan on August 5th, 1943, three decades before I was born. That afternoon, the Allies entered my hometown in southern Italy. The city was on its knees, but the children were jubilant. The war was beginning to end, and freedom had the taste of American chocolate bars. Soldiers threw them to the kids on the roadside as they rode their jeeps through town. My mother never forgot the one she caught.
Wartime stories like that were common when I was growing up, but they felt distant from my world and my life. It took me decades to realize how much they shaped both. Like many middle-class Europeans of their generation, my parents—who had both been first in their families to go to high school, who spent their whole adult lives in the same place, who never spoke a foreign language—insisted that I learn English and travel.
My parents embodied a distinction that the sociologist Robert Merton made in the 1950s studying a small American town. The town’s influential members, he found, were either “locals” or “cosmopolitans.” The locals’ influence rested on strong ties to the town and relationships within it. The cosmopolitans’ rested on their knowledge and expertise. If locals could not imagine a life elsewhere, cosmopolitans seemed to be always preparing for it. Neither, however, left much and the town benefited from the contribution of both. That was back then. My generation’s cosmopolitans were urged to be more mobile.
So, at age 14, I found myself living and studying for a month with a small crowd of Spanish, French, and Germans in a small town in the north of England. It was the first time I felt at home in a place where I did not belong—or more precisely, that I felt like I belonged in a place I had not come from. That is how I began becoming a European. A few years later, when the Berlin Wall fell, it was glorious to be coming of age as one. The promise of cosmopolitanism as a way to a better life might have been at its zenith, but it seemed only dawn. For a moment, it really felt as if we were ending history, in Francis Fukuyama’s famous words, ushering the triumph of liberal democracy worldwide.
Big cities all over the world were swelling up with first-generation cosmopolitans like me, fleeing provincial worldviews. We flocked to places that promised not to put us in our place. We were curious invaders of each other’s countries. A peaceful army sent to dismantle nationalism by elders who’d been hurt by it.
My parents’ generation blessed, if ambivalently, our cosmopolitanism because it was an insurance policy as much as an aspiration. Born out of the rubble of nationalism, it was primarily a humanistic project—not an economic one. It emphasized commonality of experience and tolerance of differences. It should make us realize people unlike us were humans just like us, and replace superstition and suspicion—the pillars of tribalism—with curiosity and compassion. If we would study, dine, and make out with peers from other countries, we would be less likely to bomb each other in the future. When the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, I felt that my mum and dad should get a piece of it—and keep it next to the chip of Berlin Wall I had brought home two decades before.
By then, I was married to a woman born 15 miles from that first English town I lived in. Our parents did not share a language but had similar values. We taught in an academic institution that helps people live working lives across borders. Our children gave complicated answers to the simple question, “Where are you from?” and felt at home in a country that neither of us grew up in. And we had become alert to the skepticism about, and hostility towards, our way of life. Over the past few years, those have only grown. Having spent my life trying to become an educated cosmopolitan, I now fear that my generation has failed at cosmopolitanism, or worse, that we have failed cosmopolitanism.
Foot Soldiers of Globalization
The animosity between locals and cosmopolitans is nothing new. It has shaped Western civilization since Ancient Greece. Up to Merton’s time, however, locals and cosmopolitans, remained strange bedfellows. Now, it seems, they have split up, amplifying their differences and becoming locals in different tribes—a nationalist and a globalist one. Cosmopolitans have built their own tribe. A tribe of people unfit for tribalism, I once wrote. An inclusive, dispersed tribe—if such a thing exists—connected by unlimited international data plans and cheap airfare. But a tribe nonetheless. We commandeered big cities and settled tolerant enclaves like coffee shops, universities, and most of all, multinational corporations that let us make a living as we moved around.
While its origin was political, cosmopolitanism made us unfit for national government. Our lives were too mobile, our allegiances too unclear, our relationship to the state too ambivalent for us to be its trustworthy standard bearers. A cosmopolitan attitude comes with suspicion of people and politicians too tied to nation states, and makes us look suspicious to them in turn. But if politics could not pin us down, business set us up.
When globalization took off, we were ready. We had the mindset and skills needed to deal with and, let us face it, profit from the opening up of global markets. Cosmopolitan enthusiasm was redirected from a humanistic project to an economic one. We stopped taking marching orders from John Lennon and started taking them from Jack Welch. If most political leaders found imagining no countries very hard to do, it seemed almost too easy for corporate leaders to do so. Thus we became foot soldiers of globalization, setting out to turn the world into one of our cities. In hindsight, that was not just overreach. It was a betrayal of the very essence of cosmopolitanism: being a citizen of a varied world.
The wave of nationalism sweeping through the globe has been framed as a rejection of and a reaction to globalization. Some analysts focus on the economic devastation that globalization has brought to Western middle classes. Others focus on the threat that it poses to local social hierarchies and worldviews. Seen that way, nationalism is a blunt tool for those hurt by the cultural and economic blows of globalization to strike back. A blunt old tool, it must be noted, familiar to the kind of provincial masculinity that has held power for centuries, and resents how a changing world imperils its local status.
What Is To Be Done?
Where does that leave cosmopolitans? Caught between the exhortation to empathize with nationalists, out of guilt for having left them behind, and the temptation to double down on globalization and build up de facto city-states out of comfort and fear.
Personally, I don’t lack empathy for angry nationalists. I count many among my family and friends. What I lack is sympathy for their prejudices and faith in the economic benefits of isolationism. Similarly, I have little sympathy for the evangelism and isolationism of worried globalists, many of whom I also count as family and friends.
Given where I come from and where I have got to, however, it is hard for me to choose a side. And I believe that choosing one, if one can choose at all, will not do anyone much good. Tribes seldom coexist peacefully and never for long—and picking a tribe gives cosmopolitanism away just when we need it most.
While they might sound similar, cosmopolitanism is not the same as globalization. One is a fragile personal attitude, the other is a relentless socio-economic force. One strives to humanize the different, the other to homogenize it. One celebrates curiosity, the other convenience. (Curiosity is often inconvenient.) One is embracing, the other expansive. One is easy to lose, the other hard to stop. Nationalism and globalization are more similar to each other than to cosmopolitanism, that way. And cosmopolitanism is what might help us counter nationalism and humanize globalization, pushing it to be a vehicle of freedom and opportunity for most, not just a privileged few.
A cosmopolitan tribe, however, preoccupied with protecting hard-earned cultural advances and economic advantages, will only make things worse. There is neither an undo button for globalization, nor a wall high enough to keep it at bay. But the challenge to humanize globalization is more urgent than ever—and it is both cultural and economic. Doing so requires doubling down on cosmopolitanism, reclaiming its humanistic roots and acknowledging that its promise is far from fulfilled. There is more work to do.
Make Cosmopolitanism Good Again
One November morning last year, I found myself asking my mum about her childhood in the war. The night before, a terrorist attack had devastated a cosmopolitan neighborhood in Paris, not far from where I live. Watching the news, I learned that the German football team had not been able to leave the stadium where they were playing France when the terrorists hit. The French team had spent the night in the locker room too, in solidarity.
For some reason, that image stayed with me. When she called to ask if we were safe, I asked my mother if she could have ever imagined such camaraderie between French and German athletes when she was a child. “Of course I couldn’t have,” she replied. “Neither could I have imagined the freedoms you have enjoyed for decades, nor your way of life.”
I seldom think of my mother as daring, but I did then. Her generation dared to dream the unimaginable for mine and set us on a path to make it real.
It also struck me that, in many ways, our cosmopolitan enclaves are like that locker room in Paris. It took good people the best part of a century to build them. We will lose them if we just guard them. If we regard them as safe bubbles and do not have the courage to venture out and work on building many more—easier to get into, fairer, and roomier too.
In short, instead of just being welcoming, cosmopolitans must keep reaching out. Welcoming without reaching out, or expecting to be always welcome, is what cosmopolitans do when they get lazy or entitled. It’s time to stop being either.
Cosmopolitanism thrives outside bubbles. Inside any bubble, it soon dies. And if we let cosmopolitanism become a casualty of the conflict between nationalism and globalization, we will have betrayed the dreams and wasted the work of two generations. Our humanity, if not humanity—our worlds, if not the world—are at stake.