Give us your tired, your poor cosmopolitans

A new term of political insult from the White House carries some serious baggage.

Mark Lennihan/AP
A New York Water Taxi motors across New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty on Aug. 8, 2017, in New York.

Just when our vocabulary of political invective was looking a bit tired, the White House has provided a fresh new term of insult.

The trouble is, it isn’t quite clear just what the insulter meant. And it may not really be all that fresh.

A CNN reporter in the White House briefing room a few weeks ago took issue with the administration’s new immigration proposal on the grounds that (to paraphrase) it seems not quite to square with the Emma Lazarus ideal, as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor....” It’s too focused on people who already speak English, for one thing, and on people who work in tech, for another.

To which a White House adviser responded that the reporter was showing his “cosmopolitan bias.” Cosmopolitan bias! Fightin’ words – or are they? What does cosmopolitan even mean, anyway?

As an adjective, it means “Having worldwide rather than limited or provincial scope or bearing,” according to Merriam-Webster, which reported a spike in lookups for the word after the briefing-room episode. 

Cosmopolitan goes back to the mid-19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: John Stuart Mill wrote of “capital ... becoming more and more cosmopolitan,” for instance. But Oxford traces an earlier form, cosmopolite, a noun meaning “citizen of the world” (figuratively, of course), back to 1614, and observes: “Common in the 17th c.; but apparently revived early in the 19th c., and often contrasted with patriot, and so either reproachful or complimentary. To this 19th c. revival nearly all the derivatives belong.”

Thus Thomas Macaulay, in his “History of England,” wrote of “[t]hat cosmopolitan indifference to constitutions and religions which is often observable in persons whose life has been passed in vagrant diplomacy.”

So the case for cosmopolitanism (dating to 1828) is implicitly broadmindedness, openness to the world, freedom from limitation. The case against it would be the claim that cosmopolitans pay insufficient attention to tending home fires, to taking part, to being where they are. The poet Tennyson suggested a way to square the circle, in a line also quoted in Oxford: “That man’s the best Cosmopolite, Who loves his native country best.”

Ah, but cosmopolitan has a bit more baggage than that, as columnist Jeff Greenfield has argued in Politico. It’s long been used as an accusation, often an anti-Semitic one, of disloyalty, of “otherness” – notably by Stalin during his efforts to purge Soviet culture of dissident voices, many of them Jewish.

In an appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program, following up on his Politico piece, Mr. Greenfield took care to acknowledge that he hadn’t meant to suggest that the White House staffer, one of the group euphemistically known as the administration’s “nationalists,” meant “cosmopolitan” as an anti-Semitic slur, since he is himself Jewish. Some conservative media had exploded with glee at the absurdity of that.

The phrase still seems, though, a political dog whistle, meant to divide us and them – even if the dogs aren’t sure they’re being whistled to.

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