Theresa May isn’t impressed by those who profess to be “citizens of the world.” As the new British prime minister recently put it: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Unsurprisingly, this ruffled some feathers, including those of Prof. Niall Ferguson. Writing in the Sunday Times, the expatriate celebrity intellectual characterized May’s position as a declaration of class war on people like himself.
Ferguson is, in his own words, “a fully paid-up member of the rootless cosmopolitan class,” which he describes this way: “We have at least two passports. We speak at least three languages. And we have at least four homes, not one of them in the town where we were born.” One suspects that he’s winding us up, even if just a little.
Once upon a time, May’s position would have been viewed as entirely uncontroversial. In an early 1960s moment of undergraduate excitement, I declared myself a “citizen of the world.” My father’s response was simple: Which specific global entity was going to pay my old-age pension? Chagrined, I got his point.
People like my father would have viewed some of the arguments for “citizens of the world” as deeply dubious. Take, for instance, the one that posits a powerful link between nationalism and wars of aggression.
Yes, nationalism can be a source of conflict. But feeling a strong identity with your country doesn’t make you a potential invader of others. The Swiss have managed to avoid that temptation for centuries.
Ideology – the desire to impose your vision of an appropriate society – is at least as big an historical killer as nationalism. Think about the millions slaughtered in pursuit of 20th century Marxist nirvanas.
Somehow, though, the concept of radical social engineering never quite goes out of fashion. Nor does it attract the censure that’s increasingly attached to nationalism. While nationalists are held to account, radical social engineers often get mitigating credit for purported good intentions.
But what about the proposition that “citizens of the world” are more outward-looking, tolerant and generous than those with traditional leanings?
Putting aside the world you grew up in can certainly be construed as outward-looking and adventurous. It can also be seen as simply having different tastes, maybe even being a tad rootless.
And if tolerance implies an ability to accept that others can have good faith views and values differing from yours, then “citizens of the world” don’t always cover themselves in empathetic glory. For proof, simply consult the sneering condescension that characterized much of the commentary following the Brexit referendum.
As for generosity, taking advantage of opportunities to pursue your career and interests internationally has no particular moral merit. There’s nothing wrong with it but neither is it a badge of virtue.
In the end, it comes down to your concept of a nation. Perhaps even whether you have such a concept.
May talks about the nation as an extension of family. By definition, these are people to whom you feel a kinship and a degree of responsibility qualitatively different from how you relate to the rest of the world.
It goes all the way back to the idea of the tribe. And it’s one of the oldest relationship models there is.
Although the tribe can be receptive to new members, it requires a commitment resembling that of a marriage. Politically, it also presupposes a country’s right to make laws and control its borders.
In May’s argument, you can still present a friendly, co-operative face to the world and pursue global associations. But being British isn’t akin to belonging to a social club. It’s much deeper, more visceral, than that.
Of course, May’s perspective isn’t the only legitimate way of looking at things. You can make a case for multiple loyalties, open borders, supra-national governance, and the consequent dilution – even abrogation – of national sovereignty.
But if you take that path, don’t be surprised at the pushback. Astonishing as it may seem, not everyone will agree with you, as Theresa May has clearly demonstrated.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.