The ugly history of Stephen Miller’s ‘cosmopolitan’ epithet

Jeff Greenfield writes: When TV news viewers saw Trump adviser Stephen Miller accuse Jim Acosta of harboring a “cosmopolitan bias” during Wednesday’s news conference, they might have wondered whether he was accusing the CNN White House reporter of an excessive fondness for the cocktail made famous on “Sex and the City.” It’s a term that’s seldom been heard in American political discourse. But to supporters of the Miller-Bannon worldview, it was a cause for celebration. Breitbart, where Steve Bannon reigned before becoming Trump’s chief political strategist, trumpeted Miller’s “evisceration” of Acosta and put the term in its headline. So did white nationalist Richard Spencer, who hailed Miller’s dust-up with Acosta as “a triumph.”

Why does it matter? Because it reflects a central premise of one key element of President Donald Trump’s constituency—a premise with a dark past and an unsettling present.

So what is a “cosmopolitan”? It’s a cousin to “elitist,” but with a more sinister undertone. It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality. (In this sense, the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine might have been an early American cosmopolitan, when he declared: “The world is my country; all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”). In the eyes of their foes, “cosmopolitans” tend to cluster in the universities, the arts and in urban centers, where familiarity with diversity makes for a high comfort level with “untraditional” ideas and lives.

For a nationalist, these are fighting words. Your country is your country; your fellow citizens are your brethren; and your country’s traditions—religious and otherwise— should be yours. A nation whose people—especially influential people—develop other ties undermine national strength, and must be repudiated.

One reason why “cosmopolitan” is an unnerving term is that it was the key to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to purge the culture of dissident voices. In a 1946 speech, he deplored works in which “the positive Soviet hero is derided and inferior before all things foreign and cosmopolitanism that we all fought against from the time of Lenin, characteristic of the political leftovers, is many times applauded.” It was part of a yearslong campaigned aimed at writers, theater critics, scientists and others who were connected with “bourgeois Western influences.” Not so incidentally, many of these “cosmopolitans” were Jewish, and official Soviet propaganda for a time devoted significant energy into “unmasking” the Jewish identities of writers who published under pseudonyms.

What makes this history relevant is that, all across Europe, nationalist political figures are still making the same kinds of arguments—usually but not always stripped of blatant anti-Semitism—to constrict the flow of ideas and the boundaries of free political expression. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has more and more embraced this idea that unpatriotic forces threaten the nation. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Facebooktwittermail

All comments are moderated. Only those that are constructive and relevant will be approved. Name and email address required -- your name will appear publicly while your email address will be kept private. To contact the editor directly, use the contact form (click "contact" at the top of the page).

*