Opinion: Be Cosmopolitan or Leave

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Many people have seen the iconic Dr. Bob signs all around New Orleans proclaiming ‘Be Nice or Leave.’ Many variations on that wording have cropped up over the years. A common variant, for example, in Dr. Bob’s own Bywater neighborhood, is ‘Be Gay or Leave.’ At a time when Donald Trump’s Republican Party is singling out America’s great cities for abuse, from Baltimore to Chicago to New Orleans, we should ask visitors to “Be Cosmopolitan or Leave.”

I say this because the word ‘cosmopolitan’ has cropped up lately as a smear term that Republicans hope will be able to evade charges of racism, though I don’t see how. At the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. in July, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley called out the “cosmopolitan elite” who allegedly conspire to suppress the interests of average working Americans in the heartland. He averred that you can’t be a “citizen of the world” and also be an American, thus forcing Americans to take sides in an all-out war between the United States and everywhere else. It should be obvious, too, that his understanding of “American” culture is freakishly monochromatic, ignoring the whole long history of America’s great cities in favor of a historically nonexistent 1950s TV fantasy of American identity. 

Many commentators were quick to note the anti-semitic history of the “cosmopolitan” trope, and they weren’t wrong, but there is reason to excoriate anti-cosmopolitan resentment even if it had no history as a code for Jew-hating. Republicans today seem content to argue that their smear campaigns are not rooted in racism or anti-Semitism. But their animosities are reprehensible anyway, quite apart from the question of whether they are racist, sexist, or anti-semitic. Donald Trump and his GOP enablers in Louisiana and elsewhere, for example, insist that his call for four American lawmakers “to go back” to the countries they came from was not racist, even though all were women of color. OK, but can we agree that the rhetoric is anti-immigrant, then? By the same token, if we do concede that his attack on African-American Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings (and the city he represents) is not “racist,” can’t we agree that it’s anti-urban? 

National Review editor Rich Lowry defended Josh Hawley’s tirade against “cosmopolitan elites” by arguing that it isn’t necessarily anti-semitic. It’s just anti-intellectual, anti-urban, and anti-integrationist. Lowry quotes sympathetic definitions of ‘cosmopolitan’ by left-leaning intellectuals, like Kwame Anthony Appiah, who sees the great challenge facing the world today as the need “to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.” 

I can agree with Lowry that this is a fine definition of a cosmopolitan sentiment. It means that people of different cultural backgrounds should find a way to live together and celebrate each other’s differences. Every American who enjoys the choice of dinner at a Thai, Mexican, Ethiopian, Cajun, Italian, Chinese, French, Honduran, Israeli, Vietnamese, Lebanese, or Creole restaurant, also has a cosmopolitan aspect to their personality. But I can’t agree with Lowry, Hawley, or Trump that there’s something bad about the inclination to acknowledge the legitimacy and value of a wide range of world cultures. I still can’t believe that they are asking Republicans to choose between white protestant Christian rural U.S. culture and every other culture that thrives not only around the world but in this country, too. 

The Trump takeover of the GOP is forcing formerly thoughtful and, yes, cosmopolitan Republicans to take such ugly stands, but we need to ask why. Why do Trump supporters want so much to hear about how evil these “cosmopolitan elites” in the cities are? 

The answer lies in the two pillars of the Trump electoral coalition: white rural voters and white flight suburban voters. These groups have something in common, and I’m not talking about racism. They both suffer from cultural inferiority complexes that feed resentment. They both feel that they have been wrongfully ignored by the media they love to hate. Recall that Trump’s rallying cry at the 2016 Republican convention was “I will be your voice.” They finally have a 3rd-rate celebrity who acknowledges them. Now they get to be on TV. Now cosmopolitan urban “elites” can’t look down their noses at them anymore. 

We still need to identify more clearly who exactly this cosmopolitan elite, the source of all American suffering, is. For traditional white supremacists, yes, it’s the Jews. But a symbolic “Jew” of white supremacist rhetoric is not the same as a real Jew. So White House adviser Stephen Miller, who is Jewish, can rightly point out that his own excoriation of “cosmopolitans” is not intended to refer to actual Jewish people. 

American historian Richard Hofstadter explained the “cosmopolitan” trope way back in a 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and we would do well to consult it once more, now that the culture wars of the 1960s are again suddenly upon us. In his words, Hawley’s and Miller’s “cosmopolitan” is “a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.” This “cosmopolitan intellectual,” in the mind of the cultural conservative, also “controls the press.” Finally, Hofstadter identifies that secret longing of the cultural conservatives to become like their enemies. This last tendency explains well the apparent contradiction of ostensibly media-hating people choosing a media celebrity as their champion while submitting slavishly to a media behemoth they somehow manage to misconstrue as alternative (Fox News). 

There’s another contradiction in the anti-urban conservative mind that needs to be ironed out. Are cities “rat-infested” dumps where “no human being would want to live?” Or are they arrogant enclaves of overly privileged “elites?” 

The answer is yes, to both questions. There’s a sense among white cultural conservatives that their own culture is unfairly overlooked or disdained in favor of both elite, highly educated culture and vernacular cultures of non-white races. This is the cultural analog to the old “Bourbon coalition” diagnosed by 19th Century Southern populists, an alleged symbiosis between the elite white planter class and the poor blacks they needed to work their land (at the expense of working-class whites). Today’s Republican Party has resurrected the cultural populism of a century ago, especially its nativist and anti-urban elements, while ditching the economic populism that used to go along with it (because the GOP continues, as always, to serve the interests of capital over labor). 

Clearly, New Orleans has stood for centuries as the cosmopolitan capital of the region. It has long been characterized by protestant conservative Southerners as “sinister…sensual, luxury-loving.” Portraits of decadent Creole aristocrats or sybaritic Afro-Creole temptresses filled the bill in the 19th Century. Indeed, New Orleans has the distinction of being a polyglot racial melting pot from the moment it became an American city, when English was not the first or even second language, and when the large population of free people of color caused newly arrived American General James Wilkinson to demand immediate reinforcements from Washington. Later, in the Storyville Era, the city was excoriated for having places where “male and female, black and yellow, and even white, meet on terms of equality and abandon themselves to the extreme limit of obscenity and lasciviousness” (quoted in Alecia P. Long, Southern Journeys, ed. Richard D. Starnes, 2003, p. 17). 

It should be clear that anti-cosmopolitanism, emphasizing as it does that everyone should remain in clearly delineated tribal groupings, is segregationist, even if we choose to believe segregationist claims, from George Wallace to David Duke, that they are not also racist. 

But there’s also a more contemporary sense of loss impacting suburban white conservatives’ resentment of New Orleans, which is quite different from the average rural anti-urban fear and loathing.  It became clear in 2017, when New Orleans removed its Confederate monuments, that many suburban white conservatives felt on some level that someone had taken New Orleans from them, even though they or their ancestors had elected to leave decades earlier. The historical parallel is the Old South myth that the yankees had robbed the South of its culture (when it’s truer to say that the ‘Old South’ culture they missed was in fact fabricated decades after the fact, in memory). The old Bourbon coalition of the Southern populist imagination has been re-figured, but only slightly. Undeserving black people are still a target of ire (as Trump’s tweets make clear), but, since the racist white imagination sees them as incapable of agency, someone else has to be “cheating” (the ubiquitous urban “corruption” conservatives love to harp on) by helping them. For the David Duke types, on the national level, it’s Jews. But at the local level, conservative suburbanites like to indict newer, post-Katrina white transplants, who celebrate black New Orleans street culture, but who show little interest in the bland version of average America on Veterans Boulevard. 

While Trump supporters nationally challenge the authenticity of more recently arrived Americans (and their cosmopolitan enablers), local white suburban conservatives challenge the authenticity of newly arrived New Orleanians. In a recent comment section at The Lens, a conservative commenter challenged the local cred of a more liberal commenter with “Where you from? Cleveland? Most Suburban New Orleanians are way more Yat than a transplant from Ohio. The city would probably be much better if those people could vote in New Orleans, but rules are rules.” (The “transplant” he was attacking turned out to be from Metairie). 

So the rage against “cosmopolitans” has a couple of roots. One is the suspicion that urban cosmopolitans give an unfair assist to non-white or non-American people when the duty of all native-born Americans (and white people) should be to “America first.” The other, deeper reason is that Trump-supporting white people feel snubbed by a thriving globalized culture that singles them out for non-recognition. In New Orleans, that sense of being left out is exacerbated by a global celebration of a New Orleans culture that does not include them. 

Remember, though, how right Hofstadter was to call such sentiments “paranoid.” The beauty of cosmopolitanism, in New Orleans especially, is that all contributors to the proverbial “gumbo” are welcome and celebrated—except those who challenge the rights of others to be included. Trump supporters are deeply disliked by so many Americans only because they demand to be recognized as more legitimately American than the rest of us. White flight conservatives around New Orleans play a similar game with New Orleans identity, claiming that people who don’t even live in New Orleans are somehow more New Orleanian than people who live here. Like all conservative anti-cosmopolitans, they must reify the culture they claim to love in a way that is inauthentic for culture in general, which is always blending and evolving. Culture, in other words, is always cosmopolitan–and the culture of New Orleans today is a shining example. If you don’t like it, leave.


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