August 12th, 2006


The cosmopolitanism of the poor

And what if... wandering Muslims were the new wandering Jews? The poor were the new jet set? And fundamentalism was something as modern as a 747?

I'm nine years old, up on the flat roof of a house in Athens with another boy, the son of a diplomatic family. Although my dad works for the British Council in Kolonaki Square and I'm at the British Embassy School, he's just an English teacher. We don't really get "postings". This boy, though, is the son of a proper diplomat. "Where have you been?" he asks. "|'ve been to..." The list of countries is endless, his pride shameless. I listen dutifully to this cosmopolitan, clearly trumped by his utter privilege.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism: "Cultural cosmopolitanism pertains to wide international experience. Cosmopolitan, meaning citizen of the world, refers to a taste or consideration for cultures besides one's own culture of origin, as with a traveller or globally conscious person. The term derives from Greek cosmos (world) + polis (city, people, citizenry), and was widely used by ancient philosophers, such as the Stoics and Cynics, to describe a universal love of humankind as a whole, regardless of nation. The term may also be used as a synonym for worldly or sophisticated." Wikipedia

I'm grown up. I'm sitting with my father in my fiancé's family's home in Woodford, Essex. My future wife Shazna and her family are Bangladeshis; my soon-to-be father-in-law has two wives, one in Bangladesh, one in London. And here they are, all ranged around the living room, cousins, uncles, brothers, an imam. They're people who fly to Bangladesh regularly. People with dual passports. Cosmopolitans. Economic migrants. Muslims. The jet set.

I spent the early afternoon yesterday giving an interview to David Gordon Smith of Expatica, "the #1 English-language news & information source for expatriates living in, working in or moving to the Netherlands (Holland), Germany, France, Belgium or Spain." David turned out to have gone to the same university as me, Aberdeen, and lived in the same halls of residence. I gave him my usual (Paul Bowles-derived) stuff about the pleasures of staying foreign, and also about how I want immigrants to integrate without being forced to assimilate. In other words, to preserve their difference.

I started talking about the differences, in Berlin, between a yuppie area like Prenzlauer Berg and an immigrant area like Neukolln. One difference is that Prenzlauer Berg is less cosmopolitan, the same way Williamsburg is less cosmopolitan than Flushing. Take the Karl-Marx-Strasse, a few blocks south of where I live. There's a Chinese supermarket next to an African barber next to a Turkish hookah pipe café. There's nothing quite so exotic, and so dense, in the yuppie districts. It's the cosmopolitanism of the poor!

In 1999 the New York Times published an article entitled Smart, Lyrical, Even Genteel, But Is It Rock? by Eric Weisbard. It was about my "famous for 15 people" scenario, but tried to cast this not as a democratic thing but a "world clique":

"When those on the rock fringe do reach out now," Weisbard wrote, "it's to people like themselves, who just happen to live in other countries. Nouveau cabaret acts like Momus in London, Kahimi Karie in Tokyo and the French-singing April March in Los Angeles use their sophistication to make common cause across national boundaries... Such alliances supersede the need for a local scene and offer an alternative, albeit a deliberately small one, to the planetwide media presence of a Celine Dion or Puff Daddy. Yet the worldliness these performers manifest inevitably promotes an ideal of affluent cosmopolitanism."

Responding to this article on my website, I made a pointed observation (which flirted with Godwin's Law): "I don't want to underline this too heavily, but doesn't this argument remind you of something disturbing? Rootless cosmopolitans, intellectuals with international connections with like-minded outsiders, minorities who collaborate across national and racial divides... isn't this exactly how Hitler characterises the international Jewish conspiracy in 'Mein Kampf'?"

Actually, I could as well have mentioned Stalin. It was his anti-semitic campaign of the late 40s and early 50s which gave birth to the phrase "rootless cosmopolitans" to designate Jewish people euphemistically (Stalin thought Jewish doctors were trying to poison him, but didn't want to name their race publicly because it went against communist principles).

Could it be that those "rootless" (and therefore, by implication, disloyal) cosmopolitans the "wandering Jews" (who mostly only wandered because they were persecuted) have now been out-wandered by economic migrants of other races? Could it be that it's now Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Chinese, Africans who wander, while the Jews are, weirdly enough, increasingly invested in "blood and soil"?

Some commentators try to range "conservative" Islamic radicals against "liberal" global cosmopolitanism. Here's Michael Clarke, Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College London, in a Times article yesterday entitled Here's why jihadis just love to fly. According to Clarke, they love to fly because they hate flying and all it stands for:

"Commercial aircraft represent globalism and high technology — they shrink the world and threaten cultural conservatism. The Boeing 747 was the last of the “great machines” that characterised the 20th century: it opened up air travel to the mass market. And it was so very American; big, brash and useful."

The trouble with the argument that radicalized Muslims hate modernity is that it ignores the fact that they are completely a product of it. Without 747s, without the globalization of the economy (and without, of course, a history of Western imperial adventure) there would be as few Muslims in the UK as there are in Japan. Bin Laden is as much a part of "modernity" (or post-modernity; the society of the spectacle) as a Boeing 747.

The kids who planned to blow up planes over the Atlantic were no strangers to flying. Their parents arrived in Britain via 747s, and their trips to training camps in Pakistan were made on 747s. To down a 747, for these people, would be like killing one's mother, or killing the stork that brought one into the world, or killing oneself. Which is, of course, exactly what they planned to do.

You cannot be in favour of globalization and against the most cosmopolitan people on the planet; the urban poor. They're the new jet set -- even when they're blowing jets up. And, needless to say, only a tiny percentage of these "cosmopolitans" are terrorists, just as only a tiny percentage of the old aristocratic elite who used to pass for the jet set were imperialist war-mongers.