Elite Cosmopolitanism

Tweet from Anand Giridharadas @AnandWrites Dec 27
Dear @realDonaldTrump,

I'm at a Muslim wedding in a Christian church in NYC, and everyone is dancing to salsa.

America already is great.

That scene may not appeal to everyone: @ClareYChen calls it "a shallow multicultural hellhole where the traditions of different peoples can become reduced to mere window dressing". But to argue against Girdharadas on aesthetic grounds is missing the point. It gives the impression of conceding the implication that the majority of Syrian refugees currently being bused into middle America will likewise be holding salsa-dancing weddings with friends of multiple races and religions; a proposition which could mildly be described as far-fetched. (Not that there necessarily aren't Syrian refugees that would do that, but, inevitably, those that do will end up in New York City or somewhere similar, while the rest of the country will get the rest).

It is normal for elites to be cosmopolitan. Aristocrats married foreigners, collected curiosities from abroad, adopted (playfully or otherwise) ritual and dress of strange religions. (Some, alternatively, studied and promoted their native culture, but that took the form of treating local traditions and folklore in the same way that others approached the exotic).

That normal elite cosmopolitanism may be good or bad—that's an interesting discussion for another day—but either way the elites in the past did not impose their exotica on the common people. George IV built the Royal Pavilion, but he did not import thousands of Indians from Madras to live in Brighton. Christian VII of Denmark commissioned translations of Persian histories, but did not expect his subjects to go to mosques.

Today's elites, unlike those of any previous era, do not even see themselves as elite. They think that everyone is equal, that everybody else should be like them, and assume without hesitation that everyone else could be like them. That produces a disconnection with reality that could become the stuff of legend. The peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake! Flyover people don't want Syrian refugees? Let them dance salsa with them! The apocryphal French princess was probably less out-of-touch.

The interesting question, beyond the immediate concerns, is whether it is even theoretically possible for a whole society to live in the cosmopolitan elite style. If it is only a matter of material wealth or intellectual development, then there is no reason why we couldn't one day all live in multicultural fairyland.

I'm not sure, but the most plausible explanation of why elite culture can only be elite culture is that there has to be a threat of expulsion. If elite culture is universal culture, then there is no way to get rid of unpleasant people; there is nowhere for them to go. I emphasised originally that the NYC culture of Anand Giridharas is a "selected" subculture, but the most important aspect of selection is not the positive filter of who comes into it, but the negative one of who is not ejected from it. The culture of the rural town or the inner city is not an elite culture and cannot be an elite culture, because it is not possible to drive those that do not fit out of it. In those bottom cultures, it is necessary to manage to live alongside those that the elite would exclude, and that involves a range of behaviours to avoid outsiders in ones activities and to reinforce one's own status as an acceptable insider who should not be avoided in turn.