In recent years, I’ve been arguing that Melville’s Moby-Dick dramatizes the benefits of cosmopolitanism — as well as some of the obstacles to its realization. So I was pleased to discover that the political scientist Aristide Zolberg wraps up his study A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (2006) with a discussion of cosmopolitanism in which he marshals none other than Melville.
Zolberg makes a case “for restraining the power to exclude, grounded in the necessity for liberalism to adapt to globalization by developing a more ‘cosmopolitan’ orientation” (p. 454). He then argues that
the gist of a more radical argument on behalf of open borders was set forth a century and a half ago by Herman Melville, when the Great Hunger drove hundreds of thousands of destitute Irish out of their country, prompting the emergence of a wave of xenophobia on the American side and a spate of proposals for restricting immigration. As against this, Melville, who had recently served as a sailor on an immigrant ship, urged that the door be kept open. (p. 455)
The “Melville principle” is expressed by a quote from the novel Redburn
Let us waive that agitated national topic, as to whether such multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores; let us waive it, with the one only thought that it they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world; there is no telling who does not own a stone in the Great Wall of China. (p. 455).
Zolberg does suggest that Melville’s “generous stance was predicated on the knowledge that Ireland contained but some 6.5 million people, and that there were just so many sailing ships available at any given time to bring the Irish to the United States” (p. 456). Zolberg suggests that the realities of the modern world have rendered that kind of calculation obsolete. Unlimited immigration is simply not an option for wealthy nations, which would quickly sink to the level of poorer nations if they were overwhelmed by immigrants.
And yet, the Melville principle remains a principle worth adapting and promoting. For, as Zolberg concludes, “immigrants who feel welcome rarely set out to destroy their new home” (p. 459).