By: Elisheva Kohn  | 

Cosmopolitans — The Only Loyal Citizens?

This past Labor Day, I attended my first ever professional baseball game. As I secretly made fun of all those lunatics for cheering on the sun — it had simply shown itself after a particularly rainy morning — I observed the dedication and excitement of thousands of spectators with envy. These people felt American. They sang their national anthem with pride and ate their chicken nuggets with expertise. If only I could say the same about myself. 

I didn't always feel this way. Growing up bilingual, I never thought twice about my dual U.S./Austrian citizenship or the unique cultural experience I was raised in. My upbringing in Austria made it easier for me to relate to new cultures and ideas. I regarded my ability to integrate into unfamiliar social situations as an asset. 

Once I left home, however, I was promptly challenged by people trying to get to the bottom of my national loyalty. “When are you making aliyah?” — a question I was confronted with on a daily basis during my gap year in Israel — evolved into “are you planning on staying in America forever?” when I moved to New York for college. Questions such as: which language I prefer, which culture I relate to more, where I want to raise my future family, which national anthem I sang best, constantly reminded me that I had to choose. These thoughts frightened me; in fact, I felt guilty for being so indecisive about questions that seemed fundamental. 

When Kwame Anthony Appiah, an NYU Professor of Law and Philosophy, first mentioned cosmopolitanism, a concept that revolves around all human beings belonging to a single, global community with shared responsibilities, in his guest lecture at Stern, I welcomed the overwhelming feeling of validation. Since then, I have spent countless hours reading and thinking about the subject. 

Appiah shared with us a comical yet concerning photo of two men wearing t-shirts with the statement “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat” imprinted on them. As these men surely know, the United States has a complicated relationship with Russia. They are placing partisanship, or their alliance with the Republican Party, above fundamental American values. When a country is so divided that identifying as liberal or conservative matters more than simply being American, I wonder what that says about our concept of citizenship. Is there value to pledging allegiance to a country if growing polarization causes citizens to feel alienated from each other? “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat” is the ultimate anti-cosmopolitan statement. It proves that extreme party affiliation blinds people from realizing their responsibility towards their fellow citizens. Affective polarization is increasing everywhere and global issues are becoming more urgent every day. It’s time we move past our traditional understanding of citizenship and embrace an expansion of the term citizen unless we want to watch petty conflicts within — and between — political parties delay efficient solutions to pressing global issues.  

Our level of exposure to people who are fundamentally different from us is extraordinary. As I walk down 34th St., I encounter people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. My Twitter feed informs me of catastrophes that are taking place in faraway countries. I have access to data relating to poverty, terrorism, climate change and drug use around the world. I sang “allez les bleus” when the French football team won the world cup and sighed in relief when the young boys who were trapped in a cave in Thailand were rescued. In short, I can relate to my fellow citizens of the world; I can empathize with their troubles and also with their joy and success. 

While interpretations of the term “cosmopolitan” differ, I would like to suggest that our generation is more cosmopolitan than ever before, simply because we are aware of the global issues that face humanity. Without having actively chosen to do so, we are connected with people from all around the world via social media. Issues that have hitherto been of national nature are now global.

Theresa May once said that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” I strongly disagree. The former Prime Minister clearly regards cosmopolitanism as a threat to nationalism and patriotism. She would consider the term cosmopolitan a paradox — a citizen ought to belong to a country, not the cosmos, or the universe. Nationalism brought us this far. The United States or Israel would not exist without it, and for that, I am grateful. I am not suggesting that we abandon nationalism. I am proposing that we expand our commitments as loyal citizens to simply include more people, namely, all those with whom we share the planet, not just those who look and speak like us.

So, should we all identify as citizens of the world? Perhaps, but that is not necessary. Cosmopolitanism allows for people of different cultures to live in harmony because it introduces the idea that our moral responsibility is not limited to our own communities. 

My mother likes to say “chessed begins at home.” I agree with her. If we can have a strong impact within our own community, we should focus on that before pursuing to change the world. However, that should not cause us to lose sight of the greater context. Tackling polarization, taking all opinions into consideration regardless of party affiliation, exploring foreign cultures, getting involved in global initiatives — there are endless opportunities for us to invoke our inner cosmopolitan. 

Needless to say, I no longer feel guilty for not being able to give definite responses to complex questions relating to my identity. For now, I’ll focus on being loyal to humanity.


Photo Caption: I am proposing that we expand our commitments as loyal citizens to simply include more people, namely, all those with whom we share the planet, not just those who look and speak like us.

Photo Credit: Pxhere