There’s Nothing Virtuous About Being a Rootless ‘Citizen Of The World’

Someone give that woman a medal

Most self-described citizens of the world are actually no such thing. They might enjoy the company of very similar people in increasingly similar global cities, but they probably couldn’t think of a single thing to say to somebody of different socio-economic status from a smaller town twenty miles down the road

Pete North explains perhaps better than anyone exactly why those people who style themselves as liberal “citizens of the world” are often no such thing – neither tremendously liberal, nor engaged citizens of anywhere, in any meaningful respect.

North writes:

In the end there is nothing especially virtuous about people who are well travelled and outward looking. A society needs all stripes to function. We need people to work the routine jobs and then we need a fluid workforce not tied down with responsibilities. Moreover, having dealt with more well pampered HR people than a person ever should, one thing I have noticed is that travel does not necessarily broaden the mind.

If you take an incurious person and lavish travel upon them you are wasting your money. Some of the most shallow, snobby and fatuous people I know would consider themselves liberal citizens of the world. Such people have no concept of what it is to be building or maintaining something with a long term plan. They latch on to the fashionable and socially convenient worldview that the EU is the manifestation of liberal values but it little more than virtue signalling.

And develops his argument:

What I find is that the broader your horizons, the harder it is to fit in wherever you go, and so there remains a polarisation between the settled and the travelled. It is then no surprise that there is an obvious demographic divide and opinion is split between the ages.

In this, the remain side of the Brexit debate seem keen to pour over these demographic studies to pathologise the leave vote, and consequently delegitimise it, as though you need to be of a particular set for your opinion to hold any worth. Democracy is lost on such people. The whole point of democracy is one person; one vote, where we take a sample of opinion and move together on the basis of compromise.

In something as binary as EU membership though there is only winner takes all. There is no third option on the ballot so we move with the majoritarian view which is to leave. For whatever reasons they voted for, they did so in accordance with their own views based on their own choices. Their worldviews are formed by what they see and hear in the media, but also in the street and in the workplace. They are the best judges of what is important to them. To suggest that choosing a more conservative lifestyle means you are not qualified to make such an estimation is to invite the very sentiment behind the leave vote.

What these people know better than anyone is that the frivolous and rootless people telling them how to vote are no better than anybody. I imagine the working classes would like nothing more than to live a more adventurous life but they don’t because they can’t afford it. It’s then a bit rich to tell them that the EU brings them freedom of movement and prosperity.

Earlier this year Theresa May said “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means”. I smiled when I heard that. Nothing quite so succinctly demolishes the flimsy worldview that believing in the borderless homogenised EU, along with all the pompous garb that goes with it, is somehow enlightenment. May recognises that being a citizen is more than holding outwardly liberal views. It means making a contribution – to be part of something.

It takes no particular talent to drift through life going place to place – and in so doing all you’re likely to meet is others who have made the same choices or enjoy an extraordinary privilege. Far from broadening the mind it merely reinforces a particular mindset which is never exposed to the values of the settled community. It’s why self-styled “citizens of the world” have no self-awareness and do not for a moment appreciate just how naff they sound to everybody else.

In my experience, self-described citizens of the world have tended to describe their outlook in terms of what they get from the bargain rather than what they contribute to the equation. They call themselves citizens if the world because being so affords them opportunities and privileges – the chance to travel, network and do business. Very few people speak of being citizens of the world because of what they give back in terms of charity, cultural richness or human knowledge, yet all of the people that I would consider to be true citizens of the world – people like Leonard Bernstein or Ernest Hemingway – fall into this latter, rarer category.

What does it really mean to be a modern day “citizen of the world”, anyway, besides having a determinedly self-regarding outlook? Most of those who claim the title – either members of the ruling class or young hipsters whining that their futures and European identities have been somehow ripped away from them – are from the big cities, London most prominently. But to a large extent, many world cities are so alike in culture that one can negotiate and skip between them fairly easily,  even with a language barrier.

London has Starbucks, museums, galleries, bars and hipsters. So do Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Warsaw, Manchester, and everywhere else in Europe. In our interconnected world, large global cities are if not interchangeable then at least often share a common culture and vibe.

So you can successfully get smashed in Lisbon, Dublin, Stockholm and Munich? Congratulations, Mr. Citizen of the World. What do you want, a medal? Now go try to strike up a conversation with someone from your own country but from a different social class or region. Try going for a night out in Harlow or Wolverhampton or Preston. Your non-prescription hipster spectacles and quirky denim dungarees might buy you immediate entry to the trendy coffee shops of Amsterdam or the bars of Barcelona, but they’ll get you nowhere in Stoke-on-Trent.

And increasingly this is what it comes down to. We have a broad class of people with access to (and the desire to be part of) this emerging global tribe based in the top cities, and a class of people either cut off from this world or with little desire to participate in it. Now, we should certainly use economic policy to lift those who want to live more global lives into a position where they can do so, and avoid the urge to persecute or condescend to those who do not. But in general, we could all do with a bit less smugness and sanctimony from the Citizen of Starbucks Brigade.

For a start, the vast, vast majority of these people are such poor citizens of their own countries that they would feel adrift and culture-shocked, as though in a foreign land, if you lifted them from their home city and moved them to a smaller town thirty miles down the road. This is not some elite band of super-enlightened, non-judgmental, globally-minded, culturally-aware aesthetes, eager to experience new things. This is a pampered, cosseted tribe of relatively well-off millennials, many of whom are in thrall to the divisive Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, who barely understand their own compatriots yet arrogantly believe they are ready to be unleashed upon the world.

There is nothing particularly noble or praiseworthy about overcoming a language barrier to work and make friends with other people just like you who happen to live in other countries – which describes the vast majority of those people now tearfully painting the EU flag on their cheeks at anti-Brexit demonstrations and angrily declaring themselves “citizens of the world”.

Want to do something more challenging and actually worthy of praise? Try earning a reputation as somebody with friendships that span ages, social classes and other demographic indicators. Try living up to the ideal set by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch

And if you do so, you might not necessarily become a Man, my son. But at least you won’t be just another insufferable, identikit, cookie-cutter individual who conspicuously supports the European Union – despite barely comprehending what it really is – purely as a means of signalling your virtue to your insufferable, identikit, cookie-cutter fellow citizens of the world.


Bottom Image: albawhitewolf

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6 thoughts on “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Being a Rootless ‘Citizen Of The World’

  1. Jason December 23, 2016 / 11:00 PM

    I’ve never felt more tempted to write you an article length reply before Sam. I think you and the rest of the leave camp are forgetting the outsized benefits London and the UK get from being one of the biggest hubs of us ‘citizens for the world’. London has housed some of the richest and highest tax paying individuals, largest and most dynamic companies and some of the biggest contributors to cultural and technological development. The more you head into isolationism and nationalism the more you risk this privileged position.

    You understate the difficulties of cultural integration and overcoming language barriers (try it sometime!) and instead spurn those those who don’t define themselves by what they are not (foreign). If there was ever a less impressive achievement than being born into a certain race or nationality I’d like to hear it.

    There may be less cross-class or regional interaction than would be ideal from us, but without international exchange of ideas such as is spread by expats you get ignorant populations that navel-gaze and allow themselves to get taken advantage of by their national politicians ( have a look at the US and their lack of manduatory maternity leave, minimum holidays or regulations to prevent gerrymandering). There are many places that would love to play host to individuals such as us. If the UK stops being a hospitable environment they will find themselves missing our contribution dearly.


  2. angharadlois December 21, 2016 / 10:03 AM

    Straw men are easy to attack, aren’t they?
    I think we both agree on a slightly deeper meaning of ‘citizen’ than the simple legal definition of a member of a state (since that would not apply to the ‘world’ sense here) – perhaps as someone who actively takes part in and contributes to their local community. And although I disagree with the idea that there is nothing praiseworthy about overcoming a language barrier or learning other languages, we both agree on the importance of wide-ranging friendships which span different ages, social classes and – yes – cultures. I view this as part of my identity as a citizen of the world, as someone who has taken part in and contributed to local communities wherever I have lived, whether in small and economically depressed towns in the UK and beyond, or in world-class cities. Chris North’s condescending praise of his apparently less educated, more home-orientated neighbours as “the people who keep the gas flowing and the lights on” irks me because it purports to speak on behalf of an entire group of people, lumping them all together into a mass of the ‘left behind’ in need of eloquent heroes. Perhaps if he befriended them as individuals, and realized that he is one of them – part of the community – he would learn that identity is not so simple, even in these groups. Did you either of you know, for example, that there is a thriving local, working-class poetry scene in Preston? Or were you too busy tweeting your relief at leaving these miserable towns for the comforts of London? Those of us who live in these places see a bit more to value than the empty right-wing rhetoric praising the ordinary working man while keeping him at arms’ length.


    • angharadlois December 21, 2016 / 10:08 AM

      Incidentally, most of the people I know who voted Brexit were comfortably middle-class, affluent types who voted because they put their personal interests above the interests of their community. By contrast, a lot of my more working-class neighbours voted to remain because they were concerned at the prospect of losing EU legislation which protects workers’ rights. Your argument, pre-referendum, was that the UK could legislate just as well as the EU to protect workers’ rights, the environment and cultural heritage; I remained to be convinced.


      • PBC1963 December 21, 2016 / 10:03 PM

        The key word is “could”; of course the UK government, once freed from EU constraints will have some wider scope to set legislation in the areas you cite at an equivalent, greater or lesser level than the EU requirement. That is the whole point of Brexit – we can choose for ourselves, subject to wider global constraints.

        Why on earth should you suspect that once out of the EU we will have these at a lesser level? The UK has had worker protections long before its EU membership and today these are at a level that goes beyond the minimum EU requirement. So while there is scope to reduce (and I for one would welcome some major reform, e.g. abolishing the TUPE regulations), the likelihood is low: the UK has long since set its stance at a high level of protection.

        You are also forgetting that much EU regulation these days is set at a higher level and WTO membership will mean that many constraints the UK has today via the EU (including in the employment arena) will continue directly from the ultimate source bodies.

        Liked by 1 person

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