Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Martha Nussbaum and cosmopolitanism

I've been reading a bit of Martha Nussbaum recently. She is a cosmopolitanist, who believes that one's primary allegiance is not to a nation state but to the community of humanity across the world - in other words, we are all global citizens. She quotes - in virtually everything she writes, it seems to me - Diogenes the Cynic: "I am a citizen of the world."

She also quotes Hierocles, who described people as existing within concentric circles - for themselves, for family, extended family, community, countrymen, humanity. The ideal of cosmopolitanism is to draw these circles, in turn, towards the centre, so that the individual ends up judging everyone by the same criteria.

Lovely stuff. As a soft, old humanist I should be cheering it to the rafters.

Pity it's a load of tosh.

She says:

The accident of where one is born is just that, an accident: any human being might have been born in any nation.

Indeed so, but the accident happened. The person was born in that nation state, and that nation state exists. It's a specious argument to say that "well, something else might just as easily have happened", because IT DIDN'T.

Okay, Nussbaum will say, I'm missing the point. The point is that nationality isn't important. I guess that is her message.

But it IS important. She may not like the fact. Nor do I. But it is there, and it is so entrenched in our psyches it will not go away. I'm all for chasing a better way, but it has to be reachable, surely? Imagining an impossible ideal can only lead to disappointment.

That's not to dismiss her ideas totally. I think she talks some very sound sense. Even though I do believe that nationality is more important than she credits, I think she is exactly right when she says:

My belief is that human beings are not that different from one country to the other. Issues about grief and mourning, issues about social justice - these are issues that people really care about.

There is something very powerful about that statement. We do tend to see differences and overlook similarities. And the more we fail to listen to one another the worse it becomes. There is something dehumanising about the way mass media portrays us.

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