89: Cosmopolitans and other border-crossers

Nexus is a remarkable institution, based first in Tilburg University and since 2017 the VU University in Amsterdam, while claiming to fulfill a function that universities have largely forsaken. That function is the preservation and promulgation of high European culture. Nexus publishes a journal and holds conferences at which leading intellectuals speak and exchange opinions. Schwartz reflects on the conference of 1999.


The best story of the day at the fascinating Nexus conference “No Place for Cosmopolitans?” was told by the Uruguayan-Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “I have met only one true cosmopolitan in my life,” he said. I quote from memory: “He was a lodger in my family’s flat in Montevideo and he called himself Professor Shoshai, but that was not his real name. He refused to tell anyone his name or where he came from. All we knew about him was that he was a survivor of the camps and that he spoke twenty languages. His survival was a result of his cosmopolitanism. Although he was Jewish, he told the Nazis he was a Muslim. They called in a cadi to interrogate him in Arabic. After a long discussion the cadi reported to the Nazis that he was not only a Muslim but a Muslim saint, and his life was spared.”

The other speakers were prepared to set lower standards for cosmopolitanism. The Canadian writer and broadcaster Michael Ignatieff laid claim to the title even though he only speaks two languages. He made a plea for universal cosmopolitanism, a world in which everyone acknowledges and respects the differences between their own culture and all others. To the Argentinian-Canadian writer Alberto Manguel the true home of the cosmopolitan is not in space but in time, where there are no boundaries. By these relaxed criteria one could qualify as a cosmopolitan without knowing foreign languages or even travelling.

There was more agreement on what cosmopolitanism is not than on what it is. What it definitely is not is globalization. There is no place for the cosmopolitan in a world where everybody speaks the same language, eats the same food and reckons values on the same scale. Equally antithetical to cosmopolitanism is what the brilliant South African-English art historian Sarat Maharaj called “multicultural managerialism,” which places cultures side by side in closed boxes and figures out how to exploit each most efficiently. A third bugbear is the Internet, according to Manguel and the Italian publisher, writer and microphone hog Roberto Calasso. With its innate superficiality and instant obsoleteness it is unfit to serve as the universal medium it pretends to be. Finally, cosmopolitanism is not to be confused with one-world internationalism, which would do away with the diverse ethical and political systems of mankind. Frequent flyers, global traders, multiculturalists, websurfers and political idealists as well as Torremolinos snowbirds and package tourists might flatter themselves that they are cosmopolitan: not to Nexus they’re not. Who is left? For one, the connoisseur of cultural differences, sampling and savoring the idiosyncrasies of mankind without imposing his own standards on others or allowing theirs to confuse him. You have to come from a strong culture of your own to practice cosmopolitanism, and be in possession of a grade A passport.

Halbertal not only had the best story, he also had the most provocative thesis. Without going into explanations, he suggested that cosmopolitanism thrives better in authoritarian countries than in liberal ones. His chief example was Alexandria, which became the cosmopolitan city par excellence under the dictatorial rule of Alexander the Great. Since the mood of the conference was that cosmopolitanism is a good thing, no one was comfortable with this idea. But the question was not really debated.

There is a powerful logic underlying this supposition. In the scale of values inherent in cosmopolitanism, closed societies rate higher than open ones. A European who can pass as a local in Mecca and Peking, Lhasa and Havana is more of a cosmopolitan than the one who is at home in places of easy access like Rome or Rio. Familiarity with the Sanskrit classics gives you more stripes than reading Chaucer in the original. The cosmopolitan proves himself by conquering boundaries of exclusivity and obscurity, boundaries that are more likely to be maintained by repressive than by open societies.

Conversely, cosmopolitans have more to offer to authoritarian states than to democracies. The informal routes and networks they explore and maintain are unremarkable phenomena in an open society. The comings and goings of unaffiliated foreigners, whose friends are likely to be freer thinkers than the average citizen, are of far greater interest to the government of a police state.

The very concept of cosmopolitanism provides authoritarian states with another, far more sinister value: the readymade scapegoat. In 1948 the Russians decreed cosmopolitans (read: Jews) to be enemies of the state and fit subjects for organized and spontaneous persecution. Even more upsetting was the analysis of the American literary historian Mark Anderson of the Nazi extermination camps as an ultimate cosmopolis, where individual identities were dissolved and their owners abolished.

At the closing session, diplomats and thinkers from Poland, Germany, France, Yugoslavia and the Netherlands affirmed their commitment to a Europe with a place for cosmopolitans. Although they each gave different, often contradictory reasons for their stance, their commitment in itself is a good thing. At this stage of European consolidation, as internal border-crossing has become easier, the outside borders of Europe – including the airports in the hearts of our countries – are becoming more tense and authoritarian places. Tolerance for refugees and immigrants is quickly eroding. As the Austrian elections demonstrate, xenophobia can bring in lots of votes these days. Cosmopolitanism, with its associations of elitism and privilege, its dubious relation to authoritarianism and its susceptibility to misuse by demagogues, might not be the most appropriate banner to fly in favor of cultural openness. But if we keep these things in mind, as the Nexus conference helped us to do, it can nonetheless serve as a valuable model for tolerance and understanding of all kinds. Europe still has the possibility of creating an environment so secure and so just that the oppressed successors to Prof. Shoshai now in our own camps, from places like Kosovo and Somalia and Ghana,  would dare tell us their real names. We are certainly not there yet, but it is imperative that we be heading there rather than in the opposite direction.

“No place for cosmopolitans?” took place on October 8th at the Katholieke Universiteit Brabant. It was the initial symposium of a four-part conference to be continued at the Jewish Museum in New York, the Franz Rosenzweig Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and in New Delhi. For more information, see the Nexus Institute website www.kub.nl/nexus.

© Gary Schwartz 1999. Published on the Schwartzlist on 17 February 2021. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad on 16 October 1999.


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