Delight Springs

Monday, April 17, 2017


My block in Human Migration (MALA 6010), "The Human Journey to Cosmopolitanism," continues.

We began last week with the genetic science and anthropological mapping that documents our common lineage. We're all related, as the native Americans knew without benefit of population genetics, but now we can prove it. We'll glance back, with a look at our Spencer Wells posts, and then maybe do a little peripatetic migrating ourselves before the sun sets.

Nice genetics poem today at Writers Almanac, btw, prefaced by Richard Dawkins: "There is no gene which single-handedly builds a leg, long or short. Building a leg is a multi-gene cooperative enterprise." As is building a society. 

Also noteworthy: it's Isak Dinesen's birthday. She wrote Out of Africa, before we knew we all were.

This week we turn to the philosopher and ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah's (emhasis on the first syllable) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. His main message is nicely condensed in the shortest (if not simplest) answer to the question "Whose people made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, and the Sistine Chapel?": ours.

Krista Tippett's On Being conversation with Appiah, largely about how much he invests in the very concept of conversation itself as our last best tool of reconciliation and mutual comprehension (though decidedly not consensus), is typically self-validating.
How can unimaginable social change happen in a world of strangers? Appiah is a philosopher who studies ethics and his parents’ marriage helped inspire the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In a tense moment in American life, he has refreshing advice on simply living with difference... (play episode
You do have to hear their conversation and not just read the transcript, to catch its nuance and its full humanity. But his best advice is to "sidle up" the big and divisive conversations by first establishing a context of trust through more mundane and unifying ones. Our differences over politics or religion will be less likely to spoil and end conversation after we've discussed, say, our shared love of baseball - even though you're a Cubs fan (like Younger Daughter) and I prefer the Cardinals (who couldn't buy a win against Older Daughter's Yankees this weekend).

Appiah is a respected advice-giver, having inherited "The Ethicist" weekly column in the New York Times Magazine. He sidles up to questions like: "Should a Family Member Expose a Niece’s Fake Food Allergy? My Friend Is Bankrupting Herself. Should I Speak Up? What Should You Do WIth Your Father's Nazi Keepsake? Should You Tell Uber Your Driver Wasw High? Can Therapists Fake Their Own Online Reviews? Is it OK to Marry an Amnesiac?" Dear Abby, Dear Abby. A recent sample reply characteristically pulls no punches.

The very idea of morality, thinks the ethicist, imposes global responsibilities. But our hearts and minds were formed locally and tribally. Our challenge, then, is to learn to think and act both globally and locally, to be true not only to our smaller tribes but also to the all-inclusive one that reaches "each person we know about and can affect," which in this wired world of instant information means everyone. That's not so slick on a sticker but it's true.

How deliciously ironic, that Cynics - Diogenes and his tribe - get credit for coining the concept of cosmopolitanism, and articulating the aspiration to be a citizen of the cosmos. The word may by now have acquired connotations of condescension, for some, but it's as noble an ideal as we've got. 

The irony continued with the Stoics, who "proved congenial" to many Christians even while the empire still sought to suppress them. Marcus Aurelius's Stoic humanism looked good in writing but lost something in translation to public policy. And that's still a problem, when the humane aspect of global understanding collides with the economic reality of globalism as corporate enterprise.

Appiah on Cosmopolitanism (video)... Appiah's personal philosophy (Big Think)... Is religion good or bad? (TED Talk)... Identity & cosmopolitanism (interview)... cosmopolitanism @dawn

6:30/6:12, 63/78/59, 7:20

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