Of Urban Parochialism And Rural Cosmopolitanism

Something that increasingly troubles me is the common supposition that urbanites are cosmopolitan by virtue of being urbanites. Not only does that bias attribute what in modern eyes is a morally desirable quality to the mere experience of living in densely populated areas, it also assigns the negative quality of parochialism to non-urbanites.

The thing is, the line between urban and rural is no longer as clear as before, and therefore the association between urbanity and cosmopolitanism – a tie that has been shaky from the start in any case – becomes ever more tenuous.

This overstaying of associative logic is a common enough error.

The connection between urban living and a cosmopolitan mindset was certainly stronger in the old days when city living was clearly separate from rural living that the need. But then again, that may only be so because the meaning of “cosmopolitan” has changed radically.

To start from basics, the term combines the Greek words, cosmos and polis. The first signifies the universe, considered as a harmonious and orderly system, while the second denotes the Greek city-state. The Order of Nature and the Order of Man are necessarily coined at the same time in dialectic relation to each other. And so, the Cosmopolis is born.

Generically, this is the beginning of civilisation. Much of human knowledge derives from this nexus. The constructors of these two dialectically connected orders were the learned – the administrators, oracles/prophets and astrologers of old. They invented scripts, calendars and philosophy, which in turn endowed their creators with power.

Together with aristocrats who benefited from their services, these men – for they always tended to be men – defined what the original urbanity was. In fact, they went further than that; they actually defined “rationality”.

This was as obvious in the Egyptian or Greek tradition as it was in Indic or Sinic thought. Interestingly, the present Malay term for “country” – negara – is derived from the Sanskrit word nagara that refers to “township” or “being a citizen”.

Indeed, the urbanite of old was cosmopolitan by definition.

But what we mean today by cosmopolitanism is something quite different. Ideally, a cosmopolitan today is a sophisticated person who is adaptive and tolerant, feels at home in most places and is not tightly bound by local and national habits and prejudices.

At the same time, we differentiate between cities. We imagine that trading ports house the modern cosmopolitan spirit more happily than other types of cities do – especially administrative hubs. That is paradoxical indeed for these latter cities were the centres of cosmopolitanism as understood the old way.

Not only are cities different from each other, but with the rise of suburbia and satellite townships, not to mention the advent of easy travel, information communication technologies and popular education, most of us are no longer clear about our urbanity or rurality.

In this muddled situation, new social phenomena spread, and however paradoxical this may at first seem, some of these are best described as urban parochialism, and some as rural cosmopolitanism. It seems to me that being cosmopolitan nowadays is to have rural habits alongside urban ones.

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