What an effort we folks from the developed world go to to avoid applying the word "migrant" to ourselves. We call ourselves guests, global citizens, citizens of the world, internationals, cosmopolitans - anything but immigrant or emigrant. Why?
My first thought was that it was pure snobbery and pretentiousness. A class bias that allows us to place ourselves a level above the economic migrant from a developing country. We had no need to leave our countries of origin, thank you very much. We went off for adventure and to escape the narrow-minded provincialism of home. A stance that also allows us to simultaneously slap the people we left behind and separate ourselves from our fellow migrants in our host countries who come from less exalted nation-states.
Is that a fair characterization? Not really. It's also not terribly thoughful or kind. Those words - cosmopolitan and global citizen - are aspirational. They describe a kind of person that we want to be. For all the diversity in our pluralistic home societies, they are a shadow of what we find when we leave the safe harbors of home and its organized multi-culturalism. Befriending a person from Vietnam in high school is not the same as going to Vietnam and living there. The first is a meeting on our terms, the second is on theirs.
Where did we get the idea that being a cosmopolitan/global citizen was something to reach for? Well, it's not a new idea at all. Philosopher came up with the first word (kosmopolites = citizen of the cosmos) back in the 4th century B.C. and the idea was incorporated into a very influently philosophical school called Stoicism. Over the centuries it's been up there on our intellectual shelves and various people have picked it up, dusted it off, and used it in ways that were appropriate to the time and the place.
Today it's a philosophy that seems almost tailor-made for globalization. It gives us all the intellectual justification we need to do what we want to do anyway - travel the world, cast off the shackles of our nation-states and gain new more relative perspectives on the human condition. And we get to be better people, too. Fabulous. Works for me.
Or does it?
There is a queasiness in my stomach that prevents me from shouting to the world, "I am a Global Citizen." If the cosmopolitan ideal is ancient, how it's used today is not entirely clear to me. What is a "Global Citizen" exactly? Who qualifies and who doesn't? Who is in and who isn't? The term has to be bounded in some way or it's entirely meaningless.
What it isn't (and I think we can all agree on this) is membership in a political community. Move up one step from the nation-state and it's anarchy, not democracy. Global citizens have nothing and no one to vote for. There is no parliament or other institutions at the international level where a "citizen of the cosmos" can be directly represented. To be blunt, the term simply isn't grounded in political reality. And since we know that world government is not in the cards now and for the forseeable future, clearly we mean something else when we use the term.
I suspect we started using the word "Global Citizen" because "cosmopolitan" had a bad connotation in some circles. It does feel a bit pretentious to my American ears. It conjures up visions of jet-setters, the idle rich and intellectual snobs writing terrible poetry in cafes on the Left Bank in Paris. Again, that's not fair but I do think it's accurate to say that "Global Citizen" sounds lofty but retains a sort of neutrality and openness (citizens are supposed to be equals, right?) "Internationals" is another one that I find fairly neutral as well.
So then what do we mean we we call ourselves "Global Citizens"? Think of it as a container and here it gets interesting because I don't think we would all agree on the content.
Is it a person with at least two passports? Is it a person who has lived for a long time abroad? Is it a polygot? Is it an individual who comes from a pluralistic society and is open to the world? Does the term only apply to the world traveller or can it be a person who never left his home country? Can it simply be someone who wants to be part of a "world community"? If so, then what is this community in which we aspire to be members? It is every person in every place around the globe or is it a small group of enlightened like-minded people? Is global citizenship an ideology, a utopian vision or a hard-minded practical "this is way the world simply is in an era of globalization" and so we had better get used to it by learning to be "cosmopolitans."
I don't know and the more I think about it, the more confused I get. Recently I delved into a book with a rather jaundiced look at "Global Citizens" which didn't answer the questions I asked above but did give me another way to think about it. Jeffrey Dill derives his analysis of global citizenship from a look at what we are teaching our children about it. If that idea is going to be part of a curriculum, then there has to be a definition of what it means. Otherwise, it makes no sense at all. He looked at international schools and teachers in North America and Asia and tried to discern just what kind of person these schools wanted these kids to be. He found this: moral education and global competencies. Two very different things that nonetheless, he argues, converge in interesting ways.
The moral aspect is the development of a global consciousness: "This global consciousness includes an awareness of other perspectives, a vision of oneself as part of a global community of humanity as a whole, and a moral conscience to act for the good of the world."
The economic aspect is "the skills and knowledge believed to be necessary to achieve prosperity in a highly competitive, and fundamentally new and different global marketplace."
That is a damn good definition.
Underneath it all is the idea of liberation: a global perspective that means freedom from culture, nation-state, language group, religious affiliation, local job markets and so on. Dill argues that the goal here is a detachment from group identities be they national or regional, religious or cultural, linguistic or ethical. All of these differences are submerged in such a way, he says, that we can treat them as essentially meaningless, and the attachments people have become quaint amusing individual characteristics.
This is not new he says, and his argument is that there is nothing particularly global about it at all. It is a reflection of Western ideas: "Western Enlightenment liberalism, a blend of expressive Romanticism and utilitarian self-interest." The West has been trying to make people just like them for centuries and this is just another attempt at it.
Furthermore, he says that the moral education ties in quite beautifully with what multi-national corporations wants to see in their future workforce. An assertion that I really didn't think was at all valid until he showed just how influential international organizations like the OECD, global corporations like Cisco, HP and Microsoft, and even labor unions are in the school systems. What are the skills they want? "Creativity and innovation, critical thinking and collaboration, information/media literacy, flexibility and adaptability, cross-cultural skills and global awareness."
Nothing wrong with any of that and I do think he goes too far almost into the realm of conspiracy theory. Where I agree with him is that we should be a little more aware of the interests being served by "global citizenship" curricula and to think a little harder about the implications of our ideas.
Going back to our discussion about why first-world immigrants/emigrants have such a hard time with the word "migrant", could it be because we have have gone out into the world having internalized this ideology of radical individualism and "contingent commitments"? We want to be liberated from our old identities - hell, we've been told that this is what we should aspire to. And on the road to becoming something else - something higher - migration is the most drastic way we have to achieve that kind of freedom from our former attachments and loyalties (ones we have been taught are not really very important). It's not about money or economic opportunity - it's about casting off all the constraints we lived under in our home countries and cultures that we felt prevented us from realizing who we truly are.
But here's the thing: I don't think that our nation-states or cultures, however multi-cultural, pluralist or diverse they are, ever really meant for its people to leave permanently or for them to completely cast off national values. That an American leaves temporarily, gets some international experience, and then comes home to enrich the homeland is a good thing. That an American leaves, builds a completely new and successful life elsewhere, and starts questioning fundamental American values like Free Speech and the superiority of the U.S. Constitution or acquires a different perspective on sexual equality, is not OK.
And yet that's what often happens on the path to becoming a "Global Citizen." If society forms its members with a hefty dose of relativism, it should not surprise anyone that this is how they will approach the world and live in it. Liberation, in this context, can actually mean freedom from the Western values, identities and people we've grown up with (not to mention they've handed out the global skillsets and travel documents that make it possible to go out into the world in the first place.) Is it not then a bit hypocritical for home country nationals to turn around and say, "Wait a minute, you have responsibilities. You have attachments. You owe us your allegiance. Can't you can be "global" at home like everybody else?"
Good luck with that....