Martha Nussbaum’s paean to cosmopolitan internationalism could hardly be more timely. National boundaries are becoming increasingly less relevant, both economically and environmentally. But far from calling forth concerted action across national borders, these developments coincide with a resurgence of ethnicity-based nationalisms in both the West and the developing world. Appeals to such nationalisms have become an especially potent, yet pernicious, force for political loyalty and mobilization.
Nor is American civic culture, as currently reproduced in schools, adequate to cope with these trends. We are still woefully lacking in a grounded sense of the human worth of members of other countries, especially those in the developing world, or of the impact on the rest of the world of our own country’s “national interest” perspective on international affairs. As Nussbaum points out, current anti-multicultural anxieties about national unity and division just feed a national-chauvinistic narrowness.
At the same time, Nussbaum misleadingly characterizes the choices we face and underplays the importance of striving for an enlightened patriotism. She casts particularistic loyalties of nation — and, by implication, smaller communities (school, neighborhood, city, profession) — as colorful, comfortable, demanding little effort. They appeal, she implies, only to dangerous, superficial, and base passions, and are often little better than forms of, or masks for, egoistic self-aggrandizement. At best, national and local ties are construed as sources of personal meaning, but not as themselves sites of struggle for justice and the recognition of others’ humanity, an ethical goal that Nussbaum appears to confine to the international domain.
We need some distinctions here. Everywhere today we see a contest over the meaning of “nation” (and thus of “patriotism”). At a time when virtually no national borders are confined to single ethnic groups, securely ethnically-inclusive conceptions of nationhood are a vital necessity. Criticizing such a goal as insufficiently internationalist simply leaves the field of patriotism and the definition of nationhood to the likes of Le Pen, Milosevic, Zhirinovsky, Baruch Goldstein, and Oliver North. A patriotism that strives for multicultural inclusiveness — and, more broadly, strives to live up to the ethically highest ideals found within the traditions of a multicultural nation — is far from easy and comfortable. It frequently demands as much lonely and unselfish devotion as Nussbaum sees in the true cosmopolitan.
Richard Rorty’s chastisement of “the left” for its failure of patriotism contains a salutary, even if only strategic, lesson, despite Nussbaum’s apt critique of his narrow chauvinism. It is dangerous to turn one’s back so much on local and national ways of life, loyalties, and political and cultural reference points that one loses the ability to identify and communicate with not-yet-internationalist fellow citizens. We lose the lived sense of commonality that allows us to argue that, indeed, the best way for us together to “celebrate” (as Rorty says) our country is to encourage it to live up to its highest ideals of equality, justice, and compassion for those beyond its borders. Such a loss may indeed be the fate of some international human rights activists, relief workers, and other true internationalists; and it may be a loss from which the world community benefits. But the possible costs of such exclusive internationalism reveal the need for other persons, no less devoted to the welfare of strangers, to operate in much more local venues. Both Rorty and Nussbaum overstate the conflict here. With only some exceptions, a strengthened internationalism and enlightened civic patriotism are largely compatible with one another.
Nussbaum is importantly right to note an incoherence in a purely national multiculturalism, such as informs Sheldon Hackney’s otherwise admirable call for a national conversation on civic values.1 Fortunately, the actual effect of the current wave of multiculturalism in education, at both college and pre-college levels, has so far been to foster (though still too minimally) both a stronger international focus and a more ethnically-inclusive sense of American life.
Nussbaum’s talk of “primary allegiance” is misleading in this regard. She is of course right that a central educational and civic task is to strengthen all Americans’ allegiance to “the community of human beings in the entire world.” But we are enmeshed in our local communities and nations too. The important issue is the substance of all these allegiances, both local and international. Setting priorities in situations of conflict is a secondary matter. What do we see as the object of our attachment when we love our neighborhood, our city, our country? Is it a rich collective life, with expansive and pluralistic sensibilities? Or is it narrow, anti-immigrant, ethnically exclusive, Not-In-My-Backyard, chauvinistic — more concerned with keeping “the other” out than with the genuine welfare of those in the community in question?
Nor does internationalism and a rejection of patriotism and other particularisms guarantee a devotion to the universal good. After all, the international corporate executive may regard himself as the ultimate cosmopolitan. He is more comfortable with, and more conversant with, the people of the world and their problems than are 99% of the US population. So it is not only local but international attachments as well that leave room for choices and struggles between expansive and chauvinistic interpretations.
In the main, we need not choose between internationalism and morally-informed particularisms (including patriotism), in either our education or our political commitments. Both are necessary. Indeed, without both the peoples of the world are in for an increasingly dismal time.
1 See, e.g., Sheldon Hackney, “Toward a National Conversation,” The Responsive Community, summer 1994, p. 4 10