The merits of patriotism and cosmopolitanism are not abstract, and certainly not universal. We live in a deeply unequal world. As a result, the options we have vary according to our social location, and the consequences of acting as a “world citizen” are very different depending on time and space. Had there not been swadeshi, India would still be a British colony. Would this have served Kantian morality more? This Gandhi understood, and Tagore did not.

Those who are strong — strong politically, economically, socially — have the option of aggressive hostility towards the weak (xenophobia) or magnanimous comprehension of “difference.” In either case, they remain privileged. Those who are weak, or at least weaker, will only overcome disadvantage (even partially) if they insist on the principles of group equality. To do this effectively, they may have to stimulate group consciousness — nationalism, ethnic assertiveness, etc. Mandela’s nationalism was not morally the same thing as Afrikaner nationalism. One was the nationalism of the oppressed (Blacks oppressed by Whites) seeking to end oppression. The other started as the nationalism of the oppressed (Afrikaners oppressed by English speakers) but developed into the nationalism of the oppressor (apartheid).

What is the concrete situation in the United States today? As of 1945, the United States became the hegemonic power in the world system — by far the most powerful nation economically, militarily, politically, and even culturally. Its official ideological line was triple: America is the world’s greatest country (narrow nationalism); America is the leader of the “free world” (the nationalism of the wealthy, White countries); America is the defender of the universal values of individual liberty and freedom of opportunity (justified in terms of Kantian categorical imperatives).

The US government and moral spokesmen saw no difficulty in making all three assertions simultaneously. Most persons were unaware of the internal inconsistency of this triple stance. But “others” — at least certain others — saw the stance as nothing more than a justification, a legitimation of US privilege and domination. They often found it easiest to attack the hypocrisy of American “Kantianism” by asserting the liturgy of national liberation.

The world has moved on. The United States is not as strong as it was. Western Europe and Japan have caught up to, even overtaken, the United States in economic terms. They are in the process of detaching themselves politically. The collapse of the USSR has further weakened the United States, insofar as it has undermined the major political hold the United States had over western Europe and Japan.

Within the United States the voice of oppressed groups has become more stridently “ethnic,” using far less appeal to universal values than it previously had. In response to both US geopolitical decline and the more “ethnocentric” style of US oppressed groups, the defenders of privilege have resorted to demands for an “integrating” patriotism, and Rorty’s arguments simply reflect a cave in to this noxious argument.

But the response to a self interested patriotism is not a self congratulatory cosmopolitanism. The appropriate response is to support forces which will break down existing inequalities and move towards creating a more democratic, egalitarian world. The stance of “citizen of the world” is deeply ambiguous. It can be used just as easily to sustain privilege as to undermine it. One needs a far more complex stance, constantly moving towards and away from defensive assertion of the group rights of the weak as the political arena changes the parameters of the battle.

What is needed educationally is not to learn that we are “citizens of the world” but that we occupy particular niches in an unequal world, and that being disinterested and global on the one hand and defending one’s narrow interests on the other are not opposites but positions combined in complicated ways. Some combinations are desirable, others not. Some are desirable here but not there, now but not then. Once we have learned this, we can begin to cope intellectually with our social reality.