Tomorrow I’m lecturing on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), which works marvelously in the context of Con West because of his stress on the importance of “conversation.” I’d spent part of the time during last Wednesday’s opening lecture preparing the students for the concepts that Appiah discusses. Naturally, therefore, my ears pricked up when I heard Rudolph Giuliani’s ad lib about cosmopolitanism during his address to the Republican National Convention that evening:
Governor Palin represents a new generation. She’s already one of the most successful governors in America and the most popular. (Cheers, applause.) And she’s already had more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket combined. (Cheers, applause.) She’s been a mayor. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) I love that. (Cheers, applause.) I’m sorry — I’m sorry that Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn’t cosmopolitan enough. (Laughter.)
(Altering tone of voice.) I’m sorry, Barack — (laughter) — that it’s not flashy enough. (Laughter.)
Maybe they cling to religion there. (Cheers, applause.) Ooh. (Extended cheers and applause.)
I’m thinking about starting the lecture (after a five-minute “in-class exercise” i.e. “quiz” about Appiah’s book) with this clip of Giuliani’s remark from You Tube. It’s shot from behind so it makes him look particularly trogolodytic:
The lines about cosmopolitanism don’t appear in the transcript that was circulated in advance to the media. Maybe it was the heat of the moment: driven by the desire to gain the approval of the diehard Republican audience in front of him, the overwhelmingly white crowd that had eagerly embraced the caricature of small-town values embodied by Sarah Palin, Giuliani disavows his connection to New York City and indeed all of urban America. Giuliani’s remark puts me in mind of a comment that Thomas Frank makes in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004):
Kansas today is a burned-over district of conservatism where the backlash propaganda has woven itself into the fabric of everyday life. People in suburban Kansas City vituperate against the sinful cosmopolitan elite of New York and Washington, D.C.; people in rural Kansas vituperate against the sinful cosmopolitan elite of Topeka and suburban Kansas City.
Like the conservatives that Frank describes, Giuliani transforms “cosmopolitan” into a scare-word, glossing it in his next remark as “flashy.” Personally, I find it hard to believe that Giuliani could actually believe that being mayor of a town like Wasilla, Alaska (current population 7,025 according to www.cityofwasilla.com) is really akin to being mayor of New York City (current population 8,274,527). Or that he really feels more of a connection to Sarah Palin than to the average New Yorker. But like most of the speakers at that convention (with the possible exception of the nominee, John McCain), Giuliani was pandering to the crowd and willing to say just about anything.
I’d imagine that most of the students in my course are liberals, but I don’t intend to take that for granted. Indeed, I’m going to pause for a moment and openly admit my politics — I’ll be wearing a Barack Obama lapel pin so it should be obvious — and then explain why I don’t try to hide my politics in the classroom. I’ll tell them that I believe that literature and all forms of storytelling (including history and philosophy) are inherently political, because they are about the ways in which human beings relate or fail to relate to one another and exercise power over one another. My goal is to enable my students to recognize the political aspects of discourse and to be able to make informed, critical arguments, either for or against the theory of cosmopolitanism that I’m presenting. They’re not going to be graded on the extent to which they agree with me: they’re going to be graded on the quality of the arguments that they’re able to make about the ideas we’ve discussed and the texts we’ve read.
What I’ll try to make them see is that if Giuliani really believes that “cosmopolitan” means “flashy,” then he’s misunderstood not only the concept but also what is so special about the city of which he was once the mayor. Because cosmopolitan doesn’t mean that you’re well-traveled, or that you eat all kinds of different cuisines, or enjoy a variety of highbrow cultural forms: it means that you aren’t afraid of difference, but rather see difference as an opportunity for personal growth. The cosmopolitan values the things that all human beings all share by virtue of being human — what some thinkers call the “universal” — but finds excitement in the differences that can be found in different human cultures. Cosmopolitanism,” Appiah writes, “is universality plus difference.” For the cosmopolitan thinker, as I constantly repeat, difference is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be embraced.
Once again, I’ll be using both Raymond Williams’s model of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures, and George Lakoff’s account of “framing” to help the students understand Appiah’s argument that “cultural contamination” is the natural tendency of all cultures, which left to their own devices never attempt to remain pure but rather constantly change and adapt through contact with other cultures and peoples. And finally, I’ll be stressing a concept which is particular useful when you’re a lecturer who tries to be spontaneous: what Appiah calls “fallibilism,” the idea that because no human being is perfect, we must be open in our conversations with others to having our mind changed and to admitting that we are mistaken. We need to listen as well as talk to others, to persuade but also be open to being persuaded. That’s the mark of a true cosmopolitan. Far from being flashy, the true cosmopolitan is humble before the awesome richness and diversity of human experience.