COSMOPOLITANISM (literally, “the world for one’s city”) is perhaps the chief virtue of sophisticated modern life. Surely there is no greater title to accord a New Yorker. To be cosmopolitan is to appreciate, even to sample, a plenitude of cultures: the sophisticate enjoys Thai food with Chilean novels, followed by French chocolates and perhaps a few hours of Brazilian samba. I must say that I have enjoyed something like this sampling (minus the dancing!) myself in the not-too-distant past.
I am increasingly convinced, however, that such an appreciation for diversity, when exalted to a virtue, becomes positively destructive, both of the individual soul, and of culture in general. There is nothing interesting about people in general; it is in particular peculiarity that the wonderfully diverse character of human culture shines through. The Hasidic Jew is an interesting, even fascinating fellow, strange and startling in his side-curls and tefillin, as is the garishly-robed and bejeweled Hindu, his dark skin achieving almost a purplish hue against his crimson robes. Now, the most immediate fact of a Hasid or a Hindu is his particularity–place the two together, and the combination is almost electric, as startling and pleasing as a blue lion rampant on a field of red. The Hasid is terrifically interesting to the outsider, because he is utterly different from the outsider, because his interests belong almost to another world.
There is very little of interest in the modern sophisticate, for he is himself interested in very little. The aesthetic sensibility of cosmopolitanism is something akin to five colors of paint mingled aimlessly on a canvas (in fact, that is quite literally his artistic sensibility, to judge by much modern art): difference is eventually subsumed into a vague and dreary sameness. Under the reign of cosmopolitanism, the fruits of culture become merely interchangeable units of pleasure: “What shall we have for dinner tonight?” asks the sophisticate. “What game shall we play? In what dance shall we dabble? What factory-made relic of which sacred icon shall we purchase to place on our mantle?”
There is perhaps nothing drearier than a man for whom there is nothing sacred. The man whose life is entirely chosen, who has cobbled together a chimerical existence out of the odds and ends of the world’s cultures (much like the eclecticism that currently prevails in interior design), has nothing to offer the stranger, no revelation to unfold, no strange world to glimpse, not even a tantalizing dish to proffer. The sophisticate may only buy and sell those artifacts he collects from others. And everything cosmopolitanism touches turns to plastic: the sophisticate replaces minarets or stupas with row upon row of glass boxes; steals away robes and turbans, and offers the standard uniform of grey or black wool with three buttons; drives out the bazaar (safe house of the truly bizarre), and replaces it with a selection of coffee-shops that, cancer-like, replicate themselves identically in ten thousand places.
So, I have a plea for every sophisticated modern: stop your destructive indifference. Find something real, something that is truly yours, before it is too late, and the only culture available to you are the shadows of artifacts of real being. I fear that the process may be too far gone (perhaps 225 years past) in much of America, for the North may have been too purely commercial from the beginning (how many citizens of Connecticut have plumbed the depths of Reformed theology?), while the beginning of the end for the South was likely the Civil War. If you are a Christian, I would suggest that it is far better to have read all of the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas than to have a passing knowledge of both Christian and Islamic thought. Your conversations with Muslims will become vastly more interesting if you both have something real and deeply-held to discuss.
Finally, I would suggest that there is a discipline of place that could be the salvation of culture, if men could learn to practice it. The hallmark of the cosmopolitan seems to be that every place is as good as any other (for all are “interesting,” a mine of quaint stories, knick-knacks, and other ghostly abstractions). However, to love a place because it is yours—not because you have chosen it, but because it has in some sense chosen you (by birth, most naturally, but perhaps some other providential entanglement is possible)—is to begin the process of creating true culture. To love the deep emptiness of a blue winter sky, or a gnarled oak dangling a tire swing from its twisted fingers; to prefer bacon and eggs to a croissant: these are the first stirrings of a truly human existence. And I would venture that it is the man who loves bacon and eggs above all who might truly appreciate the startling savor of a French pastry.
I recognize the danger in this proposition: to some extent, the chief project of cosmopolitanism is the policing of public life, the hampering of every bold and outrageous claim under the glower of a watchful skepticism. The Hasid in some sense seems an affront, because every hair on his head seems to shout that his is the better way. Further, there are some forms of difference that simply cannot be tolerated, particularly when difference assumes the aspect of a militant intolerance. How to couple a thriving localism with a vigilant, overarching neutral state was in some respects the driving question in the development of federalism (theoretically, the political system under which Americans live). You might guess that I am skeptical of its success. Nevertheless, I think we must continually ask ourselves whether it is better to gain the security to roam freely among all the world’s cultures (sterilized and placed safely behind glass cases of restraint and “tolerance”), if it costs us our very soul.
This article also appeared in The Gadfly, an independent magazine of politics, philosophy, and economics at The King’s College in New York.
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