When I saw the title of Martha Nussbaum’s essay, I was excited because I admire the author and because the two words yoked as her topic raise essential matters. My disappointment with what she has written is balanced by respect for what she begins to open.
The patriotic and the cosmopolitan: these are not mere ideas, they are feelings, indeed they are forms of love, with all the terror that word should imply. In many ways they are opposed forms of love, suggesting a primal conflict: if patriotism suggests the pull of a parental home, cosmopolitanism suggests the pull of the marketplace, the downtown plaza. (I am told that the oldest meaning of kosmos is “village.”) Nussbaum’s essay expresses fear toward the eros of patriotism, but fails to imagine a counterbalancing eros of the cosmopolitan. For the cosmopolitan she substitutes the universal, a more abstract, less historical conception. This error is like confusing an historical tongue such as English with a construct like Esperanto.
The cosmopolitan is local, and it is historical.
The conflict between home and marketplace, hearth and agora, known and unknown, may have some special poignancies for the United States. Genres we invented like the Western and the gangster movie appeal in an almost formulaic way to rapid change across generations that migrate outward and away from what was home. The forms of jazz and rock embody the eclectic, syncretic interchange of colliding origins. Never united by being a single folk culture, still less united under any ancient aristocracy, we have at our best improvised an ever-shifting culture palpably in motion — a culture, I would say, that clarifies the fact that all cultures are motion. Insofar as the chauvinist refers to any human group or making as a static purity, the chauvinist elevates an illusion.
At our best, we contain multitudes — multitudes not merely of souls, but of patrias: the paradox of a culturally polyglot, ever more syncretic homeland — a cosmopolitan patria. At our worst, we protect some thin idea of our homeland with the fierce, despairing paranoia of the profoundly rootless. This is a basic, ancient conflict. The paradoxical ideal of reconciling the pull of home and of market, the patriotic and the cosmopolitan, is an underlying energy of the Odyssey, epic of seagoing pirate-traders who believed both in venturing out on Poseidon’s ocean — the hero learns the ways of many different peoples, say the first lines — to seek profit and gloss, and in coming home to Ithaca. Martha Nussbaum raises the pertinent question of what this conflict should mean in the present.
But alas, her essay is provincial; it stays within the language and conceptions of a narrow place. In her first paragraph, she defines the cosmopolitan as “the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world.” Based on her “experience working on international quality-of-life issues in an institute for development economics connected with the United Nations,” she defines knowledge of other countries as “their histories, problems, and comparative successes.” She suggests that the young study these “problems and comparative successes” and that they “be taught that they are above all citizens of a world of human beings with the citizens of other countries.” She sees India, of all places — India, container of many universes of mores, arts, sights, smells, languages, dances, poetries, sexualities, colors, gods, horrors and ecstasies — as one of a series of concentric circles, with its problems of hunger and pollution related to “larger problems of global hunger and global ecology.” On behalf of the largest, outer circle of the universal, she reassures us that “we need not give up our special affections and identifications, whether ethnic or gender based or religious.”
My criticism of these arid formulations is not merely stylistic, though their sterility points to their weakness. Nussbaum is a gifted writer, but the sentences she lapses into here present a view of the world that would be true only if people were not driven by emotions. These formulas about concentric circles and global community would be valid only if cultures and nations were as static and lucid as so many bar graphs and pie charts. We do share only one world and set of resources, but we cannot deal with such facts by declaring, as by UN resolution, that we are a community.
I have the impression that some of the fiercest nationalisms and ethnocentrisms of the world are fueled in part by resentment toward people like ourselves: happily situated members of large, powerful nations, prosperous and mobile individuals, able to serve on UN commissions, who participate in symposia, who plan the fates of other peoples while flying around the world and staying in splendid hotels. Shouldn’t this reality be the starting place of such discussions? — or at least included in them? Shouldn’t we recognize that our own view, too, is local?
In short, Nussbaum falls into the formulation of one peculiar province, the village of the liberal managerial class. I do not mean to be excessively scornful towards this conceptual village, a realm where the folk arts are United Nations institute reports and curriculum reform committees and enlightened social administration: like other villages it has within it valuable customs and individuals. But its inhabitants characteristically fail, as Nussbaum so spectacularly fails, to achieve precisely what she calls for — understanding others, comprehending the eros of what is different from home through the eros of home. To put it very simply, I think that her essay fails to respect the nature of patriotism and similar forms of love.
Nussbaum quotes Marcus Aurelius: “Accustom yourself not to be inattentive to what another person says, and as far as possible enter into that person’s mind. . . . Generally, one must first learn many things before one can judge another’s action with understanding.” The weight of these quotations, for me, is to warn us how extreme an act of imagination attention to the other must be, in order to succeed even a little. Embedded in what Marcus Aurelius says is a caution against the arrogance that would correct your provinciality with the cosmopolitanism of my terms. The Muslim or Marxist or Rastafarian might draw Nussbaum’s same Stoic diagram of concentric circles, but the labels would build toward a different, less cozy idea of the universal.
Lecturing us about “jingoism” is but another form of provinciality. Attachments to homeland or group are forms of love. I have spoken of the terror that word entails. When patriotism takes horrible forms, the ruling force is not some logical error, but the distortions of passion. Until Nussbaum follows the advice of Marcus Aurelius and understands “as far possible” the erotic component of the assassination of the World Cup player whose blunder caused his country’s defeat, she is only talking to her fellow villagers — which is to say, she is only talking.
Yet her project is noble, for she is asking, implicitly, whether there is in fact an eros of the marketplace equal to the eros of patria. Levi-Strauss raises this question more darkly in Tristes Topiques by positing the idea that the marketplace removes differences, reduces distinctions, and effaces delicate structures. Does the place of interchange destroy cultures by homogenization, or does it foster culture by a kind of chemical reaction? Unwittingly, the aridity of Nussbaum’s Universal — a realm where even “copulation” becomes a matter of principle — suggests the bleaker likelihood.
Nussbaum presents her ideas as a set of suggestions for educating the young. The utopianism of her formulations is so bloodless that I would sooner stick with what is: with the varying, feeble mixture of vague “basics” and half-hearted, constantly changing special area “studies” that the young presently get from — well, from the marketplace. By omission, Nussbaum makes an inadvertent argument for studying works of imagination.
As to the threat of our own patriotism, the erotic spirit of the cosmopolitan does exist, to balance it or temper it. Maybe it is the powerful seduction of the marketplace that creates a defensive, viciously paternal protectiveness in nationalism, ethnocentrism, and other “patriotic” ideologies. Yet, certain other instances of regionalism, ethnic pride, afición, even outright patriotism, can seem cosmopolitan to me — maybe because I grew up when many immigrant families routinely flew the flag on national holidays, with no meaning of self-righteousness or reactionary politics. Even the very flag itself: this summer, in the hilly farm country around Saratoga, New York, near the Erie Canal, I saw a line of laundry hung between a telephone pole and the window of a tidy-looking apartment over a country grocery store — the classic procession of clean clothes in the sun, and pinned at the end nearest the window an American flag. The informality and idiosyncrasy of this gesture — practical, intuitive, inventive, and resourceful in the way of Odysseus — seemed in the spirit of the cosmopolitan to me, as patriotic gestures go, because it put the flag into the world of daily life, flapping above the market downstairs.
In order to discuss afición, it may be necessary to risk the accusation of sentimentality. For me the spirit that reconciles the homeward and outward forms of eros was represented, before I had any of these terms, by the Brooklyn Dodgers: the team of Jackie Robinson and of Roy Campanella, the Italian-African-American catcher, the team adored by a borough that was in certain ways to New York as New York was to the country: historic and raw, vulgar and urbane, many-tongued and idiosyncratic, a borough of Hispanic blacks and Swedish carpenters, provincial enough to have its own newspaper yet worldly beyond measure, commercial and outward, a marketplace if there ever was one.
This ideal is not universal, but historical. It is not provincial, yet it is local. It is not chauvinistic, but generous and egalitarian. It is an act of the imagination, and it corresponds to reality.
One might object that actual Brooklyn was far uglier than I supposed in my afición for the Dodgers. One might add that not only was I a child, but except for trips to Ebbetts Field I was not even in Brooklyn — I was in a small town on the Jersey Shore. Nevertheless, that Brooklyn of the Dodgers is a cultural reality shared by many, and I am proud to be among them. Call it patriotism.
The Brooklyn of the Dodgers has changed, it is gone, as gone as the Dodgers are gone. But it was always gone, everything is going, going, gone, because culture is change, it is movement: that is the knowledge of the cosmopolitan, and only the embrace of this form of change has the erotic appeal to counterbalance patriotism. And there is a present, successor Brooklyn that presumably contains some excellence that we can predict no more than the aged Henry James could predict, in the streets of the East Side that overwhelmed and depressed him, the already living soul of George Gershwin. It is the appeal of unknown coasts and islands that counterbalance the love of our Ithaca — which is itself an unknown island, terrible and alluring.