I have for some time been vaguely aware of a certain discord between myself and a number of commentators to this blog whose politics are very similar to my own, and their interesting comments on the reports of Russian meddling in the recent election have enabled me to clarify my understanding of this discord. The purpose of this post is to articulate my developing understanding.
There are, I now see, two very different ways in which someone of my political leanings can define his or her relation to the country of residence. For the sake of simplicity, I shall talk about my own relation to America, but what I say ought to apply equally to anyone reading this blog, regardless of where he or she lives.
The first way is for me to adopt toward America the attitude that Marx seems to have had toward the England in which he spent the last thirty-five or so years of his life. Marx was, or so it seems to me, a citizen of the world. He was born in Prussia, lived for a while in France, spent more than half his life in London, was fluent in German, French, and English, read Italian easily, was educated thoroughly in the Greek and Latin classic texts, and even taught himself Russian late in life after learning that he had disciples there. I can see no evidence that he ever thought of himself as a Prussian, a Frenchman, or a British subject. He did not identify with any of those nations, or with any other nation, for that matter, and judged the events of his day, with which he was intimately familiar, solely from the point of view of their relation to the prospects of the proletarian revolution for which he worked and which he awaited eagerly.
The second way would be for me to consider myself an American, for better or [as is so often the case] for worse, to take pride in what goes well here, to condemn and feel shame for what goes badly, to consider myself in some manner especially responsible for American injustices, cruelties, repressions, and exploitations, as opposed to those elsewhere in the world, even though as an unimportant and solitary person, I am by no discernible measure actually responsible for anything that goes on either here or abroad.
I do not think there is any doubt that I define myself in the second way, as an American, not in the first way, as a citizen of the world. If a foreign country interferes in American elections, I feel it as a personal affront, even though I have spent quite literally the last fifty-five years protesting the ways in which the American government interferes in the internal political affairs of other nations. If an appalling and dangerous buffoon is elected to the American presidency, I feel not merely disgust or fear but shame, even though I would never feel shame at the accession to power of dangerous buffoons in other countries.
In view of this fact, it is odd that the most consequential thing I have done in the public sphere in my life, aside from the pursuit of my profession, is to spend twenty-five years raising money to support young Black men and women at historically Black universities in a foreign country, South Africa.
When I think about myself in this fashion, it helps me to understand the sizable difference between the way in which I view the recent election and its aftermath and the way in which some of the most vocal commentators to this blog view those same events. This is not something about which one can usefully argue. If those commentators were to tell me that I ought to view myself as a citizen of the world, I could only reply, “But I don’t.” Nor would it make any sense at all for me to urge those commentators to be more American!
If you see yourself as a citizen of the world who happens to be living in America, as Marx was a citizen of the world who happened to be living in London, and if you wish to be, as the French would say, engagé, then I suppose the sensible thing would be to look across the globe and find the place where you could most effectively strike a blow for freedom or for the international proletariat, regardless of where that might be. But if, like me, you see yourself as an American, then it would make more sense to cast about for some way to advance your ideals here, in America. That is what I hope I am doing in this blog.