In praise of the cosmopolitans

Last summer I had tennis lessons in Spain with a Spanish coach called Sergio. One morning, I heard him chatting to a client in Russian. I asked him later, “Sergio, are you Russian?” “Well,” he said, “I’m a Russian Spaniard.” He explained that his grandfather had been one of 2,895 Spanish orphans sent to the USSR after Spain collapsed into civil war. The grandfather ended up in Crimea. After Spain went fascist and became a Soviet enemy, he kept his origins quiet for decades. In 1991, it was the USSR’s turn to collapse. One day an old man knocked on the grandfather’s door; it was his brother from Spain. The brother had travelled around Crimea asking everyone he met whether they knew a Spaniard. Sergio then leveraged his family origins to start a new life in Spain.

When states collapse, people flee. It has recently happened to Syria, Venezuela and Afghanistan. Ukraine may be next. In 2020 there were a record 82 million displaced people, or one in every 95 humans, according to the UN’s refugee agency. Only a tiny proportion — 250,000 in all in 2020 — ever returns home. Meanwhile, relatively peaceful demises of states, such as Lebanon, also create migrants. Some of these people and their descendants will change the world.

The common story of migrant families is that the first generation has a terrible time, doing badly paying jobs, mauling the new language, suffering discrimination and struggling to grasp how they ended up where they are. Some spend decades with their suitcases mentally packed, waiting to return home, until they die abroad. But, especially if the family has the same skin colour as the dominant native group, the next generations tend to get accepted into the host population.

George Robertson, a butcher from Bristol who briefly married a Frenchwoman after the first world war, was posthumously identified as Emmanuel Macron’s great-grandfather. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s great-grandmother was French, Donald Trump’s mother was Scottish, while Pope Francis’s father and Jair Bolsonaro’s great-grandfather were Italian immigrants. Often the descendants retain only vague, sentimental and distorted recollections of their family origins. In these cases, the family swaps its old national identity for a new one.

But there is another possible outcome: migrants become cosmopolitans. In my definition, that means being immersed in at least three different cultures and nowadays also mastering the global language, English. Cosmopolitans tend to come from higher social classes. Some are created peaceably: many teenagers today turn into cosmopolitans by watching videos in their bedrooms. But often cosmopolitans are products of the collapse of their home countries.

My own family became cosmopolitans by migrating almost every generation, sometimes multiple times. Recently I had dinner in Madrid with some Lebanese and Argentine people. Raised 8,000 miles apart, they immediately recognised each other’s stories. They had grown up in educated families and learnt excellent English at school. When their countries disintegrated, they travelled around before ending up in Spain, now a place of safety. I suspect they will never return home — life is better elsewhere.

My Argentine hosts had a young daughter. How much of Argentina will she carry through life? Maybe the language and an attachment to the cult of Diego Maradona. Everything else will melt away, just as my children may never get to know the South Africa where their grandparents came from.

Cosmopolitans are habitually maligned. But in a globalised world, they have big advantages in business and the ideas market. “Mighty is the mongrel,” wrote the author G Pascal Zachary. Having come from places where things were done or seen differently, cosmopolitans are good at creating novelty. Their tolerance is an asset, because they borrow ideas or do business with people from anywhere. Their contacts are global. They tend to invest in their own education because it’s portable. They aren’t held up by the limitations of wherever they happen to be. They seize opportunities elsewhere. Elon Musk, raised in South Africa by a mother from Canada, once said he would have come to the US “from any country” because it is a place “where great things are possible”.

Cosmopolitans are drawn to cosmopolitan hubs, full of like-minded souls and ideas from everywhere. Nativist distrust makes these places fragile. In 1922, when Turkey’s army transformed the ancient cosmopolitan port of Smyrna into Turkish Izmir, many of the city’s Greeks and Armenians were burnt to death or deported. Among those who got away was 16-year-old Aristotle Onassis, the future cosmopolitan billionaire. Today Hong Kong and possibly London are shedding cosmopolitanism. But when that happens, cosmopolitans simply find the next emerging hub. People fleeing their countries today may remain displaced all their lives, but some of their descendants will reinvent the world.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at [email protected]

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