Book Review: "Cosmopolitanism" by Kwame Anthony Appiah

I've recently been able to read Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah. When I first picked it up, I thought it might be an interesting take on the issues of multiculturalism and immigration that Western societies have had to deal with over the last 2 decades (considering that this book was published in 2006). It actually turned out to be a bit different than I expected, being instead a more abstract philosophical work that lays out the arguments for a certain sort of cosmopolitan worldview and manner of engaging with other people, with these arguments being based on somewhat more abstract discussions of the histories of nations, cultures, and peoples. In particular, the author discusses how cultures have diffused throughout space and time and how people are capable of engaging with different issues and other people from across the world in an intelligent and active manner, so the framing of issues like cultural imperialism/theft or charity for the poorest around the world may end up being counterproductive in the long-term; additionally, the aim of conversation and engagement with strangers should be to reach a mutual understanding and (ideally, though this depends somewhat on the topic at hand) respect for different culture-specific values, because persuasion of people to change such culture-specific values is typically [though not always] a fool's errand. I realize this brief summary doesn't really do the book justice, because it is a rather dense book (at least for a layperson like myself) with so many different issues discussed at varying lengths and levels of abstraction.

Overall, there are a lot of arguments that seem disconnected, especially the anecdotes of his family or his childhood in Ghana (though those were nice to read), and there seem to be a lot of philosophical subtleties that may well have gone over my head, but while each chapter is a nice self-contained explanation of an aspect of cosmopolitanism, the overarching message seems rather muddled (especially comparing the last chapter to everything before it). There are other issues that I have with the book that I'll detail after the jump, but more broadly, I was somewhat disappointed by the ease with which I could use the author's own terms and arguments against the book. That said, I do agree with one main theme, and that is of respectfully engaging with strangers by critically examining "thick" beliefs on their own terms and as they arise from other "thick" & "thin" beliefs (to be explained after the jump), in order to find common ground while also understanding and respecting where differences arise; this is similar to what I learned from the last student-led discussion I attended at the Day of Action on campus in March. I suppose people who are interested in this sort of thing would be drawn to this book anyway, but I wouldn't really recommend this otherwise. Follow the jump to see more of my thoughts on this book.


Book Review: "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

I generally don't read works of fiction, as I don't have as much interest in them as I do in well-crafted nonfiction works, but Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the classics of dystopic science fiction; in particular, many comparisons have been made to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, with the latter surging in popularity in the last few months in the context of the current political climate in the US, so I figured I might give this one a read instead. This book is set in a time where society is explicitly stratified into castes and everyone is conditioned, through physical, chemical, and psychological means from [artificial] fertilization through death at age 60, to behave in ways that would never lead them to question their roles in society; this is further helped by the omnipresence of a pleasurable drug called soma and by the omnipresence of this very conditioning, such that social ostracism is feared perhaps above all else. With that in mind, the main story primarily involves two characters, one named Bernard Marx who is born and raised in this society but finds himself dissatisfied with the society and his role in it, the other named John the savage who is born to a woman (named Linda) outside of this society and becomes repulsed after understanding the superficiality of the existence of members of that society.

The initial parts of the story seem to drag a little bit as it isn't initially clear to which character the reader's attention should primarily be drawn, but after the introduction of Bernard Marx, it becomes much clearer that the initial parts paint the setting of this world to make it clear why Bernard Marx is out of place. Additionally, in terms of movement of the narrative, the extended dialogue between John the savage and the controller Mustapha Mond drags a little, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the author's true view of such a futuristic world. What I found most interesting is that both Bernard Marx and John the savage keep trying but failing to escape the oppressive social confines of their world, though the issues at play are different. Bernard Marx feels socially isolated due to his short height relative to his upper caste and due to his (perhaps related) desires to have time from himself, away from the rest of society. However, his psychosocial conditioning is fairly thorough, such that even when he visits the tribe of savages and has a chance to live a simple and isolated life among them, he chooses instead to bring John the savage as well as Linda back to the main society in London so that he can gain credibility in that society that he finds hard to come by; when John the savage rejects further gawking visitors (which reflects poorly on Bernard Marx, being the custodian of John the savage), rather than joining John the savage in solitude, Bernard Marx becomes despondent about his renewed feelings of alienation and ostracism from society at large. This deepens near the end of the book, when he is exiled to Iceland; his thoroughly conditioned worry about social alienation overcomes any excitement he may have felt at realizing that he would be among high-caste misfits like himself instead of in the superficial society for which he ostensibly does not care so much. Likewise, John the savage is initially delighted by what he sees after traveling from his tribe to London, but having been raised and conditioned outside of that society, he is disgusted by the superficiality, free love (though that may have more to do with his early childhood trauma of seeing his mother, who was brought up in the society, attempt to practice free love with the men of the tribe, consequently leading to his and his mother's ostracism from the tribe by the women and children of the tribe, respectively), and inability to find solitude in the main society. Yet at the end of the book, when he attempts to escape and live an ascetic penitent life outside of the city, the other members of society relentlessly hound him as an exhibition for their amusement; even at the very end, when he takes his own life, his limp hanging body is seen as another cheap spectacle, so even in death, his earthly remains cannot escape the superficiality of that society. Overall, I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the jump to see more discussion of my thoughts about how this relates to today's society in the US (disclaimer: this is coming from a lay observer of American politics and society, so don't take anything too seriously; moreover, I'm sure that many of these observations have been made in the past by various people at different times).