Appiah Essay Summary Generator

Well, it's January 6, Epiphany. As good a day as any to kick free of the old year and get on with the new one, wouldn't you say?

Kwame Anthony Appiah's NYT Magazine essay from last Sunday, "The Case for Contamination", has received a fair amount of praise in the blogosphere, but little actual discussion. That probably is mostly a function of the fact that it appeared on January 1, and most of us are only now slowly getting our blogging muscles back into shape after the holidays. But I'm sure it's also at least partly a function of the fact that most of the blogosphere is probably already pretty comfortable with Appiah's basic cosmopolitan thesis: most bloggers, just like most modern inhabitants of the Western world generally, are philosophical if not political liberals, believers in above all individual liberty, and quite willing to agree that notions like "culture" and "authenticity," while all well and good in their place, are basically problematic if anyone starts using them in such a way that might actually involving the restricting of certain choices or the disciplining of certain desires. So when Appiah argues that all cultures are essentially "contaminated," and that such contamination is a good, he's essentially arguing for free trade and liberalization and diversity and who is to disagree with all that?

Well, I'll disagree with at least some of it. Not all of it, by any means; Appiah is a serious philosopher, and his book The Ethics of Identity was a serious contribution to the debates over liberty, culture, community and identity. The argument he made in that book--for a "rooted cosmopolitanism," wherein states (which Appiah takes much more seriously than nations) should be expected to make use of extant cultural resources in order to mold citizens into persons with both healthy particular identities and a robust appreciation for the tentativeness of such--has clearly contributed to the more popular argument he appears to be making in his new book, Cosmopolitanism. The vision of cosmopolitanism he presents in his NYT essay is an attractive one. He goes to lengths to distinguish his cosmopolitan position as a "humble" universalism, one based as much on doubt about differences as it is on an assurance of sameness, and thus distinct from the "neofundamentalist" universalism of radical Islamists (or Christian theocrats, for that matter), and he connects that to an interesting and careful argument about how cultures intermingle and adapt. It is a fine bit of writing. But the first few sections, I think, betray a major presumption on his part that I just can't accept.

Appiah insists that so long as you take individuals and not groups as "the proper object of moral concern," it is obviously correct that preserving practices in such a way as to discourage individual "contamination" is both wrong and foolish, because "people are entitled to options." Let people choose to be tribal if they want: just make sure they don't have any obstacles in the way of their choosing. Very broadly, this position is the same as Will Kymlicka's "liberal culturalism": we need to protect cultures insofar as some people might want to choose to partake of them for the sake of constructing their own identity; hence we need positive action to support various cultural practices, but we must avoid negative or protectionist actions that claim to act on the basis of the "purity" of those practices as they are actually lived. (Appiah sees this as the difference between "preserving culture," which he's all in favor of, and "preserving cultures," which he opposes.) When you look at it that way--when you allow yourself to be carried along by metaphors like "purity" and "contamination"--then Appiah's argument seems not just strong, but pretty eminently reasonable. Cultural enclaves are "distinct islands of homogeneity." Everyone wants at least a few of those around--every Scottish groom wants the option of buying a good old-fashioned authentic kilt to wear to their wedding, and so we ought to see if it isn't possible to make sure kilts remain available. But if it comes down to actually forcing people's choices to negotiate around the imperative of preserving these islands of kilt-makers and their kilt-making practices....well, then it's just not worth it. As he writes, regarding Asante farmers:

When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his maternal clan (including his younger brothers) would work it with him....Nowadays, everything is different....Once, perhaps, you could have commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have the right to leave--perhaps to seek work at one of the new data-processing centers down south in the nation's capital--and, anyway, you may not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family is passing, and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as American family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

For Appiah, these islands of homogeneity--these sites of "pure" or authentic cultural practice--are invariably backwards: they lack modern medicines, technology, education. Losing one's "distinctiveness" means interacting with the modern world, and that allows for a new kind of distinctiveness: the variety and "contamination" that comes through individual choice, and that invariably means exposure to advanced material opportunities and goods. So, while modern globalization does cause some of these cultural islands to disappear, they are replaced by empowered individuals capable of choosing their own individual distinctiveness. Is contaminated diversity better than that which it replaced? Appiah says yes, because it agrees with his basic commitment to the individual--but more importantly (at least insofar as this essay is concerned, which is light on philosophy and heavy on telling anecdotes), because attempting to hold on to the previous kind is just way too cost prohibitive.

Which seems like a pretty realistic position. However, Appiah's quick and presumably "common-sensical" reference to economic realities in this situation is revealing. He notes the importance of the problem faced by those for whom he says we ought to feel sympathy--"they can't afford to do something that they'd really like to do, something that is expressive of an identity they care about and want to sustain....they're too poor to live the life they want to lead"--but then moves on, simply shifting forward in time: the real issue, according to Appiah, isn't considering what social and economic reforms might be involved in order to make possible the local preservation of various "islands" in the face of globalized media and capital, but just stopping various anti-cosmopolitans and anti-globalists from getting in a snit about what happens when the people on those islands get wealthy enough to choose to run around in Gap t-shirts if they so desire. Which, I freely admit, a great many of them will; I've known more than enough farming families in my years in the South and Midwest to testify that an awful lot of the rising generation always wants nothing more than to forget about their (in their minds') marginal lifestyles and join the mainstream. But that raw anthropological fact doesn't justify Appiah's elision of the issue at hand. What he's essentially doing in making that claim is suggesting that once we enter into an argument about the actual availability of cultural-economic opportunities, then we're not really talking about authenticity any longer, but distribution. And if maintaining a widespread distribution of family farming or kilt-making islands is really costly....well, hey, the argument for the irrelevance of authenticity to the present moment practically writes itself.

Except that it doesn't. Appiah makes the same mistake that so many liberals make when thinking about the cultural/communitarian/localist argument: they assume that, just because such an argument partakes of conservatism (which cultural preservation does), that it must be all about conserving some sort of purity. (Colby Cosh has some fun with this idea, not realizing its flaws, here.) Thus all you need to do is show that every cultural community has been contaminated by diverse human choices at one point or another--which is surely true--and you've won the argument: since it's both conceptually bizarre and socio-economically impractical to conserve all this (apparently fictitious!) purity, you embrace the marketplace of ideas as the only legitimate response. Appiah knows very well that cultures don't really work that way, yet he assumes that his opponents don't realize the same thing. (Granted, a fair number of them don't: there are plenty of honest to goodness reactionaries out there, who, say, really do think the 1950s were the way they appeared on "Leave It to Beaver" and honestly want to get us back to that point.) The "expression" of a culture--the fluid, evolving way in which the basic elements of a healthy community get enacted, critiqued, revised, defended or dropped, over and over again, every day--is inseparable from its authenticity. And this is what the better resistance to globalization and, yes, "contamination" is all about: not about defending a supposedly "pure" cultural content, but preserving the context wherein people ought to be able to work out whatever content it is they respond to. And so talking about the expressive capabilities of a community and the people within that community--and the economic empowerment and solidarity which goes along with making such necessary--is not a side issue to a more basic argument about what it means to protect a culture; it is that basic argument. (Realizing this point doesn't mean that opposition to cosmopolitanism automatically has a normative force which overrides all other public concerns; I haven't demonstrated that. I'm just saying that Appiah's argument benefits by making use of a metaphor of culture which makes it easy to think primarily of burdensome and static practices and modes of production, when I think the better argument is that "authenticity" is located in people's collective self-expression, which obliges to think about making sure that peoples are politically and economically involved in shaping their cultural practices, rather than just worrying about (and ultimately giving up on) any given cultural content.)

When Appiah gets into talking about how actual people all around the world have, in fact, responded to the increasing dominance of their disparate cultural contexts by American media and markets, he's on stronger ground. It's undeniable that a lot of anti-globalists replicate the old imperial sin of condescending to the natives: "pity the poor Zulu, his consciousness will be lost, for he cannot resist the power of 'Days of Our Lives'!" Appiah is right when he says that "cultural consumers are not dupes." This is true. But it is also true that if this is the only mode of acculturation available to any given Zulu--namely, consumption or rejection--then something important will have been lost nonetheless: the ability to believe in one's culture, to take it seriously as a substantive and particular resource. When Appiah talks about Israeli Arabs viewing an episode of "Dallas" and drawing from it a message "that confirmed [their belief] that women abused by their husbands should return to their fathers," I don't think you're seeing, contra Appiah's claim, people enabled in a critical engagement with and vivification of their own embedded beliefs thanks to the power of cultural contamination; I think what's happening is a bunch of Israeli Arabs are disconnecting their belief about abused women returning to their fathers from the matrix of practices and beliefs where it developed historically, and are instead taking it as a free-floating principle, to be rejected or embraced or modified however one may wish. In other words, it's not an immanent critique, but a dislocating one. Now, if what you really want is the sort of critical empowerment that will privilege the individual above all, then however you get there must be praiseworthy. And even if you don't want that (as I don't), let's not pretend that one can always tell the difference between an argument which breaks apart horizons and one which works within them. Appiah talks about cosmopolitans are "humble," and we anti-cosmopolitans need to be humble too. But, as a general principle, being suspicious of cultural interventions that seem to be mostly one-sided doesn't strike me as particular arrogant.

Ultimately, Appiah wants to defend a cosmopolitanism that backs away from strong universals, one wherein people can choose not to be cosmopolitan. Sounds good...but the way that wish is structured supposes that everyone already is, in some sense, cosmopolitan, and thus can plausibly choose not to be. I think that gets it backwards. My belief is that we all have to be in particular contexts if we're going to choose cosmopolitanism in the first place--which means we have to ask ourselves just how and how many contexts can be empowered and preserved. And that means going beyond Appiah and Kymlicka, because these contexts don't begin with their having been chosen; they begin with their being substantively manifest in the way people already are, depending on where they happen to be born and what language they happen to speak, which is a communal and not an individual feature of life. Hence, the French language laws in Quebec (which Appiah once criticized in a debate with Charles Taylor): if the people who choose to live there are not obliged, as a collective, to restrict how they speak, than within a generation of free individual "linguistic consumption," being a Quebecois will mean something entirely different than what it does now (if it means anything at all). Is this one of those "islands of homogeneity" whose expressive context isn't worth defending? I have no idea how you would judge that; maybe it isn't. I'm not pretending that there is some easy solution to the problems posed by the prior burden which cultural contexts place upon our ability to negotiate globalization. But Appiah's cosmopolitanism, ultimately doesn't allow for any such pre-emptive contextual negotiating or defending, and that isn't right either.

History is drenched in bloodshed unleashed by human conflict. Nor is there much evidence that humanity’s violent inclinations are decreasing. World wars, human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, and genocide characterized much of the twentieth century. There is no assurance that the twenty-first century will be better, but if moral improvement is to take place, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah believes that a revival of an ancient ideal, cosmopolitanism, will be essential in that process.

Appiah’s project is to identify and defend an ethical outlook that can work in what the subtitle of Cosmopolitanism calls “a world of strangers.” The twenty-first century world is both the same and different from the world of the fourth century b.c.e., when ancient philosophers coined the term “cosmopolitan,” using it to refer to a “citizen of the cosmos.” Then and in contemporary life as well, one has normally been a citizen of a particular placecity, state, or countrynot of the universe. Then and in contemporary life as well, the world has been full of strangers, people with whom one has contact but who are not members of one’s family or particular community. In the twenty-first century, however, the world’s population is approaching nine billion. In space and time, people live closer than ever, but never have there been so many potentially hostile strangers.

Amid these similarities and differences, while immense changes in the world have taken place and indeed partly because of them, a long-standing tradition has grown over the centuries: a person could and should be a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitanism is an idea with links to a variety of significant and long-standing ideals, including the view that all human beings are members of one family, the conviction that there are universal human rights and obligations, and the hope that there can be a cooperating league of nations that advances goals that are beneficial for humankind. On a personal level, cosmopolitanism embodies much needed virtues that include respect for people who are different from ourselves, resistance against discrimination and prejudice, and hospitality toward strangers.

Appealing though these ideals may be, Appiah recognizes that the history of cosmopolitanism has its problems. How, for example, does this outlook fit with the fact that human life is always lived in specific times, places, and cultures, which require loyalties that are particular and local? The cosmopolitan person, it could be argued, will be rootless, which is scarcely a desirable way to live. Such people may profess impartiality or allegiance to “humanity” but care too little for individual persons and communities. Another problem is that cosmopolitanism may not be as universal as it sounds. Values, it seems, are relative to particular times and places. No individuals or groups, not even philosophers, have a privileged access to absolute and objective truth. In fact, cosmopolitanism may be cultural or national imperialism in disguise. Furthermore, the objections continue, cosmopolitanism is simply unrealistic because differences between human groups are too strong. In the twenty-first century a clash of civilizations, reflected especially in terrorism and a war against it, has eclipsed cosmopolitan dreams. Yes, there is talk about “globalization,” but that concept is really about international economic competition that may be intensifying differences and inequalities even as it homogenizes the world’s products and dominant patterns of communication and consumption. There is talk about “multiculturalism,” but it is not clear that its often superficial acknowledgment of cultural and ethnic differences has produced the respect for others that is needed to reform the deeply entrenched social structures in which poverty and injustice dwell.

Appiah recognizes the force of these objections, but far from taking them to be fatal, he thinks that they can lead to a reaffirmation of cosmopolitanism’s importance. Rootlessness is no virtue, but that bleak condition is not what Appiah’s cosmopolitanism entails. To the contrary, his ethics in a world of strangers underscores that differences between people and particularities about them are crucial for meaningful lives. It follows that life cannot be lived well in conditions where differences and particularities are not respected. Cosmopolitanism affirms the importance of respect for differences and particularities. This respect, however, cannot be practiced by one person or group and ignored by others. The ethical logic of cosmopolitanism insists that the respect must be...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)


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