Welcome to Cosmopolis
These are politically uncertain times. Britain’s place in Europe is in question, and thereby its place in the world. Even London’s presence in Britain seemed to be in question for some who were shocked by the result of the Brexit vote. Some suggested – jokingly or not – that London should declare its independence and apply to stay in the EU. But separatism isn’t the answer; its exact opposite is.
As every Londoner knows, the capital is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with a population augmented by layer upon layer of immigrants from all over the globe. Probably no more typical Londoner could be imagined than its mayor, Sadiq Khan, who grew up in south London as the child of Pakistani immigrants.
It is also a tough city, with a huge disparity between rich and poor, in which life is a hard struggle for many.
But its greatest strength comes from its almost built-in resistance to one form of separatism: the drive, so prevalent in human communities, to think in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the indigenous versus the exogenous. It can seem almost as if, as a city, London has been inoculated against this tendency.
To put it another way, London is cosmopolitan. We owe this concept to Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in Athens in the fourth century BC, as an immigrant from Sinope in what is now Turkey. (It’s no coincidence that at the height of its Golden Age, Athens was drawing in people from all over the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.)
Diogenes lived like a dog (we get ‘cynical’ from the Greek for ‘dog’), which for him meant living in a barrel in the marketplace and unashamedly carrying out all his bodily functions in public. When asked his citizenship, Diogenes declared he was a citizen of the world, maybe just to shut up his questioner. But in doing so, he gave us an important concept (later revisited by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant).
Cosmopolitanism is tricky. It is easily perverted into imperialism – the idea that one group may impose its will on all others.
True cosmopolitanism requires not only ongoing negotiation between different groups in order to realise the aim of shared citizenship of the globe, but sensitivity to others and tenacity in arguing against the views of (often powerful) others. It’s an arduous, conflictual process, but its results are eminently worth having.
London has lived the cosmopolitan experience for much of its long history.
This has not been without strife (we should not forget that the Brixton riots, and other such moments of crisis, form part of this history).
But whatever the future holds, our city’s achievements should not be taken for granted. Let London not separate itself off but draw others, across Europe and the world, into the cosmopolitan project.