by Margaret Rowley
Multiple news sources have detailed Stephen Miller’s recent accusation hurled at Jim Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias,” an insult that has been recently and repeatedly levied at so-called “left-leaning” news networks.
Acosta: This whole notion of they have to learn English before they get to the United States, are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?
Miller: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree that in your mind — this is an amazing moment.
Dan Mihalopoulis seems as confused as I am about the sudden turning of this word into an insult, and ends his piece by conflating Miller’s use of the term with xenophobia (which, he points out dryly, is another word with Greek etymology). The accusation of cosmopolitan bias – here apparently a lack of knowledge about the world at large, when the word itself means exactly the opposite – is nothing new. As Jeff Greenfield has recently pointed out, Josef Stalin also used ‘cosmopolitan’ (well, its Russian-language counterpart) as an insult.
Rebekah Entralgo further expands on the historical use of ‘cosmopolitan’ by white nationalist movements, calling it an “insult with racial subtext.” Amulya Shankar details the term’s anti-Semitic past. Clearly, the use of ‘cosmopolitan’ as an insult in a White House press briefing caught some attention.
I’d like to tease out what Miller meant by his insult, which I suspect had more to do with being a coastal elite than with being worldly. Presumably to be cosmopolitan and/or urban is to be (over) educated, to live in a major urban center, and to be somehow non-representative of the “real” population targeted by the Trump Presidential campaign. In the U.S., accusations levied at the city-dwelling coastal population range from a supposed insatiable hunger for bleeding tax revenue from the population in the middle of the country (a fallacy) to being ignorant of the means of production of commodities produced in the Midwest (food and coal, to name a few). I would suggest that ‘cosmopolitan’ has come to mean educated and urban, and therefore indoctrinated by liberalism and out-of-touch with rural populations.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States population in 2010 was 80.7% urban. Maine and Vermont, both states on the Eastern seaboard, are the least urbanized in the country. But before we conflate cosmopolitan’ with ‘urban’, it may be useful to look at the definition of the word. The top three definitions that appear online are:
- free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world.
- of or characteristic of a cosmopolite.
- belonging to all the world; not limited to just one part of the world.
So ‘cosmopolitan’ means “citizen of the world,” but this definition does not seem to reflect Miller’s usage of the term. A citizen of the world would be more likely to know that English is one of the national languages of India and that it’s taught to young children as a matter of course in Germany. I recently took a French course with five other students from around the world of different ages and with varying levels of education, but all of us spoke English. A cosmopolitan knows that in many parts of the world, English is the international language. So Miller must have meant something different when he spat “cosmopolitan!” at Acosta (the son of a Cuban refugee).
Of course with this definition I am flattening what it means to be cosmopolitan (or the opposite). Like everything else, cosmopolitanism must have a scale. Some with a cosmopolitan perspective are certainly not widely traveled, and others who hold tightly to nationalism have visited every corner of the earth. Sometimes cosmopolitan and nationalistic may not even be mutually exclusive. What I’m interested in here, though, is the intent behind Miller’s words. In a time when words have multiple meanings, it seems irresponsible to discount the possibility of ‘cosmopolitan’ slowly coming to mean “urban.” The entire Trump Presidential campaign seemed intent on dividing the Midwestern population, both urban and rural, from its coastal counterpart, and to my understanding of the day-to-day use of the two terms, they are closely related. As an aside, I’m not the only one to conflate ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘urban’, so it’s worth exploring.
I went to college in a small Midwestern city, and completed my master’s degrees in another. Both had infrastructure that supported an urban lifestyle: I had access to malls and other shopping, roads maintained by the city and supported by the taxes of citizens, public transportation (including at least a few busses, if not Amtrak). In neither city was I obligated to drive more than half a mile for groceries, nor did I have the space to grow my own food. Both cities boasted small airports, through which I could connect to international flights. The cost of living varied in those two cities, but was nevertheless higher than the surrounding rural areas. In Boston, people certainly live closer together and pay higher rent, but the similarities vastly outnumber the differences. In both places, to varying degrees, I was exposed to people with racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds different from my own.
Some friends of mine who live in the Midwest are quite cosmopolitan, speak multiple languages or were born in other countries, and have traveled all over the world. By contrast, I know some native Bostonians who have not even traveled widely within the United States, and a few who have never left Massachusetts. Yet, inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard can easily be judged by other Americans (from a distance, of course) to be “belonging to all of the world,” and therefore, not quite as “American” (read: nationalist) as they should be.
I’ve been addressed many times with the ridiculous assertion that Boston is a “different country” from the Midwest. I moved to Boston almost eight years ago, and I manage quite well in this alien land, where we also speak American dialect English, drive on the right side of the road, and access the same informational network of web- and news sites as our Midwestern counterparts, with whom we share a federal government. We have libraries, grocery stores, and McDonalds. We have universities and, as close as three miles from my urban abode, large family-run farms. The only thing (other than the cost of living) that differs substantially between Boston and the Midwestern cities I’ve called home is prevailing political opinion, and if that is enough to create “a different country,” then the United States has always been an amalgam of different countries. Could it be, therefore, that the United States has always been cosmopolitan?
Cosmopolitanism, though, is dangerous to this administration. The concept of “Make America Great Again” relies heavily on raw sentiment and a lack of questioning, and citizens of the world tend to ask too many questions. One should not ask “when was America great, and for whom?” because the answers will likely anathematize three-quarters of the population. One cannot demand to know which countries we must outpace to become “the greatest” or how we plan to achieve this feat in an increasingly global economy. One is expected to simply accept that America was once great (for some reason), now is not, and can be again in the same retrospective way that it once was. In my limited experience, many of those who want to “Make America Great Again” don’t have answers to these questions, nor does the premise hold up under scrutiny.
Those who have traveled the world and seen the vast American system from the outside, peering back at the U.S. from outside like the majority of the world, know that “Make America Great Again,” in so many different ways, is a mirage; a last wheeze of sentiment for the booming post-World War II economy where women and minorities were shoehorned into place, and where the world trembled in the wake of America’s use of the first nuclear weapon. Levying the insult of “cosmopolitanism” succeeds in diminishing the vast importance of questions about the meaning of “Make America Great Again” by creating a strawman out of the coastal city-dweller, and in dividing the population against itself. Once this has been neatly achieved, and we are well on our way by now, the powers-that-be are free to retain and amplify their authority.
The problem with all my preceding arguments is that, in the end, I’m afraid that Miller’s cosmopolitan argument is correct. The unspoken assertion, by Miller and others, is that to be cosmopolitan is to be dangerous and anti-American and that the opinions and questions of cosmopolitans are worthless, in the sense that they are worth less than those of non-cosmopolitans. I’m afraid that, in the eddy where ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘urban’ meet, many large-city-dwellers are indeed worth less – at least when it comes to their votes in Presidential elections.
Massachusetts, the only state in New England to boast a large city, has eleven electoral college votes. The population is currently 6.8 million. This means that, by my reckoning, there are approximately 619,273 people for each electoral college vote in a national Presidential election. In Wyoming, the population of the entire state is 585,501 – less than the number of people per one electoral vote in Massachusetts, yet Wyoming has three electoral college votes: one for every 195,167 people.
These are different numbers than the ones Slate posted in 2012, which still reflect a similar sentiment. The color-coded map allows for a visualization of the fact that that Midwestern states by and large have more power in a Presidential election, and proportionately more representation in Congress. The post populous states – Massachusetts, New York, California, Texas – actually fare the worst in how much the votes of their individual citizens actually matter. These are also the states with the biggest international airports, easy access to Mexico, Canada, and other international destinations, and (by the reckoning of Miller, it would seem) the largest cosmopolitan populations. In this sense, the votes of urban/cosmopolitan city-dwellers on the coasts are, actually, worth less than their Midwestern counterparts, as we saw in the most recent election when the loser of the Presidential race won the popular vote by a large, urban margin.
I must say, in summary, that I am not surprised by this new twist on an old word. It seems to me to be the next in a predictable series of steps designed to implement a conflict of class, education, and location in the United States. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, although we have plenty of historical fodder through which we can dig for parallels. All this, from an administration whose President is a life-long New Yorker, a city that for most of the world remains a beacon of cosmopolitanism.