Sunday, August 6, 2017

You shall know "cosmopolitan" by the company it keeps

My title, a paraphrasing of a famous linguist’s quote, will be revisited at the end of this post.

Cosmopolitan defined

Here is the dictionary definition via a Google search of cosmopolitan. I’ve numbered the different senses.
cos·mo·pol·i·tan. /käzməˈpälətn/
adjective
(1) familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.
(2) including people from many different countries.
     “immigration transformed the city into a cosmopolitan metropolis”
     “the student body has a cosmopolitan character”
(3) having an exciting and glamorous character associated with travel and a mixture of cultures.

Mr. And Mrs. Scriber are well-described by (1) and aspire to (3). But we can understand that (2) has been an ongoing immigration issue in the U. S.

Cosmopolitan “bias” used pejoratively

BTW - “pejorative” expresses contempt or disapproval.

Following is a portion of the press conference transcript (from the White House) of rather heated back-and-forth between Jim Acosta of the NY Times and senior policy advisor (to Trump) Stephen Miller. “Q” refers to Acosta.

Q Sir, my father was a Cuban immigrant. He came to this country in 1962 right before the Cuban Missile Crisis and obtained a Green Card.

Yes, people who immigrate to this country can eventually – people who immigrate to this country not through Ellis Island, as your family may have, but in other ways, do obtain a Green Card at some point. They do it through a lot of hard work. And, yes, they may learn English as a second language later on in life. But this whole notion of “well, they have to learn English before they get to the United States,” are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MR. MILLER: Jim, it’s actually – I have to honestly say I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It’s actually – it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree that in your mind –

Q Sir, it’s not a cosmopolitan –

MR. MILLER: No, this is an amazing moment. This an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hardworking immigrants who do speak English from all over the world.

Q My father came to this country not speaking any English.

MR. MILLER: Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?

Q Of course, there are people who come into this country from other parts of the world.

MR. MILLER: But that’s not what you said, and it shows your cosmopolitan bias. And I just want to say –

Q It just sounds like you’re trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy.

MR. MILLER: Jim, that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant, and foolish things you’ve ever said, and for you that’s still a really – the notion that you think that this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting.

What did Stephen Miller mean by “cosmopolitan bias”?

Let’s first try to figure out what Miller was charging by accusing Acosta of harboring a “cosmopolitan bias.”

It seems to me that, by definition (see above), if you have a cosmopolitan bias you are culturally sophisticated, open to learning about and interacting with peoples in different lands, and accepting of immigration. I think Acosta would be perfectly happy with that description.

But, given the context, that could not be what Miller meant, dictionary definition or no. Here again is what Miller said: “… you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It’s actually – it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree …”

The thing is, that believing that “only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English” would constitute an anti-cosmopolitan bias.

So what the hell was Miller talking about? If Miller’s use of that term was really pejorative, then we must explore further what he might have meant.

Cosmopolitans in authoritarian regimes

Jeff Greenfield exposes The Ugly History of Stephen Miller’s ‘Cosmopolitan’ Epithet in Politico.com. He leads with Surprise, surprise—the insult has its roots in Soviet anti-Semitism.

Miller’s dustup with Acosta “reflects a central premise of one key element of President Donald Trump’s constituency—a premise with a dark past and an unsettling present.”

So what is a “cosmopolitan”? It’s a cousin to “elitist,” but with a more sinister undertone. It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality. (In this sense, the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine might have been an early American cosmopolitan, when he declared: “The world is my country; all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”). In the eyes of their foes, “cosmopolitans” tend to cluster in the universities, the arts and in urban centers, where familiarity with diversity makes for a high comfort level with “untraditional” ideas and lives.

For a nationalist, these are fighting words. Your country is your country; your fellow citizens are your brethren; and your country’s traditions—religious and otherwise— should be yours. A nation whose people—especially influential people—develop other ties undermine national strength, and must be repudiated.

One reason why “cosmopolitan” is an unnerving term is that it was the key to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to purge the culture of dissident voices. In a 1946 speech, he deplored works in which “the positive Soviet hero is derided and inferior before all things foreign and cosmopolitanism that we all fought against from the time of Lenin, characteristic of the political leftovers, is many times applauded.” It was part of a yearslong campaigned aimed at writers, theater critics, scientists and others who were connected with “bourgeois Western influences.” Not so incidentally, many of these “cosmopolitans” were Jewish, and official Soviet propaganda for a time devoted significant energy into “unmasking” the Jewish identities of writers who published under pseudonyms.

What makes this history relevant is that, all across Europe, nationalist political figures are still making the same kinds of arguments …

… One of [the Trump Campaign’s] central premises was that “globalists,” regardless of ideology or party, were undermining American interests—by bringing low-skilled workers to our shores, by building factories in other lands, by letting international financial institutions grow rich while hollowing out American cities and towns.

“We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon,” Trump said in his inaugural address. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be—always—America First.”

To be clear: Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller would angrily wave away any suggestion that they are echoing the sentiments of anti-democratic political movements, much less anti-Semitic dog whistles. But there is no evading the unhappy reality that to label someone a “cosmopolitan” carries with it a clear implication that there is something less patriotic, less loyal … someone who is not a “real American.”

So maybe the next time Miller wants to duel with an obstreperous reporter, he might consider going back to “elitist”—that’s a real homegrown insult.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat at cnn.com further explores the Loaded word of the week: Cosmopolitan.

… [The word cosmopolitan] has served as a convenient way to tag people suspected of having extra-national allegiances or elitist cultural tastes, or of being insufficiently “assimilated” because of how they look, speak or live.

For both fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century, Jews were the biggest “cosmopolitan” offenders. They were easy to accuse of being somehow foreign. The Jewish community of Rome had been around for thousands of years, and yet was included in Mussolini’s 1938 racial laws that targeted Italian Jews, who were widely implicated in the state press as the agents of a “cosmopolitanism” led by a people “without countries, ideals, or traditions.”

Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws were justified through similar language, while attacking “cosmopolitanism” became a common way to fight Jewish and Western influences during the Cold War-era regime of Joseph Stalin.

Regrettably, Miller’s use of the word carries echoes of this terrible history, and meshes with the authoritarian-loving tone of the Trump administration. It also speaks to a Trump constituency that, as Thomas Edsall wrote in July, is “against open-mindedness, open borders, and an open society in general.”

That Trump’s adviser uses such a freighted and consequential term in a discussion of immigration – particularly lawful immigration – should alarm all Americans.

So now armed with the understanding that “cosmopolitan” has far more meaning than expressed in the dictionary, we can revisit Miller’s using that word against Acosta. Miller used the word, as Ben-Ghiat put it, as a “convenient way to tag people suspected of having extra-national allegiances or elitist cultural tastes.” For Miller, the word itself is divorced from standard usage as defined by English dictionaries. In right-wing, nationalist, racist rhetoric, the word takes on an entirely separate meaning that allowed Miller to brand Acosta with the label “cosmopolitan” that means to Milller something far different than it means to the rest of us.

Or perhaps not. I have this nagging feeling that Greenfield and Ben-Ghiat are right. Miller knew exactly what that label means and thinks of those of us who really are cosmopolitan as a blight on an authoritarian Trumpist society.

The British linguist J. R. Firth famously said “You shall know a word by the company it keeps” (Wikipedia). Unfortunately for cosmopolitan, it is now in bad company.

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