Nationalists versus citizens of the world

Citizens of the world are a liberal global elite who arrogantly ignored the damage being done to citizens of somewhere, nationalists, and so brought about Brexit and the election of Trump. No, citizens of the world recognise that you can simultaneously be a citizen of somewhere and of the world and that our most pressing problems–climate change, inequality, and mass migration–are global, and hold the key to solutions to those problems; and citizens of somewhere, nationalists, threaten democracy.

This is my attempt to summarise the position of the two opposite sides in a debate last night organised by Intelligence2 based on Theresa May’s quote: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.” David Goodhart, creator of the idea of citizens of somewhere and everywhere , and David Landsman, a diplomat turned businessman, were the citizens of somewhere; and Simon Schama, the historian, and Eiif Shafak, the Turkish novelist, were the citizens of the world.

There were some 300 people in the Emmanuel Centre, and probably everyone in the room, including the speakers, were part of the liberal global elite, even though there were some who did not see themselves as citizens of the world. There probably wasn’t anybody who didn’t have a university degree, and everybody agreed that the fact that such a discussion could be held with polite, informed, and often funny interchanges was fundamental to democracy.

Indeed, the reminding by Elif Shafak that democracy is much more than regular elections was my main take-home message; I knew it, but I  needed clarification of the idea and reminding of it. I went to the debate with my son, James, and he, a keen student of politics, thinks that only 5% in Britain could describe the basics of democracy.

Elections are fundamental but alone are not enough. It’s because so many people think of elections as the same things as democracy that tyrants (Putin, Erdogan, Sheika Hasina, etc) manipulate them to give themselves the appearance of mass support. Elections become simply part of the tyrant’s toolbox.

Also essential for democracy are the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights. If one of them fails, democracy is undermined.

James emphasises that Britain is a representative democracy. We elect people to spend time studying and thinking about the many issues we face and take decisions on our part because we don’t have the time or knowledge to take wise decisions on everything. One of my favourite ideas is that of “rational ignorance”: it is wholly irrational to try to know all about everything.

So Brexit–where people, even the very smartest, didn’t know what exactly they were voting for and where the campaign was fuelled with disinformation (lies)–was the undermining of our representative democracy.

Back to the debate, there was more agreement that disagreement. It’s a false dichotomy to think that you have to be either a citizen of somewhere or a citizen of the world: you can be both. People also agreed that when the “us” starts seeing the “them” as a threat things are turning sour.

There was, however, disagreement over whether “moderate nationalism” was a good or bad thing. Goodhart thought it honourable, real, and no threat, whereas Shafak thought it a starting point for tyrants to undermine democracy; it’s happening not only in her own country but in Hungary, Poland, and across the Middle East.

The speakers also disagreed over whether Brexit and the election of Trump was democracy working–in that the liberal elite have been forced to pay attention to the plight of those left behind by globalisation–or a threat to democracy.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Shafak answered by quoting Antinio Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, Optimism of the will.” Actually she said we should have pessimism in the head and optimism in the heart. I liked that in it describes me.

Citizen of the world



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