Cosmopolitanism, Rightly Understood

Through the good offices of William Brafford, I’ve discovered the Gadfly, which seems like a pretty neat publication. I do take issue with this post, however:

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?”

As a critique of urban hipsters obsessed with the latest in Ethiopian cuisine, I think this is spot-on. But cultural dilettantism is emphatically not the same as cosmopolitanism, which implies an appreciation of foreign culture that goes beyond naming a few Belgian craft beers off the top of your head. Think “sand-mad Englishmen” or the Foreign Service’s Arabists – these are people who sought to understand themselves through understanding the Other.

I admit I’m rather biased, having benefited greatly from growing up overseas. But there’s something deeply unattractive about the sort of self-satisfied parochialism that holds any knowledge of the outside world inevitably demeans our appreciation of hearth and home: “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 really and truly to a croissant: these are the first stirrings of a truly human existence.” I confess a certain weakness for croissants, but that hasn’t compromised my ability to appreciate a hearty Southern breakfast. If anything, exposure to a world outside the United States has done wonders for my understanding of our storied national inheritance. How does one celebrate one’s home without understanding its unique place in the world? How many jaded expatriates have gone abroad and then come back, exclaiming “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone!” Obnoxious hipsters raise everyone’s hackles, but real cosmopolitanism sharpens rather than dulls our appreciation of  where we come from.

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7 Comments

Filed under Conservatism, Culture

7 responses to “Cosmopolitanism, Rightly Understood

  1. Pingback: Score One for the Cosmopolitans or Did Hegel Go Far Enough? « Imagine There’s No Countries . . .

  2. William (I hope)–

    I am truly gratified to find someone taking the time to engage with my writing, and, if nothing else, I’m certain we can find common ground in admiration and affection for dear William Brafford (a good friend and former classmate).

    You’ve hit upon something I ought to have made clearer: my disdain for the sort of “appreciation” of any and every culture that in fact numbs one to true attachment, and therefore, to true discrimination, is not therefore a condemnation of any cultured appreciation. So, perhaps there is a sort of cosmopolitanism that I do in fact appreciate, one that seeks to know the stranger as something truly Other. An important example that leaps to mind is Alexis de Tocqueville: it is no accident that the greatest commentator upon American democracy was a Frenchman with aristocratic sensibilities.

    I’ll leave you with Chesterton (from the Everlasting Man): “It is well with the boy when he lives on his father’s land; and well with him again when he is far enough from it to look back on it and see it as a whole. But these [popular critics of Christianity] have got into an intermediate state, have fallen into an intervening valley from which they can see neither the heights beyond them nor the heights behind…They still live in the shadow of faith and have lost the light of faith.”

    I rail against the valley-dwellers, who live in perpetual grey and shadow.

  3. Brendan –

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. After reading your comment and re-reading the original post, I suspect we’re largely in agreement, as we both hold multicultural dilettantism in such low regard. In my view, a deep appreciation of other cultures needn’t compromise our value judgments or a genuine connection to hearth and home. Collecting foreign knickknacks and downloading a few Fela Kuti songs on iTunes, on the other hand, does suggest a fundamentally unserious approach to both our culture and foreign traditions.

    PS – The Gadfly is a neat magazine.

  4. Alex

    I respectfully disagree with Case. I think that he may be overly critical of American (New York?) “culture” by completely nullifying it. A man in this country who cannot find a superbly-tailored suit (grey or black wool with three buttons) or a vintage car or a Philly cheese steak sandwich sacred needs to get out more, yes; but a man who thinks that to outsiders (the Hasidic Jew or turbaned Sikh) these things are nothing but dull and dreary plastic and not worthy of collection for their own mantelpiece in foreign lands, this man needs to extricate himself from the center of the universe. A bazaar is only a safe house of the truly bizarre if it is foreign to it’s observer, just as a shopping mall would seem equally as shocking and strange to an Other. Despair at the proliferation of coffee shops here, then try to find one in England, one that doesn’t serve powdered Nescafe. Lament the “drab food in garish non-places” here, then attempt to be excited at the prospect of living off of lentils and curry for years on end. I don’t mean to criticize other cultures; but when I was living overseas, all I wanted to do was have my friends try a PB&J and watch their astounded reactions. We don’t need to begin the process of creating a culture deeply-held because we already have one, however you may dislike it’s lack of Biblical cred/shock value to you. Why should it raise anyone’s hackles when Ethiopian cuisine is enjoyed by urban hipsters? In Kathmandu, Nepal, *NSYNC CDs and cassette tapes sold like hotcakes when they were popular some years ago, and this seems the same to me. I do not see how a cursory appreciation of other cultures is caustic; if that’s the case, then Nepali kids are wholly unable to fully enjoy the depth and feeling of “Bye Bye Bye” just as the rest of us can’t really appreciate the taste of a croissant.

  5. I was going to try to respond to Brendan’s post, but I couldn’t quite find the phrase. Now you’ve done it for me, Will—“cultural dilettantism” is just what I was looking for. Now if I get around to writing my own post, I’ll have the right phrase. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: More on Cultural Dilettantism «

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