Cosmopolitan patriotism is the American Way

To open the show on July 20, 2019, I offered a mostly off-the-cuff take on the use of the word "cosmopolitan". You can listen to a podcast of the segment anytime. The transcript below is a little rough because I have a habit of embedding my sentences with asides and brief tangents, but the bigger message seemed worth committing to text and sharing.

I enjoy the show "30 Rock". It is one that I'm watching on-demand because I like to spend some of my time when I'm cleaning the dishes or folding laundry -- doing things around the house -- sometimes I like to have some noise going on in the background, something to watch, something to be amused by; I'm an extrovert by nature. So that gives me an opportunity to tune in, and in season 4 of "30 Rock" there is an appearance made by Queen Latifah. She plays a member of Congress who has a habit of getting herself started on a rant and never actually sticking the landing on anything. In fact, one of the punch lines to one of these appearances that she makes is that she gets all worked up about something and then declares in the middle of it as she said the full-throated rant "And I don't know where I'm going with this, but I'm going to say it emphatically, and I'm going to I'm going to make you believe that you're supposed to cheer at the end of this." It's something to that effect, at least; I'm trying to do it best justice here. But the whole point is that she gets herself so worked up in the moment and in the style of delivering this emphatic claim that it doesn't really matter to her so much what exactly she's saying.

Now, that's a fictitious character, Queen Latifah pretending to be a member of Congress -- though, anymore, we shouldn't discount the possibility of a bunch of folks who are otherwise celebrities making their way into Congress. But then we also have to look at the folks who are already there, like Senator Josh Hawley. He is from Missouri and he made a speech the other day when he was appearing at that National Conservatism Conference, and he made a speech that was pretty emphatic. He made this speech about what he believes to be one of the grave threats to the way that America runs today, and it was a keynote that was given at this National Conservatism Conference, and this speech went on for the better part of 20 minutes or so, and as he's presenting this, he makes this case (among other things) that there's a big problem with what he calls "cosmopolitans".

And here's what I think is kind of interesting: He makes this claim during this speech that America's -- as he calls them -- "leadership elite" is composed of these "cosmopolitans", whoever they might be. And I would first of all note that his definition of who the "elite" are is pretty nonspecific. And actually, it strangely seems to omit people like him who happened to be United States Senators. I think that qualifies you as a member of the "elite". I don't think you can get away with complaining about the "elite" if you are in fact a United States Senator. You get to be one of only a hundred, I think that's a pretty elite position. I don't think that's one where you're somebody different from everybody else at that point. You are the elite, by definition, if that's the job that you do.

But regardless, putting that aside, stepping aside from that for just a moment, what I'm concerned by is the following: He gives this presentation and he gives a speech and he claims that this "cosmopolitan" identity, as he identifies it, means, and I'm going to quote here, "a primary allegiance to the community of human beings in the entire world, not to a specifically American identity." Now the thing about this is the Senator makes a pretty overwhelming omission from his observation when he makes this claim.

Our identity as Americans, literally from the very first moment that we were a country, the very first moment, has always started and begun with having a place in the world at large. The very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence concludes with the words, and I quote, "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." This is the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence! Right out of the gate, America was defined in part by our place in the world. That wasn't about running away from the world, and it wasn't about being something that was going to be set aside from it, but rather something that would be a shining light within it.

I think that is the whole escapade -- that the Founding Fathers put us through as a country was to say "We believe in certain important things like natural rights that we don't think are just ours. We think they belong to everyone, but we're going to stake a claim on them."

That's a massive claim to make, by the way. It's a very bold thing to be able to say, but that's what they did right from the very beginning. They were talking about America's place in the world. And that's why I have a concern here with the way that Senator Hawley has gone about saying something to the opposite, saying something different. Now, he makes reference in his speech to a couple of folks who he specifically believes are representative of this belief that there is no belonging or sense of identity or sense of patriotism responsibility to your country that you must be a citizen of the world. And that is the only thing that matters and he pulls out the names of a couple of professors that, frankly, I've never heard of, and I'm guessing most Americans haven't either but he then uses them to represent this supposed elite, the supposed separate "cosmopolitan" identity that believes that Americans shouldn't be loyal to America. And I think that's just plain wrong, because the whole point of being an American is to say that we have something that is valuable here, but to know that we have a place in the world as well.

To have this "cosmopolitan" interest, as he calls it, in the world doesn't take anything away from being patriotic, doesn't take anything away from having your sense of being an American, any more than being an American takes away from your identity as an Iowan or a Virginian or a Californian or a Missourian or whatever else. It only means that Americans know that our place in the world is something that takes place up and down the scale of identities. We're all human beings residing on Earth, alongside billions of others. We would be reminded of that in a really big hurry, by the way, if there were an asteroid or something headed this way that was going to destroy all life on Earth, and what we had to do was figure out with every resource we as humans had was to blow that thing up before it killed us like the dinosaurs. We would remember really fast that we're human beings sharing the planet with a couple of billion other people and that would become far more important to us than our identity specifically as Americans. But, by the same token, as residents of states, we have something important to say about our identities.

I think the Founders made it pretty clear not only in the way that they structured the government via the Constitution, but also about how they explain the importance of identity within, say, the Federalist Papers, that it was incredibly important for them to expect Americans to have a strong identity with our own states first, and with our country as a nation, the United States, not maybe second but certainly not rivaling or not pushing aside that identity as a member of a state.

When you are born, you don't get a birth certificate from the United States; you get a birth certificate that identifies the state where you're born. And when you look on your passport, it says which state you were born in. We get very specific about this, because as the United States, we're still 50 states; there's still an identity here that belongs to your local community, and then you still remain a member of your local community in your local neighborhood as well. I don't stop being an Iowan just because I take pride in being American, but I don't stop being an Iowan just because I'm a resident of West Des Moines, either. Those are parallel identities. Oftentimes they overlap, but they don't have to conflict with one another.

As Americans, we share things like a common language and a common legal tradition with Australians and Brits and New Zealanders and Canadians and Irish. We also, as many Americans, tend to share things like religious faiths with other people all over the world in ways that don't correspond to political boundaries at all.

I thought we established that pretty clearly when people figured out that yes, John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President, would still be President of the United States first -- even though his identity very clearly to a lot of people included the fact that he was a Roman Catholic, which to some people has always seemed threatening. Fortunately, I think for the most part people have started to figure out that it's OK for you to be both a Catholic and a good American. I hope by 2019 we ha figured this out, right? But you know what? That doesn't mean that your church doesn't stop having a claim on your identity and the Catholic Church refers to itself as a universal church. Well, you know what? It doesn't mean that it has a conflict with those political boundaries because they're different things. They expect different things of us.

So I think it's pretty silly to say that you can't have identities that scale the full spectrum of human existence, from the family level to the community level to the state to the nation to the world. And it's OK to be "cosmopolitan" in the way that Senator Hawley's talking about here, and still be very proud to be an American. The notion that real American interests have nothing to do with our place in the world, I think, is short-sighted -- and I think it's really ahistorical.

When I earned my Eagle Scout Award in 1993 (didn't pin it on till '94, but when I earned it in 1993), one of the merit badges that I had to get along the way was Citizenship in the Nation. I also had to get Citizenship in the World. And you know, the notorious left-wingers that the Boy Scouts of America have always been, you know, it was identifying and recognizing the fact that you had a place in your state, you had a place in your country, you had your place in the world as well. We also had to get Citizenship in the Community, because you have multiple parallel identities and that's OK. That's a healthy thing.

Consider Federalist Paper Number 63. Now, I point to the Federalist Papers because there's no better textbook to tell us what the Founders believed than the textbook, essentially, the series of essays, that helped get the Constitution across the finish line. In Federalist Paper Number 63, it was said very specifically "An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons. The one is that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy. The second is that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed."

Think about that for a minute. In the Federalist Papers, the authors of the Constitution defending the Constitutional notion of government -- which, by the way, was a stronger government than we had had in place under the Articles of Confederation, a stronger national identity than that, they were still saying that it was important to know about the position of the world as well, and to know our place within it. There's nothing wrong with being proud of being an American, and we should be proud to be Americans, but there's also nothing wrong with saying that being a good American also requires being a good citizen of the world. And I have a really hard time with people artificially working us up -- sort of like Queen Latifah's character in "30 Rock" -- saying that there has to be this division between the two because there doesn't. There never has been. Not in, literally, the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Not even in the Federalist Papers, defending the stronger Constitutional government that we established after the first one that was too weak failed.

They said in both cases "Our position in the world matters". And it does, and it still does, and it always will. Being good Americans doesn't mean being bad citizens of the world, or vice versa. They all fit together and they always have.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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