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Cosmopolitanism Takes a Hard-Left Jab

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Cosmopolitanism Takes a Hard-Left Jab


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The idea of cosmopolitanism is not anything new in Western thought - pre-Socratic Greece, earliest Christendom and Renaissance Italy all having had their versions. Today, cosmopolitanism in its latest guise - or guises, running the gamut from comparative presentation of history in school classrooms to decisions of global consequence made in corporate boardrooms - is again on the minds of academic and other intellectuals.

Conservative critics assail cosmopolitanism for its undermining of patriotism and values, whether the latter be derived from the Europe-based literary canon or a sense of American exceptionalism. Timothy Brennan, in contrast, uses anti-colonialist and post-colonialist arguments from the relatively new field of cultural studies to attack cosmopolitanism from the left in his "At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now."

Historically, some notion of world government always has been cosmopolitanism's logical terminus and that is the specter Mr. Brennan fears most about encroaching globalism, which he sees as really amounting to Americanization. Like the patriot on the American political right, he wants to protect nationhood against a cosmopolitanism that undermines as it homogenizes; but he is talking about other peoples' nationhood, not ours.

Mr. Brennan is a professor of English at the State University of New York in Stony Brook and an intellectual highbrow disdainful of "empirically naive think tank jargon" and associated "middlebrow analyses" of the sort to be read in publications like Foreign Affairs. Whether there is anything ironic in that, given that he positions himself on the old-socialist left and throws about loose talk such as "the nightmare of capitalism" and "murdered into existence" for socialism's eclipse worldwide, I leave the individual reader to decide.

A shy socialist, Mr. Brennan is not: "From the god that failed in the 1950s, to `after the Fall' today, the project of utopia is mercilessly under siege," he writes in his chapter on the writer C.L.R. James' years in New York around 1950. The chapter is one of the best in the book, Mr. Brennan catching well the C.L.R. of those years: writing his "American Civilization" but not at his peak in work or life, spending "his days for the most part in disheveled bedrooms, under sheets, reading T.S. Eliot with the TV on," hoping to avoid deportation by U.S. authorities.

At his best in the 1930s, and later in his 1963 book, "Beyond a Boundary," James was unforgettable. His ideas of sport (starting with his love of cricket) as the art of working people and of a popular aesthetics founded in rhythm and simplicity fit well with Mr. Brennan's thinking. And James' notion of the modern European civilization he so admired being facilitated by blacks in slavery has a far spunkier ring than the pieties of an Edward Said (one of Mr. Brennan's mentors) grumbling about Caribbean sources of the fortunes in Jane Austen novels or Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Brownings' families in life.

So long as James and other socialist-minded writers continue to be read - Mr. Brennan ranges widely among them, from Karl Marx to W.E.B. Du Bois , Ernst Bloch to Christopher Lasch, Herman Melville to George Orwell - socialism is not dead, whatever people may think. As an alternative to capitalism, catastrophic though socialist experiments have been, it will be there, the other side of the civic coin.

That is the argument for reading this often irritating and patchy (it was written in bits and pieces over a period of five years), but also stimulating book. It is not an easy read; the more abstract chapters, including one on "Cosmopolitanism and Method," take some wading through and will interest mainly scholars.

Then there is the problem of Mr. Brennan's religious zeal in his socialist commitment, making it hard for anyone but other socialists to agree with him a lot of the time.

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