The Magazine

The Appiahn Way

How to Do the Right Thing in the 21st Century.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By JAMES SEATON
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One of the most attractive aspects of Appiah's cosmopolitanism is its recognition that culture at its best reveals a shared humanity transcending national and ethnic boundaries. Appiah declares, "My people--human beings--made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination."

Who would want to argue with such sentiments? The chapter on "The Counter-Cosmopolitans" identifies only two groups on the other side: "global Muslim fundamentalists" and "Christian fundamentalists in the United States." Appiah's comparisons between the two mark one of the few times in the book where he allows multiculturalist pieties to trump common sense. The two are similar, he asserts, "in many ways." Both reject "traditional religious authorities" and interpret their holy books for themselves even though both share "an ignorance of the original languages of the Scriptures they interpret." Both groups "think that there is one right way for all human beings to live."

Surely, however, the admonition that one should "render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things which are God's" seems to leave more room for the "variety of political arrangements" Appiah's cosmopolitanism prizes than does the Muslim concept of sharia. Though he ignores this difference in theological principle, Appiah does acknowledge that there is at least one important difference in practice: "So far as I know, no large organized Christian terror network is planning attacks on Muslim countries or institutions."

On the other hand, Appiah does point out that there are "Christian terrorists" like Eric Rudolph. Emphasizing that he is not "equating" Rudolph's crimes--leaving bombs at a lesbian bar, an abortion clinic, and in a park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics--with the "multinational murder spree" of Osama bin Laden, Appiah nevertheless asserts that "it is easier for us to remember that Osama bin Laden is not the typical Muslim when we recall that Eric Rudolph is not the typical Christian."

Appiah does not mention that Rudolph's terrorism was condemned by all major Christian organizations, though he discovers support for Rudolph "in places like Murphy, North Carolina." He is, however, honest enough to note that "the popularity Osama enjoys . . . makes him a far from marginal figure" (unlike Rudolph) whose "multinational murder spree" cannot be equated to Rudolph's crimes. Once these admissions are made, however, the point of Appiah's comparison--that the "typical Muslim" is no more friendly to terrorism than the "typical Christian"--seems to be lost.

Despite occasional special pleading, Appiah's general position is so reasonable that one wonders why it requires a special label. Although there may be few "hard-core cosmopolitans," aren't most of us already the "partial cosmopolitans" Appiah wants us to be? The original cosmopolitans, after all, were rather "hard-core" themselves; they demonstrated what Appiah calls "the general Cynic skepticism toward custom and tradition" by copulating in public like dogs ("cynic" is ancient Greek for "doglike").

On Appiah's own showing, the moral difference between his own "partial cosmopolitanism" and conventional views is not a matter of principle but only of degree; as he puts it, "The real challenge to cosmopolitanism isn't the belief that other people don't matter at all; it's the belief that they don't matter very much." Beyond making clear the foolishness of "incredible obligations," Appiah does not explain how to identify the line between "not very much" and "enough." Likewise, the political implications of his cosmopolitanism are vague. His cosmopolitanism "prizes a variety of political arrangements, provided, of course, each state grants every individual what he or she deserves."

Of course! Political arrangements are only illegitimate if they somehow fail to "grant every individual what he or she deserves," a goal Plato thought could be achieved only in his ideal republic, and even there only with great difficulty. Despite Appiah's appreciation of variety, his proviso would seem to offer a rationale for intervention broader than anything Woodrow Wilson, let alone George W. Bush, ever envisioned. These lapses, however, are occasional and limited; what distinguishes Cosmopolitanism is its sustained commitment to clear thinking and common sense. This achievement should not be underrated at a time when, almost always in the academy, and all too often in public speech, the slogans of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" trump common sense. If Kwame Anthony Appiah fails in the lesser goal of defining "cosmopolitanism" as a distinctive creed, that may be a condition of his success in his larger purpose of outlining an "ethics in a world of strangers" that seems both reasonable and possible.

James D. Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.