Tag Archives: New York City

Reflections on Teju Cole’s OPEN CITY

21 Feb



Anyone interested in the world, or for that matter, an affection for the greatest of modern cities—New York—will find Teju Cole’s Open City, a feast for both mind and heart. He writes with exquisite discernment about almost everything under the sun, from the details of church architecture to reflections on the lingering impacts of the 9/11 attacks on the urban mood in Manhattan to his childhood memories of Nigeria. Open City is presented as a work of fiction, a novel, but its real interest is not in the story line, or even in the characters as presented by the narrator, which has an autobiographical feel, although this could be an accomplishment of this writer’s craft and imaginative skill, rather than what it seems to be, a disguised replication of the author’s search for meaning and moorings in the world at large, as well as a rich depository of remarkably astute observations on an extraordinary range of interesting topics. Cole in Open City delivers a master class in everyday awareness continuously transforming the ordinary experience of the non-heroic narrative voice into a quite extraordinary immersion in the lifeworld of the city.


This is a story of what I would call voluntary displacement, somewhat reminiscent of Edward Said’s partial memoir, Out of Place. Both of these gifted and multi-talented men chose to live as expatriates but without losing their attachment to their home country. There are also some dramatic differences, as well. Said became passionate about his Palestinian identity, a badge of honor for him, and the focus of his concerns in the final decades of his life, while Julius the fictionalized ‘I’ of Cole’s narrator is totally preoccupied with his private feelings, perceptions, and experience, noting public concerns, but avoiding engagement by deliberately adopting a modulated apolitical stance. Said as a high profile Palestinian in America in this period almost ensured that he would find himself embattled, which he was, especially as a professor at Columbia University who spoke out in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. More generally, being a Palestinian, or any kind of Arab or Muslim, in New York City is certainly a different reality than being Nigerian, or even an African. Although the difference may not be as great as it might first seem. Julius is fully conscious that history has not been kind to those with his racial identity. He makes note of the frequent reminders throughout the city that Africans were not that long ago profitably traded as slaves by New York bankers or subject to colonial atrocities, as in Belgium, where Julius visits for several weeks.


The ironic tone on race reaches a paradoxical climax when Julius is mugged and badly beaten by African American hip-hop teenagers during a walk in the vicinity of Morningside Heights. Julius reports this violent incident almost in a journalistic tone, refraining from moralizing commentary and even self-pity. He leaves for readers an implicit challenge to draw out the deeper implications of the event, which include a recognition of the difference between the ‘civilized’ Julius and his ‘savage’ attackers, which is a way of saying that race counts, but socialization counts more. Yet, Julius carries his irony to a fever pitch of self-indictment when confronted by Moji, the older sister of his childhood friend in Nigeria, who reminds him of how he sexually abused her at a drunken teenage party, and how that incident caused her enduring pain. Just as slavery is forgotten by New Yorkers who pound the pavements of Wall Street, Julius forgets what was unpleasant in his past, not even recognizing Moji when they run into each other on a Manhattan street, and she calls out his name. The unarticulated morality here is profound and in keeping with the narrator’s sensibility: we are in denial about the wrongs we do to others, as is Julius, while we being haunted by those done to us, as is Moji. This fictional template fits much that takes place in our collective lives. Compare, for instance, the contrast between the collective official memory of Hiroshima in the United States (shortened the war, saved lives) and the way the event is perceived in Japan, and elsewhere (unspeakable atrocity on a par with Auschwitz).



There are also notable differences between author and narrator that make the facile assumption of an autobiographical novel suspect. Cole is pure Nigerian, while Julius has a German mother along with a Nigerian father, which underscores a type of hybridity that can never even aspire to achieve a ‘normal’ identity. Wherever Julius is, including Nigeria, he is destined to be an outsider. In the novel Julius is finishing a psychiatric residency at Columbia Presbyterian in New York dealing with patients who are burdened with a variety of mental disorders, while Cole is described as “writer, photographer, and professional historian of Netherlandish art” in an author’s note.


As Julius takes his long walks through the city he contemplates the troubled lives of his patients, and is aware of how little he can do to improve their lives, how limited has been medical progress with respect to mental illness. Julius muses about the nature of severe depression and other illness of the mind that afflict patients identified by letter, ‘V’ or ‘M,’ an indication of Julius’ adherence to the code of anonymity in his professional calling. There are intimations, but nothing explicit, that there may be analogies between these private agonies that Julius confronts at work and the grotesque pathologies of our collective existence as a species.


Julius is estranged from his German mother who lives in Lagos while missing his recently dead Nigerian father. Thus he has little reason to return to Nigeria for visits. Instead he searches for his beloved German grandmother who he believes is living in Brussels, and once there is much more enthralled by the ambience of European culture than anything that the non-West has to offer and by a new city to explore. While in Belgium, his supposed reason for making the journey fades into the background, and is replaced by his chance acquaintance with a couple of Moroccan immigrants, who sought refuge from an oppressive monarchy in their native country. To leave for Europe was for them to realize their dream of political and intellectual freedom, but upon arrival disillusionment immediately their fate. They were daily challenged by an increasingly vicious and omni-present Islamophobia. Their reaction was to learn economic and social survival skills needed to remain in Brussels, while inwardly converting their disillusionment into a blend of anti-American radicalism and an embrace of Islam.


The resulting conversations between Julius and Farouk, and his friend, Khalil, are fascinating exchanges of views and perceptions. The narrative voice controls the shape of the dialogue, but it has an authenticity that fits with the variety of experiences and viewpoints that give vibrancy to the book. In essence, Farouk and Khalil hold somewhat stereotypic left views on such key issues as Israel/Palestine and the 9/11 attacks on the United States, although they distance themselves from the tactics of terrorism, they empathize with the motivations of the terrorists who are regarded as having legitimate anti-imperial grievances. In contrast, Julius, is far more detached during the conversation, reacting in a measured apolitical and evasive tone, manifestly distrustful of dogma in any form. When asked directly for a response, he speaks of attitudes toward Israel in the United States without revealing his views, choosing to occupy a neutral, uncommittal space, and somewhat derisively attributing highly critical views on Israel to “left-leaning magazines and journals.” He challenges the stereotyped views on the conflict, including that all Americans are unconditionally pro-Israeli, by explaining to these two ardently pro-Palestinian Moroccans: “There’s strong leftist support for Palestinian causes in the United States. Many of my friends in New York, for example, think that Israel is doing terrible things in the Occupied Territories.” (p. 118) By referencing ‘many of my friends’ keeps his own attitudes hidden from the reader, but they can be presumed to be more balanced, less partisan. Julius goes on, “there’s also the perception that we share elements of our culture and government with Israel.” The use of ‘we’ as America and ‘our’ as American in this sentence is an important signifier of Julius’ primary attachment to his chosen place of residence rather than to his African place of origin.


The Moroccans, as is the case with many progressives around the world, view the Israel/Palestinian conflict as the most important contemporary litmus test of international morality, as well as an unresolved remnant of the anti-colonial struggle. They are perplexed by why the Palestinians have failed where almost all colonized people have succeeded, and in their search for an explanation, reach for straws. In this spirit, Khalil challenges the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and alleges that to relegate the other countless genocides to a secondary status functions as a device, diverts public attention, especially in Europe, from the injustices imposed on the Palestinians, serves to silence criticism of Israel, and to punish those who dare raise questions about the uniqueness that Jews attribute to the Holocaust. “Did the Palestinians build the concentration camps? He said. What about the the Armenians: do their deaths mean less because they are not Jews.” (p.122) An agitated Khalil then proclaims, “(f)orget the Cambodians, forget the American blacks, this is unique suffering. But I reject the idea. It is not a unique suffering. What about the twenty million under Stalin? It isn’t better if you are killed for ideological reasons.” Julius is obviously made uncomfortable by such hectoring rhetoric, and does his best to change the subject by ordering food in the restaurant.


He fails. Farouq “steers the conversation back,” letting on that he is not unfamiliar that Jewish critics of Israel exist and several are living in America. In this vein, he recommends that Julius should read Norman Finkelstein’s searing expose of the holocaust industry, which he says deserves special respect, not only because Finkelstein is Jewish, but because his parents were Auschwitz survivors. Julius admits that he has not heard of Finkelstein, and when Farouq offers to write down the title, Julius indicates that this is not necessary as he will remember it, but this is said in such a way as to convey disinterest, and to let the reader know that he has no intention whatsoever of following up. Throughout the entire book Julius seems deeply uncomfortable with passion and partisanship unless it is historically removed from the present or is apprehended in artistic form.


Farouq is depicted as a kind of fugitive philosopher from the non-West who had hoped that he could cope with the poverty of his Moroccan background working in Belgium as a janitor, while devoting himself to his studies. He declares that he was driven by the grandiose ambition of becoming “the next Edward Said! I was going to do it by studying comparative literature and using it as a basis for societal critique.” (p.128) Proceeding on this path after arriving in Brussels, he wrote an M.A. thesis on Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, which was rejected by a Belgian university on the grounds of plagiarism. “They gave no reason. They just said I would have to submit another one in twelve months. I was crushed. I left school. Plagiarism? The only possibilities are either that they refused to believe my command of English and theory or, I think this is even more likely, that they were punishing me for world events in which I had played no role. My thesis committee had me on September 20, 2001..That was the year I lost my illusions about Europe.” (p.129) Again Julius offers no response, even refraining any comment on the rather strained effort of Farouq to explain the arbitrary rejection of his thesis as a punishment to be visited on all Muslims after 9/11. Julius does not hide his distaste for the Farouk’s extreme rejection of the West, which is the counterpoint to his own cautious constructions of a life and career in New York undertaken with a full awareness of the crimes present and past of the West. If this is a correct reading, then one wonders whether Coles lineage is better tied to anglophilic V.S. Naipaul rather than to Said.


Julius makes his own position clear both by seemingly ignoring Farouq’s advice to read Finkelstein and even more emphatically by mailing him a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, a diametrically opposed intellectual posture to that of political engagement. The choice of Appiah as a preferred alternative to Finkelstein is a perfect expression of Julius sensibility, and a telling sign that he is self-aware. Appiah is a much heralded and impressively cultured exponent of an apolitical cosmopolitanism that affirms rootedness in the familiar landscape of home with an appreciation of the world as a whole, including its many forms of strangeness and diversity. For Appiah a true cosmopolitan celebrates both the homeland and the world, and privileges that which is near at hand over all that is distant. As with Cole, Appiah has a superb command of the English language, as well as a vast intellectual comfort zone that manages to encompass the whole of Western thought. It is worth noticing that Appiah, like Julius, but not like Cole, has an African father and a European mother, and chooses to leave Africa for a life in America.


While mailing Cosmopolitanism at a local post office, an African American clerk greets Julius with mock familiarity as “Brother Julius.” The clerk announces that he is a performing poet and recognizes at first glance that Julius is a visionary; hence that they have much in common, and should get to know each other.  Julius brushes off this unwelcome approach with a hypocritical assurance that he will keep in touch, informing the reader his true feelings: “I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” (p.188) I do not interpret this to be black on black racism, but rather an unabashed expression of snobbery and intellectual elitism. Julius showed clearly that he was offended by the purported camaraderie of this uneducated postal clerk who had evidently proceeded on mistaken assumption that their shared skin color was sufficient to make them ‘brothers.’


Julius consistently shows that he is not fond of any intense attachment, while at the same time exhibiting his somewhat anguished solitude. Even those who are too worried about climate change offend Julius’ sense of cool. As usual, his words of rebuke are carefully chosen: “..I was no longer the global warming skeptic I had been some years before, even if I still couldn’t tolerate the tendency some had of jumping to conclusions based on anectdotal evidence; global warming was a fact, but that did not mean it was the explanation for why a given day was warm. It was careless thinking to draw the link too easily, an invasion of fashionable politics into what should be the ironclad precincts of science.” (p.28) Of course, Julius is correct to make the distinction between a warming climate cycle and the temperature on any particular day, but by dwelling on this minor point he sidesteps any reference the serious dangers posed by climate change, as established by a consensus of experts. Instead Julius contents himself by complaining about those who embrace ‘fashionable politics.’ It is this refusal to engage the world, and its destiny, that I find most disturbing about the Cole/Appiah/Naipaul worldview. I find their shared cosmopolitanism a posture of a superior mind that seems frightened of taking stands that might be treated as controversial in public space or seen as too humdrum for such finely attuned intellects. Such detachment operates as a denial of love for the world and signals an unwillingness to lift a finger to reduce human suffering.


Along these lines Julius offers some rather strained observations on matters large and small, always worth pondering for their style even if not for their substance. For instance, Julius notes without qualification, “[w]e are the first human beings who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world.” (p.200) This sentiment seems spoken by Julius from within his cocoon of condescending detachment.  Not only the mounting dangers associated with climate change, dangers now admitted at even the highest levels of government, but also living decade after decade beneath a nuclear sword of Damocles should at least establish remove from serious discussion any claim that we are living in ‘a secure world.’ True, there may not be the existential immediacy of earlier ages when the threat of epidemics, natural disasters, and bloody tribal warfare created pervasive and acute insecurity, but in our time there is more reason than ever before to apprehend the precariousness of our modern way of life, and even the fragility of the human species that appears so far heedless of the wailing sirens of planetary distress.


By establishing Julius as such a precise and subtle commentator on many aspects of the passing scene, Cole makes his readers think hard, while enjoying the pleasure of the beautifully crafted prose. The narrative smoothly navigates the succession of moods, experiences, and memories that lends an aura of coherence to this novelistic journal that delivers the reader to nowhere and everywhere. Despite my admiration for Cole’s artistic achievement, what a flock of admiring reviewers agree as the excellence of his ‘debut novel,’ which has received several honors, my experience the book is more ambivalent. This is partly, as earlier noted, a discomfort with attitudes that are fully aware of injustices and yet opt for a response of passivity. Also it is partly the overall impression of being under the spell of a rare, and ultra refined version of Orientalism, which is paradoxically and obliquely acknowledged by references to Edward Said. Julius is wonderfully articulate in describing the nuances of painting, poetry, literature, and especially music. Super-sophistication is exhibited not by namedropping, but by treating the reader to extremely illuminating comments on particular paintings, buildings, musical compositions and memorable performances.


Truly Julius is a man of arts and letters, but almost exclusively those of the Western world. The artists and writers mentioned are prominent in the Western canon or Westernized, and there is only a passing reference to two Chinese poets revered in the West and none at all to such African stalwarts as Soyinka and Achebe. We readers are left with the misleading impression that any celebration of aesthetic cosmopolitanism needs to be totally anchored in Western creativity. This may not be Cole’s intention, but it reflects my experience of this fine literary work. Cole demonstrates he is not only of a master of English but also an almost omniscient observer of all that is worth noticing and appreciating in the world around us. The fact that Julius refuses either to judge or to apologize for either private or public wrongdoing can be interpreted generously as the author’s modesty or more harshly as his arrogance. At this point I am not sure which, and maybe it is best grasped as a Hindu mixture of both, a non-Western infrastructure of contradictory feelings for the things and beings of this world, including its good and evil aspects. So conceived, maybe the Cole worldview after all transcends its self-imposed Western boundaries.


Istanbul: A Modest Proposal

2 Nov


            An earlier version of this short essay was published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English online as an opinion piece. My most trusted Turkish friends felt that it grossly exaggerated Istanbul’s credentials as a possible future world capital, and in deference, I will tone down some of the language, and call attention to some problematic features of the Turkish political landscape that should not be ignored in proposing such a status for Istanbul. At the same time in the Swiftian nature of ‘modest proposals’ to be immodest! I think it was an American comedian who said “if you haven’t gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” Or when Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of his life was asked about what he regretted most about his overall public role, he responded, to the effect that he had sometimes been too cautious, not sufficiently extreme. Norman O. Brown, who did much in the 1960s to inspire the study of human consciousness, once said in the course of a lecture that in psychoanalysis “only the exaggerations are valuable.” It is in this spirit that I continue to believe that Istanbul has the most to offer the peoples of the world as a global capital, but I would welcome a debate on whether the idea of a global capital is a sensible idea given the nature of globalization and if it is, whether there are preferable alternatives to Istanbul. Of course, one idea would be to neuter the idea of a global capital by choosing an uninhabited island mid-ocean, but I would imagine that almost no one would feel connected to such a place, any more than they do to such existing sterile national capital startups as Brasilia and Canberra.            


            The idea of a global city has a long lineage with deep roots in the pre-modern world. Indeed it seems correct to observe that global cities existed before national cities, preceding the formation of the modern state. A global city is most often associated with being a center of world trade and finance, but usually such a city also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attract visitors. Thinking in this manner explains the persisting tendencies is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, and Paris placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Rome, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Los Angeles treated as forming a second tier. Of course, such rankings are quite arbitrary, shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centers as Rome, London, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice, and Athens were definitely primary global cities during their respective heydays.


            But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalization and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as ‘the digital age’ or ‘the networked society.’ This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate, and establish someplace as ‘the center of the world,’ as the ‘world capital.’ Of course, the claim and perception of being ‘the world capital’ is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence, and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centered interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. In the end such a designation is bound to be controversial, and likely contested.


            Of course, from a mainstream realist international relations perspective we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a give time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became Washington alone. Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent in status to Washington. And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its former regional stature.


            Of course, all existing cities in the 21st century are contained within a particular state, and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past there have been some ‘international cities’ without any national affiliation, and there are today in our world several successful city-states, and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical belonging to all three of the Abrahamic religions.


Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as situated within a territorial state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fueled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians who shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. These tensions on occasion give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics ‘Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson’ and by its most loving devotees as simply ‘The Big Apple.’ Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state, and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore is a rare exception to this pattern, split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence. More common is the experience of Hong Kong, being reabsorbed by its powerful Chinese neighbor.


            A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorizing about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognized in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confer special and often exclusive status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. In contrast, the terminology of ‘global cities’ is assigned without any agreed criteria or conferred status, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more ‘global capital’ is no where referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status, identity, and desire. No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W. Bush’s presidency. Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the ‘center’ of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural and touristic experiences.


            Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none in modern times possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. Cities generally lack an arsenal of heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies, and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban environments as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife, have access to extensive financial services, and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor, and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital?


Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention to project power. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the center of the world but the center of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period, is part of its charm, and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of there being such a reality as the center of the world, much less heaven. Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as the obligatory journey taken by devout Muslims to their most holy site of worship.


            In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. Such a belief is usually coupled with the Weberian insistence that it is the sovereign state that establishes its identity by its possession over a monopoly of legitimate force. On the other side, are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity, and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. Cities, more than countries, can be analogized to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, and to enjoy greater privacy in their lives, to discuss their problems and receive guidance, chase dreams, and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters.


            There was a period not many years ago where there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organized around the theme ‘x city and the world.’ I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title ‘Yokohama and the World’ that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture, and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy, and an assessment of trends. The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism, and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world depicts an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice, and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo, reflecting a web of national and international considerations. Should we not favor a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could gain wealth and prestige while contributing to the further intermingling of civilizations and thereby laying the foundations for a more peaceful and sustainable human future.


            In the pre-modern world cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, bounded territoriality, and statehood organized political life. Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” In the course of the transition to modernity there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. Most of us remain unaware of the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger ‘legitimate’ political communities. The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitization of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities.


            But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable and vibrant for themselves, and generally enjoying ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbors or the vagaries of weather. Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (‘human security’) less to the security of governments (‘national security’).



            I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavor, even if seen only as laying the groundwork for the future, if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalization of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  Of course the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical, and even aesthetic and hedonistic.



            My initial sense of which candidate cities offer the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. For instance, if our outlook is  geopolitically oriented according to the logic of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experiences of relative decline. Yet if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance, and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and Westcentric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. New York and Washington also suffer from the role of the United States as the gatekeeper for access, which in the post-9/11 world has made entry problematic for many of those invited to perform culturally or participatein political or academic conferences.


            London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. Until very recently a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernizing claims of civilizational identity.


            I find none of these candidate cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening its as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate provided it can overcome some present obstacles: Istanbul. This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders, and its language spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities, and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome domestic problems for which no near-term solution seems forthcoming, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority, important international unresolved issues such as its relationship to the Armenian diaspora, its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iran, and its dysfunctional, yet abiding and severe, internal polarization between those who governed during the Republican Era, and those who have run the country since 2002.


            There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters precisely because it is such an integral part of the Turkish state. The central question is raised: ‘Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city?’ It is not an easy question. And what of the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants that must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs, unhealthy air, and limited resources for human satisfaction unless one is the recipient of a large salary.


            How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travelers in search of touristic fulfillment, and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. Istanbul has without fanfare also taken steps to emphasize its rising importance: with Spain it jointly administers the UN project on ‘Alliance of Civilizations’; it held recently a very high profile inaugural session of the World Economic Forum; and it also has become a favorite non-European meeting ground for a variety of UN sponsored events.

            Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, Turkey is a permissive gatekeeper with respect to visitor access automatically issuing visas for a small charge, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe psychologically, even if a small part of its territory is treated as being in Europe. Turkey’s Asian identity is not just a geographic description, but is far more a cultural and religious imprimatur. It has been given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during the current Euro-crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no long be perceived as favorably by many non-Western constituencies. Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the ‘over-secularization’, to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin. This rigid version of being secular dominated the Turkish political scene during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government shifting to the AKP as a result of electoral victories. It is necessary to account of such factors as Istanbul can not be separated from its embeddedness in the Turkish reality.


            But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk had strongly believed that a truly modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so deliberately moved the capital city to Ankara as part of a fresh break with history for the young republic. For the AKP the re-glorification of Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realization that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural and religious eminence unmatched elsewhere, and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Pamuk is sometimes referred to as ‘the biographer of Istanbul’ because his great The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city so brilliantly capture the magic and mysteries of Istanbul, which has attracted millions of hearts and minds around the world, endowing the city with an almost mystical identity for many of us. Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer feebly ‘Venice,’ recalling Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Death in Venice’ as well as the haunting novel, The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy, although its exotic beauty is unquestionably one of the urban wonders of the world.


            What enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been recently articulated in a clear manner. More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways, however anachronistic, during this agonizing period of global transition. This innovative renewal of Turkish influence has been rooted, to an unparalleled extent, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, ciilizational pride, and dialogue.


            True, Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighboring Syria.  Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximizing peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. As Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed, when a neighboring government commits atrocities against its own people, then Turkey sides with the people, not the government that has discredited itself. When the zero problems approach was first proclaimed, it might have prevented future confusion, if this qualification had been made explicit.


AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have done their best to discredit the Turkish approach to foreign policy. Undoubtedly the new challenge is complex and difficult: How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region that has so far made fools of us all! Yet I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while undertaking the necessary prudent steps to avoid dangerous vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people.


            Considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world can be interpreted as a side-effect of the advocacy of soft power geopolitics. It also responds to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy, and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilization. We are also recognizing the geographical and geopolitical location of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilizations and religious traditions. Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking, but it is put forward partly in response to an interpretation of integrative trends in our globalizing world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.



What is Shame?

22 Dec



            ‘Shame’ is a disturbing, much admired, Steve McQueen film that has been misleadingly reviewed, but deserves our serious attention. Let me put my reasoning in provocative language: ‘Shame’ depicts with chilling realism the degeneracy of high-end capitalist life style in the urban landscape of Sodom on the Hudson, otherwise known as ‘The Big Apple,’ that is, New York City. This sterile glitter of clubs and bars, loveless sexuality, acute alienation, and shady business operations is a city within the city that somehow co-exists with the world’s most innovative, abundant, and world class cultural life that continues to contain in its midst many enclaves of normalcy, humanism, and personal fulfillment. There is a central confusion in the film, perhaps deliberate: the city is portrayed as if it can be reduced to this skyscraper reality of nefarious business ventures and the flashy life it offers its operatives.


            Most reviews focus on the torments of the main character, brilliantly enacted by Michael Fassbender in the role of Brandon Sullivan, a mid-level employee in an unidentified hugely successful money making enterprise where profitable deals are celebrated in a soulless atmosphere of total indifference to what goes on beyond the glass walls enclosing this outpost of digitized finance capitalism. Is it any wonder that Brandon suffers from an amputated imagination, leaving him in lonely pursuit of sexual gratification? His own inextinguishable decency is disclosed when he withdraws from making love to Marianne, an office mate and the one person in the film who retains her dignity despite the corrupting environment. Brandon understands at that moment, and only then, that sexuality is one thing and love and intimacy quite another. It is worth observing that Marianne, well portrayed by Nicole Beharle, is the only African American presence in the film, possibly suggesting that this whole capitalist escapade is a white racist self-willed implosion posing apocalyptic dangers for the human future. In my political and moral imagination, what is depicted by ‘Shame’ is not to be sharply distinguished from the militarist willingness of Beltway strategists to plan wars to preserve privileged access to oil reserves for the West.


            Of course, the film works as ‘entertainment’ because of its narrative and our engagement with its characters, either pro or con. The interaction of Brandon with his younger sister, Sissy (beautifully rendered by Carey Mulligan), is a study in converging contrasts. In a sense Sissy seeks access to the dubious world of her brother by succeeding as a club singer, highlighted by a deeply sad and drawn out interpretation of the signature song, ‘New York, New York.’ Brandon in the audience fights back tears, apparently realizing in some sense that this city, or at least his experience of the city, has robbed him of his soul, and that his sister grasps this reality in the song with depth that is both personally rending and suggestive of the Faustian Bargains that alone will open doors to the lavish joys of the city. In fact, the song is sung with such a display of understanding and authenticity that it seem inevitable that suicidal behavior becomes Sissy’s only unlocked door as she is incapable of enduring a future without genuine love and a sustaining emotional community. Sissy’s hysteria is the counterpart to Brandon’s hyper-alienated sex addiction. There is a mysterious keynote assertion by Sissy seemingly meant to comprehend their messed up lives: “We are not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Perhaps, it would be more illuminating if the script had read, “We just came to a bad place, or tried to.” As it is, we are never informed about the character of the bad place in their past, and the line has resonance without imparting meaning.


            One of the most erotic moments in the film is an attempted subway stalking by Brandon of an attractive woman with whom he exchanges enticing glances. He follows her to the exit, but loses her in the crowd after

a chase that exhibits his desperation and amorality (as the camera let us know earlier that the woman was wearing a wedding ring). The film ends with a similar encounter, although this time the same woman more explicitly encourages contact, which Brandon keenly observes, but chooses to ignore by not following her. Perhaps, this suggests the overcoming of shame by Brandon, shame as understood in its dictionary sense of ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.’ (Oxford English Dictionary) Brandon seems to have learned enough during this narrative to transcend his shamefulness for at least this revealing instant. Whether Brandon’s momentary epiphany expresses an enduring transformative resolve or is merely a transitory gesture is not resolved by the film, but appropriately consigned by the director to the realm of our imaginative speculation. If transformative, it would require Brandon to seek other work outside the city within the city, and move to a modest hangout in Brooklyn or somewhere far away.


            Dwelling on the personal suggests to me that McQueen fails to understand the savage cultural critique that represents the core trans-personal meaning and significance of the film, and what makes it worthy of commentary. Or put more ironically, does this insistence on emphasizing the personal tell us that a commercially acceptable film must be about people not the system if it wants the imprimatur of Hollywood and the reviewing cognoscenti? It is notable that the most thoughtful reviews that I have found all devote their attention to the foreground of these personal struggles and all but ignore the setting that disposes, if not determines, the options available to individuals caught in such a maelstrom that is both exploitative of others and destructive of their better selves.


            An admirable feature of the film is its effort to capture the real time experience, allowing the camera to linger and giving the viewing audience space to reflect on what is happening. This is a liberty rarely taken by a director who seeks financial viability as a continuing assurance that there will be support for future projects. I assume that McQueen’s eminence as a famous filmmaker frees him from such anxieties, but it should not be forgotten that Hollywood is as tied to Wall Street as Brandon is connected to his lovely, lost sister. I would hope that the Occupy polemics directed at Wall Street are soon extended to express a measure of empathy to the winners, that benighted 1%, as well as to the victimized 99%, so as to achieve the spiritual coherence that respects the Gandhi /Tahrir legacy so often invoked by those inhabiting the tent cities around the world. Whether intended or not, ‘Shame’ helps us complete this circle of victimization, by illuminating the fallen lives of those who seem to prosper by gaming the system.  For me the real source of ‘shame’ is not this personal humiliation of the characters, but the shamefulness of their constructed societal environments that seems calculated to achieve an acute alienation that suspends ethical judgment, a goal greatly facilitated by the insidious blending of the wonders of cyberspace with the secretarial skills of gifted entrepreneurs.