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Rooted Cosmopolitanism in a Decadent Time
Beyond tribalism and decline
ROOTED COSMOPOLITANISM IN A DECADENT TIME
Beyond tribalism and decline
I consider “rooted cosmopolitanism” as a concept to be key to functioning well in this time of decadence, this time of transition from an old order or paradigm, into something new and different. I’ve written on this idea before (see “Duke Ellington’s Rooted Cosmopolitanism” and “Reading Albert Murray in the Age of Uncertainty”) and have spoken about it in numerous interviews and panel discussions since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. This concept was also the main theme of a conversation between me and psychologist Mark Forman in 2017, “Race, Rooted Cosmopolitanism, and Hope in the 21st Century.”
I call our current time decadent not only because images of violence have been the norm in R-rated movies for decades, and not just because pimp and whore songs now routinely win popular awards, parading dick- and pussy-ology as commodities in the mainstream pornification of the secular public sphere. Whole industries exploit sexuality for profit as “liberal” cultural critics and commentators pose and primp such sexploitation as supposedly liberatory. Correct me if I’m wrong, but somehow I don’t think Cardi B’s “WAP” song, featuring Megan Thee Stallion, is quite what feminists and womanists had in mind as they fought for the rights of women against patriarchy in the 19th through the 20th century.
Though the above is perhaps all the evidence one might need to validate a claim of this being a decadent time, let’s prosecute the case a bit further.
The Fall of Empires
According to Sir John Glubb in The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, empires (from the Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman—first as republic, then as empire—to Arab, Mamluk, Ottoman, Spain, Romanov Russia, and Britain) usually last approximately ten generations, or 250 years. The United States has been officially in existence for 247 years.
Here are the phases that empires go through, according to Glubb: an Age of Pioneers, followed by an Age of Conquest and an Age of Commercial expansion. An Age of Affluence is next, where money replaces honor and adventure for ambitious young people, and educational qualifications that command the highest salaries becomes the goal. This age can be summed up as going from service to selfishness. The Age of Intellect follows, with scientific discoveries and mental cleverness replacing sacrifice and service. The final age is an Age of Decadence.
Decadence is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, the welfare state, and a weakening of religion. Sir John Glubb writes:
The heroes of declining nations are always the same—the athlete, the singer or the actor. The word ‘celebrity’ today is used to designate a comedian or a football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary genius.
The causes of decadence, of mental and moral deterioration? Too long a period of wealth and power, selfishness, love of money, and the loss of a sense of duty.
Choices: Another Dark Age or An Age of Freedom?
Rev. Michael Beckwith of the Agape International Spiritual Center is a great spiritual leader of our times. He describes decadence as “being out of cadence with what’s trying to emerge.” The United States and Western nations are in a phase shift, a liminal space, in between an old status quo and what above I called something “new and different.”
Although Glubb identified patterns in history, our ability to reflect on the past and to exercise choice and wise decision-making now means that we don’t have to resign ourselves to an inevitable fall into another dark age. In fact, according to consultants James Arbib and Tony Seba in their 2020 report, Rethinking Humanity, we can avoid the fate of past empires and civilizations and actually achieve an Age of Freedom.
The opening lines of the book’s Executive Summary:
We are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history, a transformation every bit as significant as the move from foraging to cities and agriculture 10,000 years ago.
If you think this statement is hyperbole, or are just curious, I dare you to get and read a free copy of this report.
Arbib and Seba identify five foundational sectors—information, energy, food, transportation, and materials—that underpin the global economy. In this very decade, the authors predict, there will be a convergence of technologies that disrupt these sectors, with costs falling by ten times or more, “while production processes an order of magnitude (10x) more efficient will use 90% fewer natural resources with 10x-100x less waste. The prevailing production system will shift away from a model of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that require vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks—a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits.”
The authors back up these claims with a phenomenal historical and technological analysis that amounts to “the beginning of the third age of humankind—the Age of Freedom.”
Imagine: within 10-15 years, every single person on earth could have all their basic needs for food, energy, transportation, information, and shelter met for $250-$300 per month. This is not a fantasy utopia: the direction of the technological shifts that are occurring right now can make this a reality. But techno-optimism isn’t enough. We also need what they call an “Organizing System” with organizational capabilities that work in tandem with technological capabilities.
The Organizing System encompasses both the fundamental beliefs, institutions, and reward systems that enable optimal decisions to be taken across a society, and the structures that manage, control, govern, and influences its population.
To meet the challenge of the massive disruptions in the five fundamental sectors requires mindsets and perspectives different from those in charge of the current status quo in government and industry; required is an adaptive, resilient, and improvisational mindset. Incumbents of the status quo benefiting from the current political and economic makeup of American society are more likely to look to the past for solutions to our meta-crisis or to hunker down in gated communities with security forces to protect them from the masses who don’t benefit nearly as much as they do.
Increasing wealth gap, anyone?
Rooted Cosmopolitanism: Necessary in Our Liminal Space
The authors of Rethinking Humanity argue that we have a stark choice: “collapse into a new dark age or move to a new Organizing System that allows us to flourish in a new Age of Freedom. Such a move will not be easy—we will need to rethink not just the structures and institutions that manage society, but the very concepts they are built on” [emphasis added]. (This need to rethink outworn concepts points to why I and other colleagues in the deracialization movement implore that we—as individuals, groups, and as a society—rethink and replace the concept of race, the process of racialization, and a decadent racial worldview.)
Arbib and Seba follow by suggesting that in light of the breakdowns and shifts and possibilities before us, we may need to even rethink representative democracy, capitalism, and nation-states.
I propose the concept of rooted cosmopolitanism as an idea that can smooth the transition. The concept has been developed extensively by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in works such as The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Appiah doesn’t confine himself to the hallowed halls of academe—he’s a public intellectual with a weekly Ethics column in the New York Times Magazine.
Before quoting Appiah, let’s contrast the idea with its opposite, shadow concept: “rootless cosmopolitan.” Though the expression was coined in the 19th century, it gained nefarious antisemitic traction through a speech by Joseph Stalin in 1946 in which he attacked Jewish writers for lack of allegiance to the Soviet Union. Being a “citizen of the world” (cosmopolitan), in this polarized worldview, means that one has no allegiance to being local or members of a nation.
But such a racist connotation is silly. Is it possible to be committed to the one’s local neighborhood, region, and nation as well as devoted to human-wide and planetary issues? Of course. As Appiah writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The False Divide Between Locals and Citizens of the World”:
Real cosmopolitans—that is, people whose moral concern extends to everyone on our small planet—are rooted cosmopolitans, and because they prize conversations across cultures, they’re no friends of uniformity. All this follows from [Josiah] Royce’s point about a wise provincialism: The focused care and concern we have for those near to us doesn’t clash with having care and concern for the planet and its inhabitants. Every life is a negotiation between the small scale and the large.
Political philosopher Danielle Allen and sociologist Angel Adams Parham further elaborate upon Appiah’s vision in a chapter titled “Achieving Rooted Cosmopolitanism in a Digital Age” in From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age:
A rooted cosmopolitan understands the value of community and what he acquires from membership in a community; consequently, he expands his own understanding of self-interest to include preservation of the community from which he takes those benefits. This is the sense in which he is rooted. He is a cosmopolitan in recognizing the globe as one of the communities to which he belongs and making the preservation of that global community a matter of self-interest.
Importantly, and even paradoxically, preserving that that global community requires responsiveness to the particular local interests of the other members of the global community . . . .
The value of the concept of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ is precisely the relationship it establishes between self and other. This ideal seeks to identify a developmental trajectory along which self-interest becomes an expressive, communitarian phenomenon involving negotiation among the demands of multiple nested communities. [emphasis added]
The cliché “think globally, act locally” has a ring of truth to it now, wouldn’t you agree? This kind of mindset and perspective will be necessary to expand beyond the parochial tribalism and greedy neglect tearing apart our social fabric.
Greg Thomas is CEO of the Jazz Leadership Project, a firm that uses the principles and practices of jazz music to enhance leadership success and team excellence in organizations such as JPMorgan Chase, Verizon, Center for Policing Equity, TD Bank, and Google. Greg is a professional writer and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Evolution. In November 2022, he produced and co-facilitated the second annual Omni-American Future Project award ceremony. He blogs at Tune In To Leadership. He co-authored a freely available book, Reimaging American Identity with his partner, Jewel Kinch-Thomas, and Amiel Handelsman. His interviews and articles have appeared previously in the Journal of Free Black Thought: “Jazz, the Omni-American Ideal, and a Future Beyond Bigotry,” “Reimagining American Identity,” “Can Civic Jazz Resolve the American Dilemma?,” and “Deracialization Now.”