Rootless cosmopolitanism: good or bad?

The Guardian recently had a profile of Tony Judt, the author of Postwar, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease (a kind of motor neurone disorder) and described the nature of the illness in an extraordinary, moving essay, entitled “Night”, in the New York Review of Books recently. One thing that particularly struck me in Ed Pilkington’s piece was his description of Judt as a “rootless cosmopolitan” – a phrase that Judt has himself used to describe Edward Said. Since reading the piece, I’ve been thinking about that phrase and what it means. In particular, is being a rootless cosmopolitan a good thing?

What Pilkington does not spell out (it’s not clear whether he was even aware of it) is that the term “rootless cosmopolitan” has a long history. It was originally used to describe Jewish intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the era of Stalin. The implication of the term was that Soviet Jews were insufficiently loyal to the Soviet Union because of their sympathy for the newly-formed state of Israel, although accusations about Jews’ lack of patriotism go back much further than that – for example to 19th-century France. For Judt – a Jewish intellectual – to use the term to describe Said – a Palestinian – was therefore doubly (and, knowing Judt, deliberately) ironic.

The concept’s origin as a anti-Semitic term makes it tempting to reclaim it as Pilkington (definitely) and Judt (I think) tried to. But should the idea of rootless cosmopolitanism be something to aspire to? Judt’s application of the term to Said makes sense partly because of the specific circumstances of his life: Said was not just an exile but an exile from a stateless people. According to Judt, a Palestinian like Said lacks even the “remembered – more often misremembered – homeland that anchors that transported individual or community in time if not in space”. In the essay (reprinted in the collection Reappraisals. Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century) in which Judt used the term, he says that Said “quite lacked the sort of uninterrogated affiliation to a country or idea that allows the activist or ideologue to subsume any means to a single end”.

But isn’t it possible to have an interrogated, as opposed to uninterrogated, affiliation to a country? Judt also quotes Said as saying late in his life that “I have still not been able to understand what it means to love a country”. But is there not the possibility of a liberal nationalism that recognizes one’s attachment to a particular country without automatically becoming chauvinistic (especially if one thinks of roots as routes, as Stuart Hall has suggested)? In fact, it seems to me that, although he said he could not understand what it meant to love a country, Said was in fact a kind of Palestinian nationalist. Surely he loved Palestine, if only as an “imaginary community”? Conversely, he must surely have in another sense loved America, where he had lived since the fifties?

Such an interrogated affiliation to a particular country need also not be exclusive. In my own case (Indian father, Dutch mother, born and grew up in Britain, also lived in Germany and the US), it’s not so much that I don’t understand what it means to love a country but that I love several of them at the same time and in different ways. Like a lot of people – not just Jews in the Soviet Union – I have split loyalties. But does that make me a rootless cosmopolitan? Or just a promiscuous nationalist?


3 thoughts on “Rootless cosmopolitanism: good or bad?

  1. Pingback: Judt on revolutionaries « Hans Kundnani

  2. Pingback: Past and present « Hans Kundnani

  3. Pingback: Late nationalism « Hans Kundnani

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