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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Two. Identity, Culture, And Tradition

Chapter sixteen. The anti-cosmopolitan argument

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1Ethno-cultural claims on behalf of one’s own culture are often put in terms of people trying to preserve the “uniqueness of their communal life” (Tamir, 1993, 127). It is assumed that every ethnic group—but only that one—is thus unique. The claim is then favorably contrasted with cosmopolitan claims: when a cultural ethno-nationalist claims the centrality of his or her culture he or she is often taken (by philosophers) to be opposing some imaginary counter-claim to the effect that all other cultures, or some world culture of a cosmopolitan stamp, should be favored. This assumption is then developed into arguments we already discussed: the pro-nationalist theoretician claims that cultural identity is paramount to personal identity and to the flourishing of individuals. (This line of thought is often traced back to Herder, and in the English-speaking literature to Isaiah Berlin.) Cultural identity, however, means ethno-cultural identity: “National identity is best cultivated in a small, relatively closed and homogeneous framework, which neither wishes nor needs to reach beyond the members of the nation” (Tamir, 1993, 131; it should be noted that Tamir is aware of the importance of macro-regions, but does not focus upon them). Next the defender of ethno-nationalism presents the reader with a forced choice: in deciding for a form of culture (for yourself and your descendants) to live with, you have just two options: either abide by your own traditional culture, as it has been defined by your national-ethnic framework, or choose an indiscriminate cosmopolitan culture.

  • 1 I find the comment methodologically weak: Miller cannot, without begging the question, criticize c (...)

2The analogous choice is offered for a would-be lawgiver (for an excellent formulation see Miller [1995, conclusion of chapter seven]): favor the national cultural tradition or leave the doors wide open to cosmopolitan world culture. (The usual invidious metaphor for characterizing the ‘cosmopolitan self’ is that of rootlessness [see, for example, Margalit, 1997, 85].) To over-dramatize a little, let me call the choice the Tribe-or-World Dilemma. The argument then proceeds by eliminating the cosmopolitan option: it is presented as being bland, commercialized (‘McDonaldized’) and incapable of supporting a strong and flourishing identity. The best authors are more cautious, but still quip about McDonalds: “The benefits of the high culture will be confined mostly to an elite... The non-elite will have to put up with the lowest-common-denominator mass culture exemplified by Disney, McDonalds, and Australian soap opera” (Miller, 1995, 187).1 The nationalist is hereby depicted as defending his traditional culture primarily, even exclusively, against the cosmopolitan one. His main enemies are ‘McDonalds’: they will be replaced with traditional restaurants serving good local food. (Well, who would not vote for the nationalist if this were his chief concern?)

3We should then distinguish two issues: first, is the cosmopolitan option really so bland and impotent; and secondly, is it really the only alternative to ethno-national, ‘tribal’ traditionalism? The first question may be difficult, and I am not going to sound its depths here. But even if the answer to it is ‘no’ (as I think it is, following Waldron [1995]), many people might still go along with the thought expressed in the above quotation from Miller and feel that the genuinely cosmopolitan option is in most countries of the world open only to a small elite (capable of extensive travel, speaking foreign languages, capable of understanding a wide variety of forms of expression, and empathizing with unfamiliar emotional complexes). It demands an involved process of training that might be too costly for most individuals and communities. The ‘tribal’ alternative is therefore still the winning one, many readers might think.

  • 2 Top intellectuals of international renown seem to be no exception when linguistic purism is at sta (...)

4Things look different when we turn to the second question, that is, whether the dilemma is really exhaustive. I suggest that we ask actual cultural nationalists, not their philosopher advocates: Is world culture really your main target? Are you centrally concerned with the blandness of McDonalds restaurants and the attendant mass culture, or do you have other worries? It is here that the Hated Neighbor Truism comes in handy. Remember that it claims that ethno-nationalist claims are usually directed to neighboring peoples with which the claimant people has close ties and interacts quite intensely. Now, this fact answers whether the dilemma between tribe and world is exhaustive. The answer is a resounding ‘no’. The claim to the centrality of one’s own culture is in practice most often made in response to specific neighboring culture(s). The Croatian nationalists primarily want to get rid of any influence from Serbian culture, not from French or German culture. Even the very moderate kinds of nationalism which simply aim to secure traditional culture from the influence of others without inciting hatred (and may even enjoin a limited tolerance), will tend to secure it from mixing with close ones, not the distant cosmopolitan culture. (Note that even Tamir, the most moderate and insightful of recent self-declared pro-nationalists, still speaks about the preservation of ‘homogeneous’ ethno-national culture. Of course, ‘homogeneous’ is a philosopher’s euphemism for what used to be called ‘pure’.) It would be tedious to enumerate the examples of ‘cultural cleansing’ aimed at excluding the closest neighbor. My favorite one is from the life of Bartok in the early years of the fascistoid Horthy dictatorship in Hungary: he was attacked in the press by his own boss at the Budapest Academy of Music for having published Romanian folk songs from the then Hungarian Transylvania: of course ‘there is no Romanian minority in Hungary’. A signal domain is linguistic purism: the thrust of institutionalized linguistic purism is often directed against admixtures of neighboring languages or parlances (although the purists tend also to throw out international loan words). In the Balkans it is present everywhere, each community—from Slovenia to Turkey—purifying its language or dialect of admixtures deriving from its close eastern neighbor (Slovenians from Croatian-Serbian, Croats from Serbian, both together with Bulgarians from Turkish, Turks from Arabic, just to follow one path from northwest to southeast). Philosophers who write about ‘linguistic self-defense’ (Fletcher, 1997) should keep this fact in mind.2

5In short, ‘indiscriminate’ cosmopolitanism is in practice a red herring. It is sometimes criticized in nationalist-ruled countries out of fear that it will bring the neighbors in or stimulate the internal minorities to claim their rights. Genuine anti-cosmopolitan feelings are therefore relatively unimportant: antipathy towards global culture comes only after the distaste for the neighbors (and after the mock anti-cosmopolitanism which only masks the hate-thy-neighbor ideology).

  • 3 Kymlicka offers a different solution to the dilemma: he suggests that “defenders of minority right (...)

6The truism then suggests the following reply to the initial Tribe-or-World Dilemma: indiscriminate cosmopolitanism (good or bad) is not the only rival to nationalism. Actual nationalists know better than their philosopher advocates: there is a third option, the co-evolution of close cultures of different ethnic groups, and they would like to prevent precisely that. Also, we all know deep in our hearts that the constructive cultural future for each Middle East or Balkan nation lies not in some distant Cosmopolis, but in the very concrete cooperation of local neighboring communities. We tend to forget this when in the philosopher’s study, and the pro-nationalist philosopher then plays upon our forgetfulness to confront us with his or her unpleasant dilemma: either a too wide-ranging cosmopolitanism, or cherished nationalism. But the dilemma is a false one: the politically and historically real third option is usually the actual encompassing region (Middle East, Central Europe, Balkans), much narrower—and in that sense more ‘concrete’ and less confusing—than the world as a whole (as a homeless cosmopolitanism would suggest), and wider than a particular ‘tribe’.3

7This suggests a kind of graded and pluralist cosmopolitanism, that is, geared to the reality of varied neighborhoods. An individual typically belongs to several overlapping, but not necessarily concentric, circles of cultural proximity. The widest can span continents (for instance, the circle of Catholic traditions), while the narrowest might be confined to one’s rather isolated village with a specific micro-culture. A pluralist culturalist cosmopolitan alternative should attend to this wide repertory of possibilities. We shall return to the topic in the final chapter of the book.


1 I find the comment methodologically weak: Miller cannot, without begging the question, criticize cosmopolitan mass ‘culture’ just for being cosmopolitan (and this is probably not his intention); on the other hand, since he is implicitly criticizing it for its low quality he should, for the purpose at hand, compare it with national mass ‘culture’.

2 Top intellectuals of international renown seem to be no exception when linguistic purism is at stake. An example from an unexpected quarter (one that made me particularly sad): the prominent British philosopher Michael Dummett—whom I admire in many respects—criticized his Italian (!) colleague for writing in ‘bland’ Americanized English, without ever noticing that it is not the colleague’s mother tongue and that he is thereby at a serious disadvantage. Note that Dummett had no intention of criticizing texts in Italian; what worried him was the dialect of his own language.

3 Kymlicka offers a different solution to the dilemma: he suggests that “defenders of minority rights are rarely seeking to preserve their ‘authentic’ culture, if that means living the same way as their ancestors did centuries ago” (1995, 8). The proposal is risky: first, it is not clear that his factual claim is correct; secondly, even if it is, it is still an open question which aspects of the way of life the defenders want to preserve, and there is no telling that the aspects to be preserved will not be the most retrograde, xenophobic, or whatever; thirdly, the issue is the principled one, and concerns not only what individuals want to preserve, but what they have the right to preserve.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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