The roots of “cosmopolitan”


I was chatting with a RWSNBN (Republican who shall not be named) earlier today (Thursday) about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s strong showing last night at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul and how the Democrats have to tiptoe around criticizing her, lest they slide into sexist stereotypes. (It’s a minefield: Her experience or lack of it is certainly fair game, but slams on experience have a way of slipping into “what does a woman know?” territory, or at least can come off sounding that way.)

I pointed out that this was a tetchy season for Republicans as well: A lot of the “elitist” cracks at Obama last night suggested to me a trope that could easily creep into “uppity” territory, and sure enough, a day later, that’s exactly the word a southern congressman used to describe the Democratic candidate and his wife.

In my conversation with the RWSNBN, I cited the constant battering of community work as touchy-feely, somehow irrelevant (Palin made much of this; so did former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani). Sure enough, community organizers are duly outraged. To boot, over at CNN, Roland Martin said jibes at community organizers “degrade the women who fought for their rights.”

And that’s not all.

They disrespect the labor activists and immigrant worker activists like Cesar Chavez. They dismiss those in the civil rights movement – folks from small town America who were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They thumb their noses at the Nelson Mandelas of the world who want a better life for their children.

The weirdest riff of all, though, was Giuliani’s improvised dig at Obama as a “cosmopolitan”:

She’s been a mayor. I love that. I’m sorry – I’m sorry that Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn’t cosmopolitan enough. (Switching to deeper, haughty voice) I’m sorry, Barack that it’s not flashy enough. Maybe they cling to religion there. Ooh.

Obama has cited Palin’s experience as a “small town” mayor and he notoriously slipped during the primaries by describing rural voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio as “bitter” and “clinging to religion.”

Tone deaf, sure, reductive too, and it offers ample material for portraying Obama as out of touch. But I’m not sure how that gets to the “cosmopolitan” slag, launched by Karl Rove not long ago.

They went to good universities, yes, but don’t Rove – or Giuliani – want that for their own kids? They live in a nice house – don’t Rove and Giuliani? Isn’t that what we all want? The thing is, even the usual underpinnings to this fatuous class warfare cliche about “elites” (a love of ballet, classical music, fine food, etc.) are missing, as far as I know, from the Obamas’ biography, so what the hell are Rove/Giuliani talking about? Even if the Obamas appreciated these things, so what? But, as far as we know, they don’t. They’re middle class, their song is “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” Michelle’s favorite show is “The Brady Bunch.” What gives?

What especially discomfits me about “cosmopolitan,” then is… how it’s been used against Jews. As in, rootless. Unbelonging. Not of us.

Look, I know Giuliani doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body. But you can borrow a trope from a bigotry you reject to thrust forward one you uphold. And that’s when it becomes viral. (See under: Balkans.)

I’m just saying. There are a lot of ways for this election to slip into ugly territory. Depicting the Obamas as “cosmopolitan” is among the slipperiest.

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