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Cosmopolitanism for a New Age

In times when intellectuals and politicians stir up conflicts between civilizations, it is time to offer new guidelines for a global age: cosmopolitanism.


[ethics] If you insert the name Kwame Anthony Appiah somewhere in the sentence above, you have a fairly precise reproduction of the back text of the book Cosmopolitanism (2006). It is nothing less than a philosophical manifesto that sets up cosmopolitan ideals as a counterpoint to Samuel P. Huntington's famous thesis of "clash of civilization". Huntington's 1993 thesis is about the clash of civilizations – that Islam and the West are incompatible, and irreconcilable, quantities.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist campaign, Huntington's theses were pulled back, despite the fact that the author himself insisted that Mohammed Atta's weak qualities as a flyer were not an example of civil conflict, but an example that civilization was once again haunted by barbarism. According to him, the barbarians were not Muslims in general, but extremist pilots in particular. A similar distinction can be made in connection with the riots following the twelve caricature drawings in the Jutland Post. Huntington's theses have again been highlighted, especially by Aftenposten journalist Halvor Tjønn (13.02.06) and his friend Sigurd Skirbekk (15.02.06). And you didn't manage Tjønn, the newspaper Norway's foremost Islamophobic, to trick Thomas Hylland Eriksen out on the glattice, so the headline on the latter's view was: "Huntington's got a lot right". Huntington, Skirbekk, Tjønn and Eriksen on the same team? Hm.

The conflict is not between Islam and the West, but between those who want a conflict between Islam and the West, and those who do not. The Norwegian Foreign Minister wisely does not. The Danish prime minister did so, until someone put feta cheese in his throat.

Defends Huntington. "Huntington must be taken seriously," Skirbekk writes of a man who, in recent years, has incited every minority in the United States with his one-sided defense of WASP culture (Who Are We ?, 2004). "The problem with Hispanics is that they don't like education," he has argued in earnest. No, there are characters like Kwame Anthony Appiah that need to be highlighted. Aftenposten's articles are read by everyone who has something to say in this country, plus some more. Appiah is probably being read by 15-20 Norwegians, plus some alienated Danes with temporary residence permits. There is a knockout and chess mat and outclass in one. 750.000 daily readers against 20 urbanists in identity crisis. Cosmopolitanism? That sounds cool. Then the whole world is our homeland, right? Since Hitler and Stalin were against it, so are we.

Cosmopolitism: Ethics in a world of strangers is unfortunately not as trendy as it may sound. The term is actually quite old-fashioned. Completely Greek, and a bit antique. Appiah is a philosopher at Princeton University, raised in Ghana and educated at Cambridge. Thus, we can conclude that the author is better at asking than answering. His examples, however, are groundbreaking and culturally ambiguous. It is at all illustrative that many modern reconciliation ideologues – Amin Maalouf, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said – stand with one foot here and one foot there, while their counterpart – Huntington, "Islam expert" Bernard Lewis and the pygmy Sigurd Skirbekk – have become snow-blind by staring at himself and his pure, western and white cultural heritage in the mirror. For them, cosmopolitanism is a foreign word, not to mention an insult. But that's not the worst. The scariest thing about Huntington and co is that their schematic worldview is so seductive. Their ideological enemies – the good, the merciful and the messy – are far more difficult to get clear answers from. Kwame Anthony Appiah is obviously a brilliant thinker, but it is inadvisable to understand what he wants us to do. Cosmopolitanism as a counter-offensive against warlords is a captivating thought, but what else is Appiah's cosmopolitanism than sketches of a mindset that emphasizes that world problems are a hard nut to crack? Little, unfortunately, other than that you should be decent and kind and otherwise do as you please. But let's use him as a starting point for thinking aloud.

Contradicts itself. Cosmopolitanism is a paradox. The ancient Greeks were city citizens (police), and could hardly be citizens of the universe at the same time (cosmos). On the contrary, the cynics and later the Stoics believed that they could. They were skeptical of the idea that the Greek man should remain within his city gate. The term is thus Greek, but only gained a few generations later when the Romans took over the learned headquarters. That's where the conflict that haunts us begins. At the end of the 1700th century, French and Germans established the thesis that the Greeks were an ethnic community, while the Romans were cosmopolitan. Guess who stood on which side. The German fascination for Greek greatness culminated in a worship of the land, the people and the spirit, while French Roman fetishism laid the foundation for the French Revolution, with emphasis on the Law. The nation state against constitutional patriotism, if you will. The starting point is partly correct. According to the textbooks, the Greeks invented philosophy and the arts, while the Romans founded a school of law and imperialism. The Greeks had enough with their own local gods, the Romans were so excited about their new conquests in the East that they were just as well converted to a new foreign-cultural religion, Christianity.

So, to take the rest in motion pictures – the Americans are today's Romans, the Europeans are today's Greeks. The French no longer know what they want. It is as simplistic as it can be, but it hides a core of truth that is difficult to get around. The Americans, like the ancient Romans, deal with people from all over the world far better than the Europeans, including the Greeks of yesterday and today. Is it due to a cosmopolitan attitude to the world? It does not look like that. Americans are probably no more concerned with poor children in Africa than Norwegians are. When it comes to meetings, face to face, individual to individual, Americans still simply have far more experience than the average Norwegian. This is also one of Appiah's points: The road to a more solidary, relaxed and equal relationship with "strangers" is a matter of habit. The more we are exposed to alienation, the less alien it becomes. Alternatively, as Appiah also shows – we see that the foreign is not as foreign as we first think. In his village, the boys were bullied by the girls if they were not circumcised. The same young girls could afterwards go and have themselves circumcised, against their parents' wishes. These paradoxes are useless as tools for politics, but they tell us something that Ghanaians should also obey their parents, and also stop bullying pimps. Kwame Anthony Appiah repeatedly emphasizes that one should have respect for, and engage in dialogue with, those who guard their national, ethnic or civilizational community. The conclusion that can be drawn from his philosophies is that the time is overdue for an ethic that moves in the field of tension between the individual and the universal, and back again.

Equality. The cosmopolitan insists that all people are worth equally, but realizes that he stands himself and his closest. To take an example from Appiah's book. If you are on your way to Elkjøp to buy a flat screen that you do not need, you will be stopped by a man who tells you that if you shop, the direct consequence will be that 100 children in Ghana die immediately. Of course you don't if you believe in him. And if you do anyway, because you are being provoked by this prophet, Hotel Caesar will probably never be the same again. Such may be the reality, but at the same time, giving up the TV is not a fair requirement to ask you and me. One requirement, on the other hand, should be that we must be much more willing to find solutions that benefit both us and them, whether "they" are poor people or otherwise. It should be possible to be kind (universal) and selfish (individual) at the same time.

The Swedish historian of ideas Sven-Eric Liedman tries it in To see oneself in others. His rehabilitation of the concept of solidarity is based on the consumer culture of the western world, and states that it is unproductive to have so many people in the world without work. "We" must buy more goods from "them", primarily Africans. We get lower prices, they get increased growth, which enables them to shop from us. Maybe not a roomy point of view from an environmental standpoint, but it is about to work for India and other Asian countries. Another variant Appiah discusses is to let each individual citizen in a western country decide for himself how much of his own tax should go to good causes in the world. Or how about letting tobacco and alcohol taxes go abroad, instead of to a state in abundance? A fourth variant is to choose a credit card where part of the fees go to poverty reduction. Or, as Irshad Manji advocates in What's Wrong with Islam? – give direct small-scale loans to women who want to start their own businesses. It is healthy for the family economy, and it gives women influence over their own lives. It is needed 150 billion annually over 20 years, it is claimed, to get rid of poverty. It is two kroner and fifty øre per day for citizens of the USA, EU, Canada and Japan. It's peanuts. About a mouthful.

It is also a fair demand to make that we are so curious about the world around us that we acquire knowledge about the fate of people outside our housing association. Getting slim is an exercise thing. Curiosity also requires steel will. What we may then find out is that the world does not consist of eight different and conflict-oriented civilizations. It is not, as Appiah writes, people who create a country's culture, it is individuals. It's Munch, it's Shakespeare and it's Muhammad. And they did not create their art for Norwegians, Britons or Arabs, but for those who were interested. Turning six billion people into cosmopolitans, in the sense of Appiah, is unlikely to diminish wars, conflicts or famine – but it will expand our horizons, preferences and habits. And it will make us better able to understand that our best friends may come from Ghana, and that they are trying to the best of their ability to establish a dialogue with irreconcilable forces in your daily newspaper. n

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