March 23, 2019 | 42° F

PANISH: Transnationalism presents us with intractable problems


Opinions Column: Leaving the Left


In her column last week, Malaika Jawed, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, astutely outlined the situation now facing our aging nation-states. As detailed in that article, the global population is becoming increasingly mobile, meaning that more people are immigrants to the places where they now live. While advances in transportation technology made this mobility possible, advances in telecommunications technology have allowed people to remain virtually immersed in their native culture — or any other culture, for that matter — from afar, presenting an alternative to assimilation. The result, as Jawed noted, is the emergence of transnationalism, in which nations as cultural, linguistic and political units and the borders that define them become less definite. 

This phenomenon has been a long time coming. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, liberal thinkers have imagined a time when we could move beyond irrational and inefficient modes of organization, streamlining our societies so as to produce the maximum material welfare for the greatest number of people. Ideally, people will go where the jobs are, goods will go where the buyers are and everybody will profit. Meanwhile, advances in technology and efforts by powerful nations to establish a free flow of people, materials and information have worked to make those dreams a reality. 

As Jawed argued, whether good or bad, transnationalism is simply the state of the world today. The process of cultural and economic globalization is more or less a forgone conclusion. But, just because the mechanisms of global economics will continue to propel us in this direction does not necessarily mean that we will be able to absorb its consequences. 

Though most anti-globalization rhetoric in the United States has focused on economic injustice, the apparently benign development of transnationalism is proving to be a bigger issue. The populist backlash that is threatening to engulf the world’s democracies is inextricably bound up with feelings about identity, borders and nations. More specifically, populists feel threatened by the dissolution of local cultures, and they perceive efforts to further the process of globalization as an attack on their way of life. For residents of metropolitan areas, the common response to this complaint would probably be “too bad.” This process is inevitable, they might say, and those of us who live in the nation’s growing cosmopolitan enclaves are perfectly happy without a distinctive way of life attached to a locality. What is so bad about that?

The answer to that question will differ depending on the temperament of the person you ask. Some people are able to live comfortably in a fluid environment abounding with new people and ideas, while others desire more stability and consistency. Though we can certainly be conditioned to accept more diverse stimuli in our environment, there are limits set by our biology to the amount of uncertainty that a given person can stomach before they begin to experience intense distress. By the same principle, some people are comfortable deriving their identity from their very lack of a definite culture, instead defining themselves by their cosmopolitan openness to and interest in all cultures. Others, though, would feel spiritually homeless in such a scenario, and instead desire a deep connection to a tradition rooted in place and the sense of belonging and meaning that comes with it. 

To be sure, the most visible of today’s populists do not communicate their desires this way, and are not conscious of the role that psychology plays in their politics. Their hostility to the influence of foreign cultures sounds brazen to our ears after several decades of cosmopolitan consensus, and expressions of disgust with this consensus are invariably labeled “hate.” There is certainly an abundance of hatred in these movements, but the rejection of liberal cosmopolitanism is not fundamentally racist or xenophobic. Large numbers of people of all races naturally seek out communities bound by familiar customs and practices. These tendencies are biologically ingrained in each of us to varying degrees after millennia of tribal existence, and they are likely going to remain with us for a long time. Globalization and transnationalism may be our destiny, but the fact remains that many people will not go along with it willingly — they will continue to vote for measures that they think will preserve their local cultures against economic and cultural dislocation for as long as the option remains open to them. How democracies choose to deal with this populist discontent, and whether localists or universalists ultimately set the trajectory for the world’s democracies, is an open question. For those concerned about democracy’s future, efforts to find solutions to this conflict should be a first priority.

Adam Panish is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double  majoring in political science and history. His column, "Leaving the  Left," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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Adam Panish

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