Cosmopolis, My Home Town

In my first school years growing up as a child of American missionaries in Papua New Guinea, my friends and I lined up outside our two-room school house every day, stood to attention, and sang “God Save the Queen” to the raising of the Australian flag.  We played soccer at recess.  And cricket.  I learned quickly to speak a fluent pidgin–the standard language of commerce and conversion among the 1000 different language groups on the Island–and probably spoke as much pidgin in my four years there as I did English.  By the end of the first six months I spoke with an Aussie accent.

At the same time my friends and I were fiercely loyal Americans, even though America was mostly an idea our parents talked about.  A place in pictures we inhabited in the Polaroid versions of our infant selves.  I proudly proclaimed myself a Texan even though I had spent only the first two years of my life in Texas and had no living memory of it except hazy dream flashes of a  visit to a beach in Galveston.  Once, erudite already at the age of seven and reading my way through the World Book Encyclopedia, I proclaimed confidently that Australia was as big as the continental United States.  Fisticuffs ensued. My friends in utter disbelief that anything in the world could be so large as America–so large did it loom in our telescopic imaginations–and in disbelief too that I would have the temerity to state the blasphemy out loud.

I think this urgency to be American was born somehow out of an intuited recognition of our placelessness.  It was a longing to belong somewhere, and an acknowledgement that somehow, despite appearances, we were not entirely sure we belonged where we were. Unlike most of my friends, I returned to the States after only four years.  I shed my Aussie accent hurriedly.  When my father came to my third grade classroom in Bethany, Oklahoma, I refused to speak pidgin with him, embarrassed, pretending to forget.  No one played soccer.  No one had heard of cricket.  I semi-learned to throw a baseball, though my wife still throws better than I do.  For the first year back in the states, I rooted for the Texas Longhorns, before finally getting religion sometime right around 1970.  I’ve been a Sooner fan in good standing ever since.

This sense of cultural dislocation, of belonging and not belonging to two different countries and cultures, was, I think, felt much more acutely by my friends who remained in New Guinea for the duration of their childhoods.  And it has certainly been detailed and discussed much more movingly and thoughtfully by my former student here at Messiah College, Carmen McCain.  Still, I think this cultural lurching has remained important to me.  While I became thoroughly and unapologetically American, I retained a sense that people lived in other ways, that I had lived in other ways.  Somehow, to remain loyal to all the selves that I had been, I could never be loyal to just one place or just one people.  In that sense, I have always been drawn to a kind of cosmopolitan ideal, a recognition that the way we do things now is only a way of doing things now, bound by time, chance, and circumstance–that there are many different ways to live, and that these ways may be at different times taken up and inhabited.  And so the possibilities for our selves are not bounded by the blood we’ve been given or the ground to which we’ve been born.

At the same time, I’ve really been impressed lately by a couple of cautionary essays on the limitations of cosmopolitanism.  This week Peter Woods over at the Chronicle of Higher Education sounded a cautionary note about the ideal of global citizenship.

Being a “citizen of the world” sounds like a good and generous thing. Moreover it is one of those badges of merit that can be acquired at no particular cost. World citizens don’t face any of the ordinary burdens that come with citizenship in a regular polity: taxes, military services, jury duty, etc. Being a self-declared world citizen gives one an air of sophistication and a moral upper hand over the near-sighted flag-wavers without the bother of having to do anything.

Well, one can only say yes this strikes me as incredibly fair.  Though I will point out that it seems to me that a lot of times recently the flag-wavers seem to be not too interested in the basic things of a regular polity, like paying taxes.  Still, Woods has a point that cosmopolitanism can often devolve into a kind of irresponsible consumerist tourism–imbiber of all cultures, responsible for none.  He implies, rightly I think, that whatever the values of global awareness, the bulk of life is worked out in the nitty-gritty day to day of the local business of things.  All living, not just all politics,  is local in some utterly conventional and inescapable sense.

Wood goes on to critique Martha Nussbaum, though it is a generous critique it seems to me.

Higher education inevitably involves some degree of estrangement from the culture and the community in which a student began life. If a student truly engages liberal education, his horizons will widen and his capacity for comprehending and appreciating achievements outside his natal traditions will increase. Thus far I accept Nussbaum’s argument. But a good liberal-arts education involves a lot more than uprooting a student; showing him how limited and meager his life was before he walked into the classroom; and convincing him how much better he will be if he becomes a devotee of multiculturalism. Rather, a good liberal arts education brings a student back from that initial estrangement and gives him a tempered and deepened understanding of claims of citizenship—in a real nation, not in the figment of “world citizenship.”

I like a lot of what Woods is doing in passages like this, but I’m concerned that his only means of articulating a notion of particularity is through the category of the nation.  In a nation as big and baggy as the United States, does this give us a really very robust sense of the local and particular?  And does it solve my basic problem that I feel loyal to different localities, to the integrity of the memory of the person I have been and the people with whom I was and somehow still am.

I’m more attracted to what my colleague here at Messiah College, John Fea, has to say about cosmopolitanism in his recent and very good essay on the issue in academe, where he develops the concept of cosmopolitan rootedness as an ideal to strive after.

But this kind of liberal cosmopolitanism does not need to undermine our commitment to our local attachments. Someone who is practicing cosmopolitan rootedness engages the world from the perspective of home, however that might be defined. As Sanders writes:

To become intimate with your home region [or, I might add, one’s home institution], to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into local life does not prevent you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places, if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. (1993, 114)

Or to quote the late Christopher Lasch:

Without home culture, as it used to be called—a background of firmly held standards and beliefs—people will encounter the “other” merely as consumers of impressions and sensations, as cultural shoppers in pursuit of the latest novelties. It is important for people to measure their own values against others and to run the risk of changing their minds; but exposure to other will do them very little if they have no mind to risk. (New Republic, 18 February 1991)

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.

Instead of Global citizenship, John is championing what is sometimes called by administrators institutional citizenship (and as an aside I would only say John is exemplary as this essay might suggest).  Yet I admit that I find myself still grappling after that thing that speaks out of our memories, those places to which we remain loyal in thought and speech because we have been committed to those locations too.  And I wonder then if it is possible that we might be loyal to the places and spaces of our imaginations, places and selves and worlds that we can imagine as places of becoming.  If I have been in and of these other places, how is that reflected in being in and of this place I’m in, and how should that be imagined in light of the places I might also be in and of, if only not yet.

John, I know, is a loyal citizen of New Jersey, and defends it when none of the rest of us will. I wish him well.  And I am a loyal citizen of the Papua New Guinea of my memory, and I am a fiercely loyal southerner and southwesterner who takes an ethnic umbrage at the easy sneering about the south that springs unconcsciously to the lips of northerners, and I am a fiercely loyal Oklahoman who believes the state has something to be proud of beyond its football team.

I am also, in some sense, a loyal citizen of the heaven of my imagining where all and everyone speak in the tongues of men and angels  and we hear each and every one in our own tongues, a transparent language without translation, a heaven where every northerner finally learns the proper way to say “Y’all.”

What theory of locality and cosmopolitanism can get at this sense that I am one body in a place, but that this body bears in its bones a loyalty to many places, growing full of spirit at the smell of cut grass after rain in the hills of Arkansas, nose pinching at the thought of the salty stink of Amsterdam, remembering faintly the sweat in the air and on the leaves of the banana trees in highland tropics of New Guinea?

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “Cosmopolis, My Home Town

  1. Nice essay. I agree that my Chronicle post focused on the contrast between the “wold” and the “nation”witthout at the expense of the many other local identies that claim us orthat we claim. My cocern is that national identity has become so weak and so abstract for many -a mere “imagined community” as one anthropologist puts it. By all means let’s reach for broad human understandings and let’s preserve the particularities too, but let’s also find scope for national identity as somrthing valuable and distinctive.
    peter wood

    • Thanks so much for the comment. REading your original post, I wondered to some degree whether there’s not different kinds of cosmopolitanism and global citizenship. I remember that I had never felt more American, and to some degree proudly so, than in the 8 months I lived in Amsterdam after college. A time when I became acutely aware of my own particularity in a way that I couldn’t see in the safe environs of the States. It is, in some respects, easier to be a global citizen if you are safely in your home culture where you don’t have to deal with the trouble of interacting with any actual particular citizens from particular places, an extension of your thesis, perhaps. At the same time, I really do think that our contemporary world creates dynamics in which people belong in and to multiple places, and that there are people whose cultural citizenship is, if not global, then at least multiple and incredibly diverse. The cosmopolitanism of the immigrant or the nomad–especially those dislocated by economic circumstance–is very different form the touristy cosmopolitanism of convenience that can characterize the upper-middle class in the United States.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment. REading your original post, I wondered to some degree whether there’s not different kinds of cosmopolitanism and global citizenship. I remember that I had never felt more American, and to some degree proudly so, than in the 8 months I lived in Amsterdam after college. A time when I became acutely aware of my own particularity in a way that I couldn’t see in the safe environs of the States. It is, in some respects, easier to be a global citizen if you are safely in your home culture where you don’t have to deal with the trouble of interacting with any actual particular citizens from particular places, an extension of your thesis, perhaps. At the same time, I really do think that our contemporary world creates dynamics in which people belong in and to multiple places, and that there are people whose cultural citizenship is, if not global, then at least multiple and incredibly diverse. The cosmopolitanism of the immigrant or the nomad–especially those dislocated by economic circumstance–is very different form the touristy cosmopolitanism of convenience that can characterize the upper-middle class in the United States.

  3. Peter, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, but this is the post that convinced me to finally create an account on WordPress so I could comment. As I read it, several thoughts kept tumbling through my mind, the most persistent of which was a sentence I wrote five years ago for my senior thesis at Messiah, about the year I spent in Germany. While I can’t, now, after five years and the acquisition of an MFA, remember much of my senior thesis with any degree of creative pride, this sentence, in more or less its original form, has stuck with me over time: “First, I learned that America sucks and I should be ashamed of my citizenship; then I started wondering what on earth was wrong with Germans and all their stupid, infuriating quirks; but by the end of that year, I realized that most cultures are awesome even though none are perfect, and I’m proud to be a mixture of many.”

    Some time later, I came to realize that I’m at my most American when I haven’t seen America for months. I would be willing to hazard that the sort of fierce national pride you and your classmates had in Papua New Guinea and that I ended up having by the end of my year in Germany is typical of exiles (and I use that term loosely here, because obviously you and I were not forced out of America, and yet we still missed it in a way that could almost suggest neither of us had ever seen it clearly before, you for 2 years and I for 20).

    Last year, while I worked on my MFA thesis about travel and place, I read a handful of wonderful books and a few dozen terrible ones that address this idea of global citizenship, mixing cultures, and that sense of where-do-I-belong that arises from frequent travel and the limbo of airports and internet and roommates who get married and leave you homeless three years in a row. Pico Iyer and Brigid Delaney made me uncomfortable with their prognoses of a rootless-and-wireless generation that doesn’t really care where they are as long as they’re digitally connected. But I also read a few books by Scott Russell Sanders, who is in love with staying put and being committed instead of moving on when the fancy strikes or things get difficult, and I respected but resisted the idea of being tied so tightly to one place and nation and institution. Maybe that’s because my hometown has a tendency toward extreme myopia that’s made my skin crawl since I was in grade school.

    My best friend’s mom — practically my own family at this point — once observed that, to her perceptions, no matter where I am, I always want to be somewhere else. I’m sure I’ve come across that way, but I think it’s more of this sense of what you’re talking about: loyalty to every place I’ve loved in my past and every place that will touch me in the future. This isn’t so much a desire to always be constantly moving, or even a type of global citizenship that gives me a sort of nebulous cloud of places where I’ve bought postcards and communicated with sign language to everyone’s amusement. It’s obviously not a commitment to one place for all time, either, but I think it’s more of an appreciation of every specific place: less of a nebulous cloud of impressions and more of a voodoo doll full of pins/places that have had some striking, changing influence on us. And this apparent desire to always be somewhere else is perhaps more of a reaching for the newness of whatever change or skill or idea that that pin/place gave us while we were there.

    Oh look, I can comment as a guest without creating a WordPress account! And with that observation, I leave you.

    • Great to hear from you, Rebecca! And thanks for the long and thoughtful reply. I’m a little like you in that I deeply admire folks that are committed to a particular locale–my literary heroes as a young person were Faulkner, O’Connor, and Walker Percy, all of whom more or less stayed put. But in a certain way I have always had to admire them from afar. This was induced by my own childhood history, the quirks of my family and psychology, and even by the peripatetic ways that are almost inevitably forced on someone pursuing an academic career: 4 years in college in Chicago, 1 year in Amsterdam, 2 years in Montana getting an MFA, 6 years finishing a PhD at Duke in North Carolina, 1 year in Hampden-Sydney Virginia, 4 years in Fairfax Virgina, and now 14 years in Pennsylvania. Even yet in Central PA I don’t feel like a native, even though, hard as it is to believe, I have actually lived longer in this place and this house than i have anywhere on earth; I think the requirement for belonging in Pennsylvania is that your grandparents had to have owned a farm. As for small town myopia, well, all small towns are myopic, but so are a lot of big towns. In my own view, NYC is about the most myopic place on earth, thinking like the ancients that beyond the shores of Manhattan, “here be monsters.”

      • Don’t get me started on NYC! 🙂 Of course, you’re absolutely right that many (most?) places, big or small, seem to turn their residents into perpetually-cocooned caterpillars. I wonder if this is contentment with the home they have (whether inherited or chosen), or fear of looking for something different that they might like better. Would the caterpillar rather be a butterfly, but it just doesn’t want to take the effort of breaking through its shell?

        Even though I grew up in PA, in the same small town I currently live in, and lots of grandparents and great-grandparents on different sides of my family have owned farms (such truth to that!), this place isn’t my home, and sometimes I worry that it’s because I *have* been uprooted and turned against my native soil by academia, as Martha Nussbaum says. Peter Wood’s critique encourages me, in that it gives me something to strive for — “a good liberal arts education brings a student back from that initial estrangement and gives him a tempered and deepened understanding of claims of citizenship” — but how many of us students and alumni ever really return and give back to the communities that raised us before we got education? How many of those communities even want us back, stirring up the waters or, to return to that original metaphor, knocking on the cocoon?

        Of course, this leads into thoughts about brain drain and the ivory tower and so on and and so forth that may have little to do with the idea of global citizenship. It’s probably saying more about where my own thoughts and motivations lie at the moment (trying to get outta Dodge, thirsting for iron to sharpen my iron) than anything else. (:

  4. 🙂 Every time I come “home” to America (NJ woot! woot!) I make a list of things I miss about England and I spend so much time explaining things to people, which are really difficult to explain. Sometimes it’s so hard to explain that I just sort of shut down and just don’t tell people things… just assuming they won’t “get it.”

    The thing is, I do the same thing when I then leave NJ and go “home” to London. Trying to explain “Branston pickle” and the rules of rugby in the US is just… exhausting, while trying to explain buffalo sauce and hurricane season in London is a mess.

    There is something haunting almost about going back to the familiar places you’ve traveled whether it’s the familiar cobblestone alleys in Edinburgh or the amazing coffee in the little shop in the town in PA, or the joyously sad music bursting out of doorways in Lisbon.

    As far as the “responsibilities” of being a citizen, it’s actually really frustrating. I try to keep up with US news as much as I can, and vote from overseas, but I still get the “Well, you’re not here so your opinion/vote doesn’t/shouldn’t count” routine from people…

    In the UK, I’m not allowed to vote so I can only try to join in to the spirited debate/political atmosphere as a spectator. Sigh.

    Thanks for this article. On a linguistic note, do you still remember any pidgin?

    • Yes, I’m not sure if this is the same kind of thing or a different kind of thing from what Peter Wood was talking about in his essay. I think that this version of “global citizenship” or “cosmopolitanism” is born out of a lived experience that is quite different from the kind of ideological framing that seems to sniff at local attachments. It is, in fact, to be attached to more than one place and to feel the geography of one’s self as a dispersed and multiple thing, something that the term “roots” does not quite capture effectively. Still, i think there is something to the notion that both Fea and Woods raise that we tend to think education has happened successfully if we teach people that their roots are inadequate or something to be transcended.

      I could not carry on a conversation in pidgin, but I can read it at an elementary level. If I have a new testament, i can mostly parse out everything through my knowledge of the language and knowledge of the basic stories in English.

  5. Pingback: The Guardian Full Movie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s