Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley used a perfectly good word in its appropriate context, and stands accused of dog-whistle bigotry.
At the National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., last week, Hawley gave a keynote address that attacked the coastal elite for being out of touch and out of sympathy with the heartland. He called it “the cosmopolitan elite,” described its beliefs as the “cosmopolitan consensus,” and accused it of building a “cosmopolitan economy.”
Even though there’s not a remotely plausible argument that Hawley was in any way targeting Jews, his use of the C-word alone was enough for critics to say he was making an anti-Semitic appeal.
“If you’re Jewish and the use of ‘cosmopolitan’ doesn’t scare you, read some history,” warned New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman. A columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch opined, darkly, that Hawley “chose the word purposefully” (he had, just not in a sinister way). James Fallows of The Atlantic agreed that Hawley knew “exactlythe implications of ‘cosmopolitan.’”
There’s no doubt that the word has been abused for hideous ends. In 1946, Joseph Stalin gave a speech heralding the repression of Jews in the arts and literature that lamented, “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.”
Yet, the connection between Hawley, the overachieving 39-year-old former Supreme Court law clerk and attorney general of the state of Missouri, and the cruel, power-hungry Marxist-Leninist dictator who is one of history’s great monsters ... is not obvious.
The word has also been used to target Jews by other anti-Semitic lowlifes and haters, although it’s a smear to mention Hawley, who gladly and forthrightly denounces anti-Semitism, in the same breath as these cretins.
Why resort to the word at all? The axis of the culture war in this country has shifted to national identity, immigration policy, and citizenship, and requires a new vocabulary. The welcome effort to rehabilitate the word “nationalism,” one goal of the National Conservatism Conference, is part of this re-orientation. But there also has to be a term for what the nationalists oppose, since Big Government and social liberalism aren’t apt.
Cosmopolitanism is the natural choice. Per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the word “has been used to describe a wide variety of important views in moral and socio-political philosophy. The nebulous core shared by all cosmopolitan views is the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliation, are (or can and should be) citizens in a single community.”
If the word is inherently a hateful term of opprobrium, it’s strange that it is embraced by people who hold the worldview it describes.
According to the NYU professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, our challenge “is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.”
What should we call this project? He considers the possibility of “globalization” and “multiculturalism” as terms, but settles on “cosmopolitanism.” Indeed, the title of his book is “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.”
All sorts of academics routinely use the term, including in the titles and subtitles of books, since it is so useful in describing a mindset and philosophy.
Hawley’s speech isn’t immune from criticism. It’s overly reductive to suggest all — or even most — of our problems stem from the disconnect between the coasts and the middle of the country. And filling out a plausible policy agenda to give expression to Hawley’s worldview is very much a work in progress. But his speech should be considered a conversation starter. By focusing on one allegedly forbidden word, his critics hope, as always, to be conversation stoppers.