The Importance of Elsewhere

In Defense of Cosmopolitanism

Containing multitudes: pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge, December 2018  Karsten Moran / THE NEW YORK TIMES

In October 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May made her first speech to a Conservative conference as party leader. Evidently seeking to capture the populist spirit of the Brexit vote that brought down her predecessor, she spoke of “a sense—deep, profound, and, let’s face it, often justified—that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them.” What was needed to challenge this, May argued, was a “spirit of citizenship” lacking among the business elites that made up one strand of her party’s base. Citizenship, she said, “means a commitment to the men and women who live around you, who work for you, who buy the goods and services you sell.” She continued:

Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street. But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.

Although May never used the term, her target was clear: the so-called cosmopolitan elite.

Days after this speech, I was giving a lecture on nationalism for the BBC. The prime minister had been talking in Birmingham, the only one of the five largest British cities that had voted—by the barest of margins, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent—for Brexit. I was speaking in the largest Scottish city, Glasgow, where two-thirds of the population had voted to stay in the EU, just as every other Scottish district did. Naturally, somebody asked me what I thought about May’s “citizen of nowhere” comment.

The cosmopolitan task, in fact, is to be able to focus on both far and near.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a charge, and it won’t be the last. In the character of Mrs. Jellyby, the “telescopic philanthropist” of Bleak House

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