Saturday, August 5, 2017

Readings about tribes, tribalism, tribalization — #12: Ross Douthat, “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism” (2016)

This post covers Ross Douthat’s column on “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism” (2016). As you'll see, it's about tribalism as much as cosmopolitanism.
Tribalism, like most isms, is not an ism unto itself; it's become an alternative to other isms. The comparisons I mostly see are about tribalism versus globalism, or versus cosmopolitanism (which is a kind of globalism). I also see contrasts between nationalism and globalism, as well as between populism and globalism — but, in TIMN, nationalism is a modern kind of tribalism. So is populism, though populism implies a belief in government (+I) solutions as well. So we are back to tribalism versus globalism as the most common comparison. 
What is significant for my efforts is that these comparisons fit TIMN: Tribalism is obviously an expression of the T form. Globalism — the alternative that comes up most often — is a function of the +M and +N forms; for economic and other kinds of globalism reflect the spread of market (+M) and network (+N) forces around the world. Much the same can be said of cosmopolitanism.
According to my browsing, the New York Times is doing much better than other newspapers at regularly calling attention to the tribalism afoot in our country, and comparing it to other isms. Its regular columnists, notably David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the right, Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman on the left, have been fairly effective at doing so, starting a few years ago. 
A good example of NYT's attentiveness to the tribal form is Douthat’s “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism” (2016). In it he makes a rarely made but insightful point: some presumed cosmopolitans are really camouflaged tribalists.
He opens with an observation about the spread of tribalism in our country that is still a bit alarming but no longer unusual to encounter — tribalism is increasingly in conflict with the internationalism, globalism, and cosmopolitanism that have long been transcendent. Quite so. But then he turns a knife — he questions the validity of the cosmopolitanism that some elites claim for themselves:
"… From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. From now on the loyalties that matter will be narrowly tribal — Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England — or multicultural and cosmopolitan.
"Well, maybe. But describing the division this way has one great flaw. It gives the elite side of the debate (the side that does most of the describing) too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan."
Here's why he says that many of today's presumptuous elite cosmopolitans — notably, Davos men — are like tribalists who comprise a tribal cohort much like any other:
"They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
“Indeed elite tribalism is actively encouraged by the technologies of globalization, the ease of travel and communication. Distance and separation force encounter and immersion, which is why the age of empire made cosmopolitans as well as chauvinists — sometimes out of the same people. (There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)"
After noting there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, he turns to make sharp points about the downsides of these elites thinking and behaving like tribes, while denying they are so:
"But it’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.
"They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.” …
"They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world."
And thus many upper-class elites who preen like forward-looking progressive globalists turn out to be little more than clannish aristocratic cronies who can be as tribal as the people they look down on.

To read for yourself, go here:

[I posted an earlier write-up of this reading on my Facebook page, on April 14.]

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