One of the hallmarks of true cosmopolitan thinking, according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, is the idea of fallibilism — “the idea that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence.” Cosmopolitans value conversation because they know they’re not perfect, that they don’t have all the answers. It is by listening to others — listening and being open to having our minds changed — that we can discover where we may be wrong. And by talking to others that we can test our own beliefs and knowledge.
What stymies cosmopolitanism? Fundamentalism of any kind, because the fundamentalist believes that he or she has all the answers and isn’t interested in conversation. The cosmopolitan believes in the necessity of talking and being willing to have your mind changed: what is the cosmopolitan to do then when faced with someone who won’t talk and whose mind is completely made up?
There’s another danger for the cosmopolitan, this one self-inflicted: provincialism, or rather the cosmopolitan’s scorn for the provincial. Bryan wrote here last summer about Rudy Giuliani’s address to the Republican Convention: he was struck by Giuliani’s pejorative use of the term “cosmopolitan.” The people that Giuliani was addressing are the same people that Thomas Frank describes in his study of contemporary U.S. conservatism, What’s the Matter with Kansas (2004): “People in suburban Kansas City vituperate against the sinful cosmopolitan elite of New York and Washington, D.C.; people in rural Kansas vituperate against the sinful cosmopolitan elite of Topeka and suburban Kansas City.” Rural Kansas is provincial and proud of it. (I invoked Frank’s statement last summer when writing about the anti-cosmopolitanism of one John Rocker.)
But cosmopolitans need to come clean: they tend to despise the provincials as much as the provincials despite them.
The test of the true cosmopolitan is the willingness to learn from everyone: even from the fundamentalist and even from the provincial.
For me that’s the significance of Kushner’s use of Mormonism in Angels in America: they’re both fundamentalists and provincial. Kushner’s Roy Cohn insults his erstwhile protege Joe Pitt by calling him “Dumb Utah Mormon Hick Shit,” but as anti-liberal is Cohn is, I’m sure it’s a sentiment that many good liberals share despite themselves.
Joe remains a provincial at the end of the play, but his mother, Hannah, who enters the play as the archetypal out-of-towner, dragging two suitcases and lost in an outer borough — she changes. She becomes a New Yorker, a process that the film version dramatizes effectively. (Check out Meryl Streep’s fashionable hairdo above.)
But the longtime New Yorkers learn something from her as well: it’s Hannah who tells Prior about the significance of the angel of Bethesda, and Prior invokes this knowledge in the closing moments of the play — in yet another affirmation of the play’s commitment to cosmopolitanism.