Integral Cosmopolitanism, Not Good


Continuing with the discussion between Mitchell Cohen and Andy Arato (see here) about the Left, the conflict in the Middle East and the Turin Book Fair, Cohen has written an interesting response to Arato’s accusation that supporters of Israel risk ethnocentrism. Cohen’s article, “Against Integral Cosmopolitanism,” begins with an analogy:

I delayed responding to Andy Arato in the hope that Tariq Ramadan and Tariq Ali might clarify some issues by demanding a boycott of the Olympics to protest the killings in Tibet, a poor land occupied brutally since 1951. Alas, I cannot report that Ramadan has called on members of the Arab League or Iran to act against Beijing, which is also a chief patron of Sudan’s genocidal government. Ali does not seem to be urging intellectuals to action on China comparable to his (and Ramadan’s) campaign to deny Israel honors at European book fairs. Perhaps sport must just go on, as did the Olympics in 1972 after the Israeli team was massacred. I’d like to know if they think that it was right for the games to go on then and why; and I’d like to know if Andy Arato thinks that it is no longer the right time for the Olympics to take place in Beijing as he thought it is “not the right time” to honor Israel in Turin and Paris. He says “it just so happens” that Israel occupies certain places. But it didn’t just so happen and that was why I said that definitions of states and laws must be contextualized. It has to do with the political impact of historical memory too, and so I do not quite understand how Arato can refer to an “aggressive Israeli war” of 1967 yet declare that it doesn’t matter who was at “fault.” I’d still like to know: What would you do if three states in a legal state of war with you mobilize their militaries? And one of them demands removal of the international buffer force that had prevented war for a decade. And the UN complies and your second largest port is blockaded. What do you do? Explain an ideal speech situation to a populist-nationalist dictator (Nasser) or an overtly fascist party (the Ba’ath in Damascus)? Wait until international law secures universal values?

The analogy is fairly clear and for the most part I think its quite effective. Why isn’t it fair game to demand the same human rights standards for other countries that we set for Israel, in this case, China? Once again, the question becomes why is it that Israel in particular is such a concern and has to meet standards demanded by the Left? Why is Israel under such a microscope? Why protest Israel–a democracy– but not other horrifically repressive regimes at work that Mikhail has been chronicling here for a while now? Why such a double standard? Unfortunately, the short answer may just be, as Cohen suggests, antisemitism.  Moreover, this passage points  to another issue lurking around in these exchanges, the issue of  universal rights, whether the Rights of Man and/or Revolution, or cosmopolitanism.Cohen goes on to clarify:

Aggression isn’t only a matter of who fires the first shot. It is also a question of who creates circumstances in which the use of force becomes the only intelligent option…I assume that Arato uses “Judea and Samaria” to mock claims made with biblical terminology (he notes, properly, that I do not use them). He speaks of the “West Bank” (as I do). But here we need just what he dismisses as “ridiculous and ambiguous” truisms to clarify historical “interpretation” – especially of legalities. Jordan did not annex the West Bank in 1948, as Arato says. It invaded Palestine that year, as did other Arab League armies. The Arab League, as a whole, was unhappy about King Abdullah’s ambitions there. But its alternative was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, who had just spent World War II cheering the Nazis. Those were the only Palestinian Arab options then. The part of Mandatory Palestine that Jordan annexed (in 1950) became known as “the West Bank” as counterpart of “the East Bank” in the Hashemite Kingdom. One need not be a positivist to recognize that historical details like these sometimes tell us important things. In this case they show us that “Palestine” is as “amorphous” and “legally uncertain” as “Israel,” if not more so. After all, the Palestinian Arab side and the Arab League warred against the 1947 UN Resolution to establish an Arab state in Palestine because it established a Jewish one as well. There are no legally defined, let alone meaningful boundaries of “Palestine” today. This is not particularly urgent when it comes to peace-making. Arato says that Israel should not be recognized in advance of negotiations, so I presume he thinks that Israel ought not to recognize Palestine either. But here “ridiculous” history intrudes: mutual recognition was already agreed at Oslo (although Gaza’s current ruler, Hamas, rejects it). Would it be helpful to annul this recognition? In any event, it was pretty obvious that I was not referring to Lieberman (C’mon, Andy!), but to Ehud Barak’s suggestion at Camp David in 2001 that even Israel’s 1949 borders would not be sacrosanct if a peace deal could be worked out. His offer to swap some land came with a willingness to yield over 90% of the occupied territories if an agreement was reached. This is not quasi-annexation. It is a bargaining position – a forthcoming one. This offer to swap represented a significant change in Israeli policy and opened all sorts of possibilities for negotiation. Arafat was not up to the historical moment. He imagined he should get everything he wanted in advance of negotiations – unlike any other negotiation in the history of diplomacy. In any event, legality is again not very relevant. What was needed then is still needed: a sustainable political deal, a compromise between two peoples who contest one land. Again: if a particular land swap was illegal by international law but Israeli and Palestinian leaders included it in a workable accord, would you insist on fidelity to international legality down to the last Palestinian and the last Israeli?

Now onto the issue that gets under the skin of a lot of people who deride it as ethnocentrism, the Law of Return: and its relationship to universal values and cosmopolitanism:

Finally, we return again to the Law of Return and to “the most obvious ethnocentrism.” Affirmative action addresses long standing, deeply rooted patterns of discrimination and/or persecution. It assumes that there are collective, particular problems that require, at least in part, collective, particular redress. Arato’s objection to the Law of Return reproduces the common logic deployed against affirmative action: If you have it to remedy sexism, middle class women will prosper but individual men will be disadvantaged; if you have it for blacks, white individuals will suffer discrimination. These contentions are not without merit, but since I am a social democrat – which means I am an egalitarian who doesn’t think there is one seamless solution to all problems – I would argue for affirmative action combined with policies that seek vigorously to mitigate its problematic consequences.

The analogy isn’t a perfect one, but if we contextualize the problem in this way one is tempted to simply appeal to the mass murder, pogroms, and anti-semitism that led to the formation of the state of Israel. Now, Cohen’s point is to affirm a cosmopolitanism that isn’t integral and leads to an “abstract universalism.” Certainly, it isn’t contradictory to try to think through concerns both particular and universal? Here’s Cohen again (emphasis mine):

Call it a rooted cosmopolitanism that rejected one-dimensional approaches, that assumed that someone could have multiple roots, say, in the left, in the Jewish community, in Western culture. It was neither abstract nor “ethnocentric,” but it did – and does — contrast with those liberals or leftists who imagined that the Rights of Man or the Revolution, or some variant of these, would simply dissolve anti-Semitism, indeed all other problems. Arato can defend this latter view, although it is not obvious to me how the 20th century bears it out. Finally, no, I do not think that the Palestinian refugees should return to pre-1967 Israel. The consequence would be the end of Israel. There’s no way around that. But please explain why 10-12 million Germans who lost homes in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II ought not also to have a right to return, or Indians and Pakistanis.

Because the consequence would be unmanageable, if not disastrous? Yes, they would be. Because those populations do not all live as miserable refugees in contrast to so many Palestinians? Yes, unfortunately massive numbers of Palestinians live in wretched conditions. You might ask elites in Damascus, Cairo and other Arab capitals (and some Western intellectuals), if there is any other population that was displaced in the immediate post-World War era that was likewise denied resettlement in neighboring lands and remains as refugees. They have a Palestinian identity, you protest? Yes, surely, legitimately so, and Jews identify as a people too and sought legitimately to reconstruct themselves as such after integral nationalism slaughtered them and integral cosmopolitanism failed them. Sometimes right and right clash as do wrong and wrong – and there is no possibility of reconciliation “in principle.” Then, compromise is needed.

I myself am quite sympathetic to the Rights of Man/Revolution angle. However, I too am not sure how exactly it cashes out concretely in the last 60 or 100 years, in the Middle East, in Africa, etc.

Regardless, there are a number of very interesting issues raised here, both by Arato and Cohen, all of which deserve attention as contributions to a discussion about the conflict in the Middle East, the Left, and cosmopolitanism.

3 thoughts on “Integral Cosmopolitanism, Not Good

  1. I clearly do not know as much about the situation, but the idea of “rooted cosmopolitanism” seems a bit strange, although the idea of cosmopolitanism as “rootlessness” has been often associated with past anti-Semitic rhetoric (ex. 1948 Soviet purges of ‘cosmopolitans’ aka Jews). I am not sure if I like the use of the notion of “cosmopolitanism” as an actual political concept like “revolution” or “state” or “sovereignty” – I mean it seems to function more as a point of reference in the recent critique of nationalism/patriotism, not as an identification of an actual set of political strategies or moves…

  2. I think in this case, really quick, the rooted cosmopolitanism counters the the universalist or integralist position in which it’s a matter of having the same vocabulary and that’s what stands in the way of resolution. Second, the term counters the charge of “ethnocentrism,” Cohen has been throwing this term, “rooted cosmopolitanism,” around since the 90s. As far as I understand it he also mobilizes it to counter what he thinks is Marxism’s too abstract internationalism and the narrowness of those that favor the concept of “difference.” Rooted cosmopolitanism then, accepts a variety of roots, rests on the “legitimacy of plural loyalties,” and insists that we can stand in different circles with common ground. What is actually “rooted” in this concept of rooted cosmopolitanism is that as people move both cognitively and physically outside their spatial origins they continue to be linked to place, to the social networks that inhabit that space, and to the resources, experiences and opportunities that place provides them with. In short, the idea is that universal values that descend from the level of pure abstract philosophy have become emotionally compelling in people’s “everyday lives.” It is by becoming symbols of people’s personal identities that cosmopolitan philosophy becomes a political force. Moreover, this seems to me to be a rather different approach that on the face of it, tends to attempt to de-center European traditions of theorizing and to seek cosmopolitanism in a variety of new places around the world. I know that in addition to Cohen, Appiah has been talking about rooted cosmopolitanism for a while and I think Nussbaum and Bhaba have both thrown around a similar ideas for refashioning the notion of cosmopolitanism. I think for many of these thinkers, and others who are re-thinking cosmopolitanism the idea of the free-floating “beyond national” fancy pants of yesteryear, but the ordinary people whose lives involve movement and relations with the refugee/alien etc, whether guest workers in Dubai, nannies in the UK or whatnot. Certainly, one consequence of this move is that cosmopolitanism ceases to be exclusively a political idea (or an ideal/point of reference) and is worked out in both “the plural” and in terms of practice or process. I do see your point/wariness in mobilizing rooted cosmopolitanism as a political concept, for at times, it seems to be something like a critical pluralism to me.

  3. Nussbaum has a small book about cosmopolitanism – actually it’s just an essay in a book dedicated to patriotism with responses from other people, I can’t seem to find it now – and I remember her discussing cosmopolitanism there explicitly in a way you mention. I think the angle of “forced cosmopolitanism” is an extremely important one – both in terms of the present problem of sans-papiers and various forms of displacements and in terms of the idea of turning the old “beyond national” notion into a more viable option. Yes, “beyond national” in my estimation is a very bourgeois idea of “voluntary cosmopolitanism” but I still think that despite its yesteryear status, it might be discursively potent especially if we are to believe those who herald the end of the “nation state”…

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