Monday, January 02, 2006

In the NY Times Magazine?

I do subscribe to the physical Sunday New York Times - it took me until this morning to finally start working through the magazine in yesterday's issue. And what a shock - an article that articulated almost perfectly how I feel about what has been happening in the world the last decades; I do not know who Kwame Anthony Appiah is, but he is a congenial figure to my mind. The fundamental point comes early and I think it is very important:
The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals - not nations, tribes, or "peoples" - as the proper object of moral concern.

I am very grateful that the world I grew up in respected this priority. Surrounded as a child by a 1950s Ontario Protestant, and pretty narrow in many ways, world, I remain infinitely grateful that my parents and their commitment to books, and my high school teachers, all were able to show that there was a much larger world 'out there' than I could otherwise have known. Ironically, as I fought to go out and find that world, it came to us in Canda, and the country changed gloriously.
Section 5 of Appiah's article is in many ways the most mischievous and insightful. It even taught me something about mathematics, my one field of deep expertise. A quotation I had never heard from von Neumann - "in mathematics you don't understand things, you just get used to them" - I find a perfect description of how the field deals with its counter-intuitive outcomes. And Appiah points out a key element of the last decades in the West - "People got used to lesbians and gay men". It has never been a matter of "Charter rights" etc., but always one of accomodation.
He writes
I am urging that we should learn about people in other places ... because it will help us to get used to one another

You should read the original as I have elided material that may make this seem glib and it is not. And he is entirely conscious of hte difficulty of tolerating intolerant cultures:
In Saudi Arabia, people can watch "Will and Grace" on satellite TV - officially proscribed, but available all the same - knowing that, under Saudi law, Will could be beheaded in a public square. In northern Nigeria, mullahs inveighed against polio vaccination while sentencing adulteresses to death by stoning. In India, thousands of wives are burned to death each year for failing to make their dowry payments. Vive la difference? Please.

Along the way he takes on the notion of 'cultural imperialism' and many other ideas raised to suppress individual freedom.
He argues for cosmopolitanism roughly characterizing it as follows:
It is not skepticism about the very idea of truth that guides us; it is realism about how hard the truth is to find. ... Everybody matters; that is our central idea. And again, it sharply limits the scope of our tolerance.

To say what, in principle, distinguishes the cosmopolitan from competing universalisms, we plainly need to go beyond talk of truth and tolerance. One distinctly cosmopolitan commitment is to pluralism. Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them.

Read it all. I plan to go find more of this fellow's writing!
Shortly - off to see the Cotton Bowl and apply what I learned in an earlier NY Times Magazine article!


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