“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, June 06, 2003

A couple of years ago, in Los Angeles, LI had breakfast with a man who was full to the gills of injuries Israel had received from Yassar Arafat. LI, not as knowledgeable about this subject, was full, at least to the butt, with the ills Israeli had inflicted on Palestinians. The conversation proceeded down the usual dead end, although we didn�t end up throwing the usual acrimonious phrases at each other. It was breakfast, and it was L.A., for God�s sake.

We've thought about this argument since then. Since Bush made his Middle Eastern tour, the newspapers have been dutifully filled with analyses of the chances, this time, that the roadmap to peace will get us somewhere. And readers, I would guess, except for those most passionately involved in the issues, have drifted off. In the reign of good King Jimmy Carter, this was a new and vibrant thing. Since, it has become one of the ornaments of American presidencies � each one of them has to have their brand new plan for peace in the Middle East. Each one, of course, fails.

It is easy to say peace, and there is no peace. Jeremiah is still right, but since God is dead, I demand another explanation (Or was that Isaiah?) In our humble opinion, the main issue isn�t the settlements. It isn�t the violence. It is the very framework from which each side works. Unlike India, or France, or China, Israel and Palestine both base themselves on an ideal of ethnic purity � but unlike Japan, which can get away with that, they are not on an island out in the Pacific. The ideal has a necessary evolutionary function, but both sides have passed beyond that point. Only when that framework is loosened will there really be two states. There�s a name for this ad hoc loosening of the rituals of ethnic identity: cosmopolitanism.

In an article provocatively entitled, Citizens of Nowhere in Particular, published a few years ago in National Identities, a scholar from UVA, Sophia Rosenfeld, examined how the cosmopolitan image declined in the latter half of the Enlightenment era. Here is how she puts the problem:

Despite the internationalism of the great literary figures of the age, from Hume
to Voltaire, and their much vaunted universalist philosophical orientation, the political
stance associated with explicit cosmopolitanism seems to have come under increasing
suspicion as the Old Regime in Europe drew to a close. In 1762 the Dictionnaire de
l�Acade�mie franc�aise defined the cosmopolitan as �someone who adopts no country
[patrie] � and is not a good citizen.� That same year, from a very different vantage
point, Rousseau noted in his Social Contract that a cosmopolitan was, in fact, someone
who �pretended to love the whole world in order to have the right to love no one.�

The reason for the emergence of such attitudes lies most obviously in the growing
power of the concept of the nation, an idea just beginning to take on its modern
meaning at this same moment. In the late eighteenth century, the nation and one�s
fellow nationals were already on their way to forming a critical focus for individual
political loyalties. Since then it has nearly become an article of faith that the nation
alone provides the framework in which the political identity and, consequently, political
engagement and participation associated with citizenship becomes possible for private
persons and, eventually, the masses. For only the nation seems to supply the rootedness
and emotional centering, along with the guarantee of rights, that the identity of
�citizen�, with all its potential for sacrifice, requires.

Rousseau, of course, is at the center of this moment, with that most powerful of the inventions in the realm of the sentiments, �love.� And of course the series of personal contradictions that immediately pop up: who, after all, was more rootless than Rousseau? A sometimes citizen of Geneva who spent his intellectual years in France, wrote the constitution of Corsica, and fought, in his last years, the multiple humiliations inflicted upon him by every royal or republican power with which he came in contact. Romanticism might be defined as Rousseau�s dream of the anti-Rousseau � the man whose social conditions allowed him to live.

Rosenfeld asks, sensibly, why we still accept Rousseau�s idea that the cosmopolitan is the opposite of the citizen:

�But has geographical rootedness always been the only truly viable foundation for
political activism? And must this necessarily remain the case even as the particularistic
humanism associated with national interests comes under increasing criticism in the
contemporary world? Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the history and potentiality
of transnational identity and transnational concerns as alternative (though closely
related) contexts for the development of political engagement. Or, to put it slightly
differently, perhaps it is time to look again at the relationship of universalism to both
localism and nationalism in the emergence of the modern understanding of the citizen
as commentator on and participant in the business of rule.�

Like any smart academic confronting an arbitrary, but emotionally defended, binary, she goes back to see how it was historically constructed � how these opposites found each other (it should be noted that deconstruction is the opposite of marriage counseling � in deconstruction, the divorce comes before the marriage, in marriage counseling, it comes after). Why did the Voltarian gesture of adhering to humanity gave way to the Rousseauian accusation of the emotional nullity of such a stance? A nullity, we are to understand, that is a facet of selfishness. A purely intellectual concern with a people we can�t communicate with, and whose ways we don�t know, must be the terminus of a flight from real caring � from authenticity. This theme is common to both Dickens and Heidegger. It is the common wisdom of modernity, reinforced by a thousand satirical portraits. Hell, it is the wisdom of the Pixies � there�s a beautifully acidic Pixies song that goes; �she�s a real left-winger/cause she�s been down south/held peasants in her arms�� that I always loved, because it described the bad faith endemic among a certain kind of politically active student current in the 80s.

(To be continued)


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