In the elegant Wiener Börsensäle, the historic former stock exchange in a city whose vulnerability to Islam symbolized tensions between Europe and Muslim culture for centuries, Buruma spoke on “The Virtues and Limits of Cosmopolitanism,” presenting sophisticated context for an idea at the core of Obama’s approach in Cairo.
Cosmopolitanism is a “tricky” notion, Buruma observed. In one regard, we think of it as “a positive term denoting a high degree of cultivation and even glamour.” We recognize, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, that it connotes “ease in many different countries and cultures.” In another regard, Buruma noted, the “same word, spoken with a sneer and contempt,” and often preceded by “bourgeois” or “rootless,” played an ugly role in Nazi and Soviet propaganda. In that slanderous argot, the “cosmopolitan,” being “of too many places,” simply “cannot be one of us” — whoever we may be.
Buruma’s etymology lesson, appropriately offered in a “Jan Patocka Memorial Lecture” honoring the Prague Spring philosopher who inspired Václav Havel’s own openmindedness, suggests the delicate intellectual maneuver Obama tried to pull off in Cairo. There he expressed what lies behind many of his surface “nonpartisan” positions: a cosmopolitan ideal of the American thinker. The thinker, that is, committed to cooperative conversation, a figure first powerfully delineated by Richard Rorty in his neopragmatist works, then echoed in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006) by Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian-American philosopher whose leadership in many American high-cultural organizations parallels Obama’s own ascent.