Like millions of others, I yearn for the cessation of aggressive binary discourse and spiralling wars that have all but killed the buoyancy of the new millennium. This is definably the age of zealotry, not the first in history but the most dangerous, as nuclear arms proliferate and cultural divides deepen rapidly as if to spite globalised trade and communication. In previous periods of absolutism and certainties, great minds arose to resist brute forces and propaganda. Where are the sages when you need them? We desperately seek thinkers to bind us, to stand between perpetually clashing civilizations.
Kwame Anthony Appiah takes up the challenge. He writes with luminous clarity and avoids scholarly pomp, using his own life to animate complex ideas. The central creed he promulgates is universalist, going back to the Greeks and the Cynics in the 4th century BC. They rejected parochial or country loyalties for a greater good. The civilized, they believed, had to learn to be citizens of the cosmos. St Paul, Kant, Voltaire cherished commonalities between humans. Appiah goes further still: "...we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind." To acquire this empathy we must engage in vigorous conversation. The end is not relativism but collective values. It is never grudging "tolerance".
Cosmopolitanism, in its reconstructed meaning, says Appiah, provokes attacks from the left for whom it is dilettante and elitist. The right despises it because cosmopolitans make bad nationalists and patriots. All authoritarians detest the internationalist spirit. Hitler and Stalin launched regular invectives against "rootless cosmopolitans". Think now on the attacks by Blair and co on "the chattering classes".
Appiah was born into cosmopolitanism. His extraordinary English mother married his Ghanaian Asante father, a barrister, later an elder in the Methodist church of Ghana where Apiah was raised: "In the final message my father left for me and my sisters, he wrote, 'Remember you are citizens of the world.'" To live this reality is to search for meanings, ways of seeing, ultimately to find durable moral answers. Appiah gets us to consider controversial issues in the round - female genital mutilation, blood transfusion for Jehovah's Witnesses, many more. He evaluates the values inherent in language itself. You come away more sober and mature, hopefully a bit better at reaching opinions.
But a savant he is not, not in this book at least. The Professor of Philosophy at the Centre for Human Values, Princeton no less, is not as bold as he could have been. A crucial treatise is rendered impotent by neat self censorship and a surfeit of facts. He elegantly turns away from the implications of his advocacy, in particular for the US. Why the silence on the sanctions and war against Iraq? How come there is no substantial analysis of Israel's increasingly obdurate Zionism?
By not applying his brilliant mind to the most volatile situations, his mission loses heat and urgency. This volume ends up being a nice book for good people. He confesses: "This book is not a contribution to the debates about the true face of globalisation. I'm a philosopher by trade and philosophers rarely write useful books." And that's the pity of it all. As Marx said: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's latest book, 'Some of My Best Friends Are...', is published by Politico'sReuse content