The Case for Contamination
By KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH, January 1, 2006
NY Times Sunday Magazine
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher,
teaches at Princeton University. This essay is
adapted from "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World
of Strangers," to be published later this month
by W.W. Norton.

I'm seated, with my mother, on a palace
veranda, cooled by a breeze from the royal
garden. Before us, on a dais, is an empty throne,
its arms and legs embossed with polished brass,
the back and seat covered in black-and-gold silk.
In front of the steps to the dais, there are two
columns of people, mostly men, facing one
another, seated on carved wooden stools, the
cloths they wear wrapped around their chests,
leaving their shoulders bare. There is a quiet
buzz of conversation. Outside in the garden,
peacocks screech. At last, the blowing of a ram's
horn announces the arrival of the king of Asante,
its tones sounding his honorific, kotokohene,
"porcupine chief." (Each quill of the porcupine,
according to custom, signifies a warrior ready to
kill and to die for the kingdom.) Everyone stands
until the king has settled on the throne. Then,
when we sit, a chorus sings songs in praise of
him, which are interspersed with the playing of a
flute. It is a Wednesday festival day in Kumasi,
the town in Ghana where I grew up.

Unless you're one of a few million
Ghanaians, this will probably seem a relatively
unfamiliar world, perhaps even an exotic one. You
might suppose that this Wednesday festival
belongs quaintly to an African past. But before
the king arrived, people were taking calls on
cellphones, and among those passing the time in
quiet conversation were a dozen men in suits,
representatives of an insurance company. And the
meetings in the office next to the veranda are
about contemporary issues: H.I.V./AIDS, the
educational needs of 21st-century children, the
teaching of science and technology at the local
university. When my turn comes to be formally
presented, the king asks me about Princeton,
where I teach. I ask him when he'll next be in
the States. In a few weeks, he says cheerfully.
He's got a meeting with the head of the World

Anywhere you travel in the world - today
as always - you can find ceremonies like these,
many of them rooted in centuries-old traditions.
But you will also find everywhere - and this is
something new - many intimate connections with
places far away: Washington, Moscow, Mexico City,
Beijing. Across the street from us, when we were
growing up, there was a large house occupied by a
number of families, among them a vast family of
boys; one, about my age, was a good friend. He
lives in London. His brother lives in Japan,
where his wife is from. They have another brother
who has been in Spain for a while and a couple
more brothers who, last I heard, were in the
United States. Some of them still live in Kumasi,
one or two in Accra, Ghana's capital. Eddie, who
lives in Japan, speaks his wife's language now.
He has to. But he was never very comfortable in
English, the language of our government and our
schools. When he phones me from time to time, he
prefers to speak Asante-Twi.

Over the years, the royal palace
buildings in Kumasi have expanded. When I was a
child, we used to visit the previous king, my
great-uncle by marriage, in a small building that
the British had allowed his predecessor to build
when he returned from exile in the Seychelles to
a restored but diminished Asante kingship. That
building is now a museum, dwarfed by the enormous
house next door - built by his successor, my
uncle by marriage - where the current king lives.
Next to it is the suite of offices abutting the
veranda where we were sitting, recently finished
by the present king, my uncle's successor. The
British, my mother's people, conquered Asante at
the turn of the 20th century; now, at the turn of
the 21st, the palace feels as it must have felt
in the 19th century: a center of power. The
president of Ghana comes from this world, too. He
was born across the street from the palace to a
member of the royal Oyoko clan. But he belongs to
other worlds as well: he went to Oxford
University; he's a member of one of the Inns of
Court in London; he's a Catholic, with a picture
of himself greeting the pope in his sitting room.

What are we to make of this? On Kumasi's
Wednesday festival day, I've seen visitors from
England and the United States wince at what they
regard as the intrusion of modernity on timeless,
traditional rituals - more evidence, they think,
of a pressure in the modern world toward
uniformity. They react like the assistant on the
film set who's supposed to check that the extras
in a sword-and-sandals movie aren't wearing
wristwatches. And such purists are not alone. In
the past couple of years, Unesco's members have
spent a great deal of time trying to hammer out a
convention on the "protection and promotion" of
cultural diversity. (It was finally approved at
the Unesco General Conference in October 2005.)
The drafters worried that "the processes of
globalization. . .represent a challenge for
cultural diversity, namely in view of risks of
imbalances between rich and poor countries." The
fear is that the values and images of Western
mass culture, like some invasive weed, are
threatening to choke out the world's native flora.

The contradictions in this argument
aren't hard to find. This same Unesco document is
careful to affirm the importance of the free flow
of ideas, the freedom of thought and expression
and human rights - values that, we know, will
become universal only if we make them so. What's
really important, then, cultures or people? In a
world where Kumasi and New York - and Cairo and
Leeds and Istanbul - are being drawn ever closer
together, an ethics of globalization has proved

The right approach, I think, starts by
taking individuals - not nations, tribes or
"peoples" - as the proper object of moral
concern. It doesn't much matter what we call such
a creed, but in homage to Diogenes, the
fourth-century Greek Cynic and the first
philosopher to call himself a "citizen of the
world," we could call it cosmopolitan.
Cosmopolitans take cultural difference seriously,
because they take the choices individual people
make seriously. But because cultural difference
is not the only thing that concerns them, they
suspect that many of globalization's cultural
critics are aiming at the wrong targets.

Yes, globalization can produce
homogeneity. But globalization is also a threat
to homogeneity. You can see this as clearly in
Kumasi as anywhere. One thing Kumasi isn't -
simply because it's a city - is homogeneous.
English, German, Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese,
Burkinabe, Ivorian,

Nigerian, Indian: I can find you families
of each description. I can find you Asante
people, whose ancestors have lived in this town
for centuries, but also Hausa households that
have been around for centuries, too. There are
people there from every region of the country as
well, speaking scores of languages. But if you
travel just a little way outside Kumasi - 20
miles, say, in the right direction - and if you
drive off the main road down one of the many
potholed side roads of red laterite, you won't
have difficulty finding villages that are fairly
monocultural. The people have mostly been to
Kumasi and seen the big, polyglot, diverse world
of the city. Where they live, though, there is
one everyday language (aside from the English in
the government schools) and an agrarian way of
life based on some old crops, like yams, and some
newer ones, like cocoa, which arrived in the late
19th century as a product for export. They may or
may not have electricity. (This close to Kumasi,
they probably do.) When people talk of the
homogeneity produced by globalization, what they
are talking about is this: Even here, the
villagers will have radios (though the language
will be local); you will be able to get a
discussion going about Ronaldo, Mike Tyson or
Tupac; and you will probably be able to find a
bottle of Guinness or Coca-Cola (as well as of
Star or Club, Ghana's own fine lagers). But has
access to these things made the place more
homogeneous or less? And what can you tell about
people's souls from the fact that they drink

It's true that the enclaves of
homogeneity you find these days - in Asante as in
Pennsylvania - are less distinctive than they
were a century ago, but mostly in good ways. More
of them have access to effective medicines. More
of them have access to clean drinking water, and
more of them have schools. Where, as is still too
common, they don't have these things, it's
something not to celebrate but to deplore. And
whatever loss of difference there has been, they
are constantly inventing new forms of difference:
new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to
time, new religions. No one could say that the
world's villages are becoming anything like the

So why do people in these places
sometimes feel that their identities are
threatened? Because the world, their world, is
changing, and some of them don't like it. The
pull of the global economy - witness those cocoa
trees, whose chocolate is eaten all around the
world - created some of the life they now live.
If chocolate prices were to collapse again, as
they did in the early 1990's, Asante farmers
might have to find new crops or new forms of
livelihood. That prospect is unsettling for some
people (just as it is exciting for others).
Missionaries came awhile ago, so many of these
villagers will be Christian, even if they have
also kept some of the rites from earlier days.
But new Pentecostal messengers are challenging
the churches they know and condemning the old
rites as idolatrous. Again, some like it; some

Above all, relationships are changing.
When my father was young, a man in a village
would farm some land that a chief had granted
him, and his maternal clan (including his younger
brothers) would work it with him. When a new
house needed building, he would organize it. He
would also make sure his dependents were fed and
clothed, the children educated, marriages and
funerals arranged and paid for. He could expect
to pass the farm and the responsibilities along
to the next generation.

Nowadays, everything is different. Cocoa
prices have not kept pace with the cost of
living. Gas prices have made the transportation
of the crop more expensive. And there are new
possibilities for the young in the towns, in
other parts of the country and in other parts of
the world. Once, perhaps, you could have
commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have
the right to leave - perhaps to seek work at one
of the new data-processing centers down south in
the nation's capital - and, anyway, you may not
make enough to feed and clothe and educate them
all. So the time of the successful farming family
is passing, and those who were settled in that
way of life are as sad to see it go as American
family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by
giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with
them. But we cannot force their children to stay
in the name of protecting their authentic
culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize
indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of
homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

Nor should we want to. Human variety
matters, cosmopolitans think, because people are
entitled to options. What John Stuart Mill said
more than a century ago in "On Liberty" about
diversity within a society serves just as well as
an argument for variety across the globe: "If it
were only that people have diversities of taste,
that is reason enough for not attempting to shape
them all after one model. But different persons
also require different conditions for their
spiritual development; and can no more exist
healthily in the same moral, than all the variety
of plants can exist in the same physical,
atmosphere and climate. The same things which are
helps to one person towards the cultivation of
his higher nature, are hindrances to another.. .
.Unless there is a corresponding diversity in
their modes of life, they neither obtain their
fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the
mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which
their nature is capable." If we want to preserve
a wide range of human conditions because it
allows free people the best chance to make their
own lives, we can't enforce diversity by trapping
people within differences they long to escape.

Even if you grant that people shouldn't
be compelled to sustain the older cultural
practices, you might suppose that cosmopolitans
should side with those who are busy around the
world "preserving culture" and resisting
"cultural imperialism." Yet behind these slogans
you often find some curious assumptions. Take
"preserving culture." It's one thing to help
people sustain arts they want to sustain. I am
all for festivals of Welsh bards in Llandudno
financed by the Welsh arts council. Long live the
Ghana National Cultural Center in Kumasi, where
you can go and learn traditional Akan dancing and
drumming, especially since its classes are
spirited and overflowing. Restore the
deteriorating film stock of early Hollywood
movies; continue the preservation of Old Norse
and early Chinese and Ethiopian manuscripts;
record, transcribe and analyze the oral
narratives of Malay and Masai and Maori. All
these are undeniably valuable.

But preserving culture - in the sense of
such cultural artifacts - is different from
preserving cultures. And the cultural
preservationists often pursue the latter, trying
to ensure that the Huli of Papua New Guinea (or
even Sikhs in Toronto) maintain their "authentic"
ways. What makes a cultural expression authentic,
though? Are we to stop the importation of
baseball caps into Vietnam so that the Zao will
continue to wear their colorful red headdresses?
Why not ask the Zao? Shouldn't the choice be

"They have no real choice," the cultural
preservationists say. "We've dumped cheap Western
clothes into their markets, and they can no
longer afford the silk they used to wear. If they
had what they really wanted, they'd still be
dressed traditionally." But this is no longer an
argument about authenticity. The claim is that
they can't afford to do something that they'd
really like to do, something that is expressive
of an identity they care about and want to
sustain. This is a genuine problem, one that
afflicts people in many communities: they're too
poor to live the life they want to lead. But if
they do get richer, and they still run around in
T-shirts, that's their choice. Talk of
authenticity now just amounts to telling other
people what they ought to value in their own

Not that this is likely to be a problem
in the real world. People who can afford it
mostly like to put on traditional garb - at least
from time to time. I was best man once at a
Scottish wedding at which the bridegroom wore a
kilt and I wore kente cloth. Andrew Oransay, the
islander who piped us up the aisle, whispered in
my ear at one point, "Here we all are then, in
our tribal gear." In Kumasi, people who can
afford them love to put on their kente cloths,
especially the most "traditional" ones, woven in
colorful silk strips in the town of Bonwire, as
they have been for a couple of centuries. (The
prices are high in part because demand outside
Asante has risen. A fine kente for a man now
costs more than the average Ghanaian earns in a
year. Is that bad? Not for the people of Bonwire.)

Besides, trying to find some primordially
authentic culture can be like peeling an onion.
The textiles most people think of as traditional
West African cloths are known as Java prints;
they arrived in the 19th century with the
Javanese batiks sold, and often milled, by the
Dutch. The traditional garb of Herero women in
Namibia derives from the attire of 19th-century
German missionaries, though it is still
unmistakably Herero, not least because the
fabrics used have a distinctly un-Lutheran range
of colors. And so with our kente cloth: the silk
was always imported, traded by Europeans,
produced in Asia. This tradition was once an
innovation. Should we reject it for that reason
as untraditional? How far back must one go?
Should we condemn the young men and women of the
University of Science and Technology, a few miles
outside Kumasi, who wear European-style gowns for
graduation, lined with kente strips (as they do
now at Howard and Morehouse, too)? Cultures are
made of continuities and changes, and the
identity of a society can survive through these
changes. Societies without change aren't
authentic; they're just dead.

The preservationists often make their
case by invoking the evil of "cultural
imperialism." Their underlying picture, in broad
strokes, is this: There is a world system of
capitalism. It has a center and a periphery. At
the center - in Europe and the United States - is
a set of multinational corporations. Some of
these are in the media business. The products
they sell around the world promote the creation
of desires that can be fulfilled only by the
purchase and use of their products. They do this
explicitly through advertising, but more
insidiously, they also do so through the messages
implicit in movies and in television drama.
Herbert Schiller, a leading critic of
"media-cultural imperialism," claimed that "it is
the imagery and cultural perspectives of the
ruling sector in the center that shape and
structure consciousness throughout the system at

That's the theory, anyway. But the
evidence doesn't bear it out. Researchers have
actually gone out into the world and explored the
responses to the hit television series "Dallas"
in Holland and among Israeli Arabs, Moroccan
Jewish immigrants, kibbutzniks and new Russian
immigrants to Israel. They have examined the
actual content of the television media - whose
penetration of everyday life far exceeds that of
film - in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India and
Mexico. They have looked at how American popular
culture was taken up by the artists of
Sophiatown, in South Africa. They have discussed
"Days of Our Lives" and "The Bold and the
Beautiful" with Zulu college students from
traditional backgrounds.

And one thing they've found is that how
people respond to these cultural imports depends
on their existing cultural context. When the
media scholar Larry Strelitz spoke to students
from KwaZulu-Natal, he found that they were
anything but passive vessels. One of them, Sipho
- a self-described "very, very strong Zulu man" -
reported that he had drawn lessons from watching
the American soap opera "Days of Our Lives,"
"especially relationship-wise." It fortified his
view that "if a guy can tell a woman that he
loves her, she should be able to do the same."
What's more, after watching the show, Sipho
"realized that I should be allowed to speak to my
father. He should be my friend rather than just
my father." It seems doubtful that that was the
intended message of multinational capitalism's
ruling sector.

But Sipho's response also confirmed that
cultural consumers are not dupes. They can adapt
products to suit their own needs, and they can
decide for themselves what they do and do not
approve of. Here's Sipho again:

"In terms of our culture, a girl is
expected to enter into relationships when she is
about 20. In the Western culture, a girl can be
exposed to a relationship as early as 15 or 16.
That one we shouldn't adopt in our culture.
Another thing we shouldn't adopt from the Western
culture has to do with the way they treat elderly
people. I wouldn't like my family to be sent into
an old-age home."

It wouldn't matter whether the "old-age
homes" in American soap operas were safe places,
full of kindly people. That wouldn't sell the
idea to Sipho. Dutch viewers of "Dallas" saw not
the pleasures of conspicuous consumption among
the superrich - the message that theorists of
"cultural imperialism" find in every episode -
but a reminder that money and power don't protect
you from tragedy. Israeli Arabs saw a program
that confirmed that women abused by their
husbands should return to their fathers. Mexican
telenovelas remind Ghanaian women that, where sex
is at issue, men are not to be trusted. If the
telenovelas tried to tell them otherwise, they
wouldn't believe it.

Talk of cultural imperialism "structuring
the consciousnesses" of those in the periphery
treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which
global capitalism's moving finger writes its
message, leaving behind another cultural
automaton as it moves on. It is deeply
condescending. And it isn't true.

In fact, one way that people sometimes
respond to the onslaught of ideas from the West
is to turn them against their originators. It's
no accident that the West's fiercest adversaries
among other societies tend to come from among the
most Westernized of the group. Who in Ghana
excoriated the British colonizers and built the
movement for independence? Not the farmers and
the peasants. Not the chiefs. It was the
Western-educated bourgeoisie. And when Kwame
Nkrumah - who went to college in Pennsylvania and
lived in London - created a nationalist mass
movement, at its core were soldiers who had
returned from fighting a war in the British Army,
urban market women who traded Dutch prints,
unionists who worked in industries created by
colonialism and the so-called veranda boys, who
had been to colonial schools, learned English and
studied history and geography in textbooks
written in England. Who led the resistance to the
British Raj? An Indian-born South African lawyer,
trained in the British courts, whose name was
Gandhi; an Indian named Nehru, who wore Savile
Row suits and sent his daughter to an English
boarding school; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder
of Pakistan, who joined Lincoln's Inn in London
and became a barrister at the age of 19. The
independence movements of the postwar world that
led to the end of Europe's African and Asian
empires were driven by the rhetoric that had
guided the Allies' own struggle against Germany
and Japan: democracy, freedom, equality. This
wasn't a conflict between values. It was a
conflict of interests couched in terms of the
same values.

Sometimes, though, people react to the
incursions of the modern world not by
appropriating the values espoused by the liberal
democracies but by inverting them. One recent
result has been a new worldwide fraternity that
presents cosmopolitanism with something of a
sinister mirror image. Indeed, you could think of
its members as counter-cosmopolitans. They
believe in human dignity across the nations, and
they live their creed. They share these ideals
with people in many countries, speaking many
languages. As thoroughgoing globalists, they make
full use of the World Wide Web. They resist the
crass consumerism of modern Western society and
deplore its influence in the rest of the world.
But they also resist the temptations of the
narrow nationalisms of the countries where they
were born, along with the humble allegiances of
kith and kin. They resist such humdrum loyalties
because they get in the way of the one thing that
matters: building a community of enlightened men
and women across the world. That is one reason
they reject traditional religious authorities
(though they disapprove, too, of their
obscurantism and temporizing). Sometimes they
agonize in their discussions about whether they
can reverse the world's evils or whether their
struggle is hopeless. But mostly they soldier on
in their efforts to make the world a better place.

These are not the heirs of Diogenes the
Cynic. The community these comrades are building
is not a polis; it's what they call the ummah,
the global community of Muslims, and it is open
to all who share their faith. They are young,
global Muslim fundamentalists. The ummah's new
globalists consider that they have returned to
the fundamentals of Islam; much of what passes
for Islam in the world, much of what has passed
as Islam for centuries, they think a sham. As the
French scholar Olivier Roy has observed, these
religionists - his term for them is
"neofundamentalists" - wish to cleanse Islam's
pristine and universal message from the
contingencies of mere history, of local cultures.
For them, Roy notes, "globalization is a good
opportunity to dissociate Islam from any given
culture and to provide a model that could work
beyond any culture." They have taken a set of
doctrines that once came with a form of life, in
other words, and thrown away that form of life.

Now, the vast majority of these
fundamentalists are not going to blow anybody up.
So they should not be confused with those other
Muslims -the "radical neofundamentalists," Roy
calls them - who want to turn jihad, interpreted
as literal warfare against the West, into the
sixth pillar of Islam. Whether to endorse the use
of violence is a political decision, even if it
is to be justified in religious terms.
Nonetheless, the neofundamentalists present a
classic challenge to cosmopolitanism, because
they, too, offer a moral and, in its way,
inclusive universalism.

Unlike cosmopolitanism, of course, it is
universalist without being tolerant, and such
intolerant universalism has often led to murder.
It underlay the French Wars of Religion that
bloodied the four decades before the Edict of
Nantes of 1598, in which Henri IV of France
finally granted to the Protestants in his realm
the right to practice their faith. In the Thirty
Years' War, which ravaged central Europe until
1648 and the Peace of Westphalia, Protestant and
Catholic princes from Austria to Sweden struggled
with one another, and hundreds of thousands of
Germans died in battle. Millions starved or died
of disease as roaming armies pillaged the
countryside. The period of religious conflict in
the British Isles, from the first Bishops' War of
1639 to the end of the English Civil War in 1651,
which pitted Protestant armies against the forces
of a Catholic king, resulted in the deaths of
perhaps 10 percent of the population. All these
conflicts involved issues beyond sectarian
doctrine, of course. Still, many Enlightenment
liberals drew the conclusion that enforcing one
vision of universal truth could only lead the
world back to the blood baths.

Yet tolerance by itself is not what
distinguishes the cosmopolitan from the
neofundamentalist. There are plenty of things
that the heroes of radical Islam are happy to
tolerate. They don't care if you eat kebabs or
meatballs or kung pao chicken, as long as the
meat is halal; your hijab can be silk or linen or
viscose. At the same time, there are plenty of
things that cosmopolitans will not tolerate. We
will sometimes want to intervene in other places
because what is going on there violates our
principles so deeply. We, too, can see moral
error. And when it is serious enough - genocide
is the least-controversial case - we will not
stop with conversation. Toleration has its limits.

Nor can you tell us apart by saying that
the neofundamentalists believe in universal
truth. Cosmopolitans believe in universal truth,
too, though we are less certain that we already
have all of it. It is not skepticism about the
very idea of truth that guides us; it is realism
about how hard the truth is to find. One tenet we
hold to, however, is that every human being has
obligations to every other. Everybody matters:
that is our central idea. And again, it sharply
limits the scope of our tolerance.

To say what, in principle, distinguishes
the cosmopolitan from competing universalisms, we
plainly need to go beyond talk of truth and
tolerance. One distinctively cosmopolitan
commitment is to pluralism. Cosmopolitans think
that there are many values worth living by and
that you cannot live by all of them. So we hope
and expect that different people and different
societies will embody different values. Another
aspect of cosmopolitanism is what philosophers
call fallibilism - the sense that our knowledge
is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in
the face of new evidence.

The neofundamentalist conception of a
global ummah, by contrast, admits of local
variations - but only in matters that don't
matter. These counter-cosmopolitans, like many
Christian fundamentalists, do think that there is
one right way for all human beings to live; that
all the differences must be in the details. If
what concerns you is global homogeneity, then
this utopia, not the world that capitalism is
producing, is the one you should worry about.
Still, the universalisms in the name of religion
are hardly the only ones that invert the
cosmopolitan creed. In the name of universal
humanity, you can be the kind of Marxist, like
Mao or Pol Pot, who wants to eradicate all
religion, just as easily as you can be the Grand
Inquisitor supervising an auto-da-f?. All of
these men want everyone on their side, so we can
share with them the vision in their mirror.
"Indeed, I'm a trustworthy adviser to you," Osama
bin Laden said in a 2002 "message to the American
people." "I invite you to the happiness of this
world and the hereafter and to escape your dry,
miserable, materialistic life that is without
soul. I invite you to Islam, that calls to follow
of the path of Allah alone Who has no partners,
the path which calls for justice and forbids
oppression and crimes." Join us, the
counter-cosmopolitans say, and we will all be
sisters and brothers. But each of them plans to
trample on our differences - to trample us to
death, if necessary - if we will not join them.
Their motto might as well be the sardonic German
saying Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein, So
schlag' ich Dir den Sch?del ein. (If you don't
want to be my brother, then I'll smash your skull

That liberal pluralists are hostile to
certain authoritarian ways of life - that they're
intolerant of radical intolerance - is sometimes
seen as kind of self-refutation. That's a
mistake: you can care about individual freedom
and still understand that the contours of that
freedom will vary considerably from place to
place. But we might as well admit that a concern
for individual freedom isn't something that will
appeal to every individual. In politics,
including cultural politics, there are winners
and losers - which is worth remembering when we
think about international human rights treaties.
When we seek to embody our concern for strangers
in human rights law, and when we urge our
government to enforce it, we are seeking to
change the world of law in every nation on the
planet. We have declared slavery a violation of
international law. And, in so doing, we have
committed ourselves, at a minimum, to the
desirability of its eradication everywhere. This
is no longer controversial in the capitals of the
world. No one defends enslavement. But
international treaties define slavery in ways
that arguably include debt bondage, and debt
bondage is a significant economic institution in
parts of South Asia. I hold no brief for debt
bondage. Still, we shouldn't be surprised if
people whose incomes and style of life depend
upon it are angry.

It's the same with the international
movements to promote women's equality. We know
that many Islamists are deeply disturbed by the
way Western men and women behave. We permit women
to swim almost naked with strange men, which is
our business, but it is hard to keep the news of
these acts of immodesty from Muslim women and
children or to protect Muslim men from the
temptations they inevitably create. As the
Internet extends its reach, it will get even
harder, and their children, especially their
girls, will be tempted to ask for these freedoms,
too. Worse, they say, we are now trying to force
our conception of how women and men should behave
upon them. We speak of women's rights. We make
treaties enshrining these rights. And then we
want their governments to enforce them.

Like many people in every nation, I
support those treaties; I believe that women,
like men, should have the vote, should be
entitled to work outside their homes, should be
protected from the physical abuse of men,
including their fathers, brothers and husbands.
But I also know that the changes these freedoms
would bring will change the balance of power
between men and women in everyday life. How do I
know this? Because I have lived most of my adult
life in the West as it has gone through just such
a transition, and I know that the process is not
yet complete.

So liberty and diversity may well be at
odds, and the tensions between them aren't always
easily resolved. But the rhetoric of cultural
preservation isn't any help. Again, the
contradictions are near to hand. Take

another look at that Unesco Convention.
It affirms the "principle of equal dignity of and
respect for all cultures." (What, all cultures -
including those of the K.K.K. and the Taliban?)
It also affirms "the importance of culture for
social cohesion in general, and in particular its
potential for the enhancement of the status and
role of women in society." (But doesn't
"cohesion" argue for uniformity? And wouldn't
enhancing the status and role of women involve
changing, rather than preserving, cultures?) In
Saudi Arabia, people can watch "Will and Grace"
on satellite TV - officially proscribed, but
available all the same - knowing that, under
Saudi law, Will could be beheaded in a public
square. In northern Nigeria, mullahs inveigh
against polio vaccination while sentencing
adulteresses to death by stoning. In India,
thousands of wives are burned to death each year
for failing to make their dowry payments. Vive la
diff?rence? Please.

Living cultures do not, in any case,
evolve from purity into contamination; change is
more a gradual transformation from one mixture to
a new mixture, a process that usually takes place
at some distance from rules and rulers, in the
conversations that occur across cultural
boundaries. Such conversations are not so much
about arguments and values as about the exchange
of perspectives. I don't say that we can't change
minds, but the reasons we offer in our
conversation will seldom do much to persuade
others who do not share our fundamental
evaluative judgments already. When we make
judgments, after all, it's rarely because we have
applied well-thought-out principles to a set of
facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to
justify what we have done - or what we plan to do
- are typically made up after the event,
rationalizations of what we have decided
intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we
intuitively take to be right, we take to be right
just because it is what we are used to. That does
not mean, however, that we cannot become
accustomed to doing things differently.

Consider the practice of foot-binding in
China, which persisted for a thousand years - and
was largely eradicated within a generation. The
anti-foot-binding campaign, in the 1910's and
1920's, did circulate facts about the
disadvantages of bound feet, but those couldn't
have come as news to most people. Perhaps more
effective was the campaign's emphasis that no
other country went in for the practice; in the
world at large, then, China was "losing face"
because of it. (To China's cultural
preservationists, of course, the fact that the
practice was peculiar to the region was entirely
a mark in its favor.) Natural-foot societies were
formed, with members forswearing the practice and
further pledging that their sons would not marry
women with bound feet. As the movement took hold,
scorn was heaped on older women with bound feet,
and they were forced to endure the agonies of
unbinding. What had been beautiful became ugly;
ornamentation became disfigurement. The appeal to
reason can explain neither the custom nor its

So, too, with other social trends. Just a
couple of generations ago, most people in most of
the industrialized world thought that
middle-class women would ideally be housewives
and mothers. If they had time on their hands,
they could engage in charitable work or entertain
one another; a few of them might engage in the
arts, writing novels, painting, performing in
music, theater and dance. But there was little
place for them in the "learned professions" - as
lawyers or doctors, priests or rabbis; and if
they were to be academics, they would teach young
women and probably remain unmarried. They were
not likely to make their way in politics, except
perhaps at the local level. And they were not
made welcome in science.

How much of the shift away from these
assumptions is a result of arguments? Isn't a
significant part of it just the consequence of
our getting used to new ways of doing things? The
arguments that kept the old pattern in place were
not - to put it mildly - terribly good. If the
reasons for the old sexist way of doing things
had been the problem, the women's movement could
have been done in a couple of weeks.

Consider another example: In much of
Europe and North America, in places where a
generation ago homosexuals were social outcasts
and homosexual acts were illegal, lesbian and gay
couples are increasingly being recognized by
their families, by society and by the law. This
is true despite the continued opposition of major
religious groups and a significant and persisting
undercurrent of social disapproval. Both sides
make arguments, some good, most bad. But if you
ask the social scientists what has produced this
change, they will rightly not start with a story
about reasons. They will give you a historical
account that concludes with a sort of
perspectival shift. The increasing presence of
"openly gay" people in social life and in the
media has changed our habits. And over the last
30 years or so, instead of thinking about the
private activity of gay sex, many Americans and
Europeans started thinking about the public
category of gay people.

One of the great savants of the postwar
era, John von Neumann, liked to say,
mischievously, that "in mathematics you don't
understand things, you just get used to them." As
in mathematical arguments, so in moral ones. Now,
I don't deny that all the time, at every stage,
people were talking, giving one another reasons
to do things: accept their children, stop
treating homosexuality as a medical disorder,
disagree with their churches, come out. Still,
the short version of the story is basically this:
People got used to lesbians and gay men. I am
urging that we should learn about people in other
places, take an interest in their civilizations,
their arguments, their errors, their
achievements, not because that will bring us to
agreement but because it will help us get used to
one another - something we have a powerful need
to do in this globalized era. If that is the aim,
then the fact that we have all these
opportunities for disagreement about values need
not put us off. Understanding one another may be
hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it
doesn't require that we come to agreement.

The ideals of purity and preservation
have licensed a great deal of mischief in the
past century, but they have never had much to do
with lived culture. Ours may be an era of mass
migration, but the global spread and
hybridization of culture - through travel, trade
or conquest - is hardly a recent development.
Alexander's empire molded both the states and the
sculpture of Egypt and North India; the Mongols
and then the Mughals shaped great swaths of Asia;
the Bantu migrations populated half the African
continent. Islamic states stretch from Morocco to
Indonesia; Christianity reached Africa, Europe
and Asia within a few centuries of the death of
Jesus of Nazareth; Buddhism long ago migrated
from India into much of East and Southeast Asia.
Jews and people whose ancestors came from many
parts of China have long lived in vast diasporas.
The traders of the Silk Road changed the style of
elite dress in Italy; someone buried Chinese
pottery in 15th-century Swahili graves. I have
heard it said that the bagpipes started out in
Egypt and came to Scotland with the Roman
infantry. None of this is modern.

Our guide to what is going on here might
as well be a former African slave named Publius
Terentius Afer, whom we know as Terence. Terence,
born in Carthage, was taken to Rome in the early
second century B.C., and his plays - witty,
elegant works that are, with Plautus's earlier,
less-cultivated works, essentially all we have of
Roman comedy - were widely admired among the
city's literary elite. Terence's own mode of
writing - which involved freely incorporating any
number of earlier Greek plays into a single Latin
one - was known to Roman litt?rateurs as

It's an evocative term. When people speak
for an ideal of cultural purity, sustaining the
authentic culture of the Asante or the American
family farm, I find myself drawn to contamination
as the name for a counterideal. Terence had a
notably firm grasp on the range of human variety:
"So many men, so many opinions" was a line of
his. And it's in his comedy "The Self-Tormentor"
that you'll find what may be the golden rule of
cosmopolitanism - Homo sum: humani nil a me
alienum puto; "I am human: nothing human is alien
to me." The context is illuminating. A busybody
farmer named Chremes is told by his neighbor to
mind his own affairs; the homo sum credo is
Chremes's breezy rejoinder. It isn't meant to be
an ordinance from on high; it's just the case for
gossip. Then again, gossip - the fascination
people have for the small doings of other people
- has been a powerful force for conversation
among cultures.

The ideal of contamination has few
exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who
has insisted that the novel that occasioned his
fatwa "celebrates hybridity, impurity,
intermingling, the transformation that comes of
new and unexpected combinations of human beings,
cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It
rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the
absolutism of the Pure. Mange, hotch-potch, a
bit of this and a bit of that is how newness
enters the world." No doubt there can be an easy
and spurious utopianism of "mixture," as there is
of "purity" or "authenticity." And yet the larger
human truth is on the side of contamination -
that endless process of imitation and revision.

A tenable global ethics has to temper a
respect for difference with a respect for the
freedom of actual human beings to make their own
choices. That's why cosmopolitans don't insist
that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they
don't have all the answers. They're humble enough
to think that they might learn from strangers;
not too humble to think that strangers can't
learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says
after his "I am human" line, but it is equally
suggestive: "If you're right, I'll do what you
do. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight."