Poor Newt Gingrich–the de facto leader, along with Sarah Palin, of the right wing of the Republican Party–can’t seem to chew gum and walk at the same time. How do I know this? Well, he seems to find it impossible to be a loyal citizen of the United States while at the same time recognizing that he is a also member of a wider human community.
Newt appears to be very confused about the idea of world citizenship. The New York Times reports the following,
Newt Gingrich might not be “a citizen of the world,” as he proudly proclaimed at the G.O.P.’s annual fundraising dinner, going so far as to offer a reverse shout-out to all of the countries he distinctly wouldn’t want to be a citizen of —“North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba or Russia.” June 8, 209, “In Palin’s Shadow, Republicans Collect Cash”
The idea of being a world citizen is an old one, going back at least to the stoics of Ancient Greece and Rome. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, and a defender of the Roman Empire, didn’t appear to have any problem asserting that one could be both a loyal citizen of a country and a citizen of the world.
“My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” The Meditations, Book Six, 44.
Newt has a reputation for being one of the intellectuals of the Republican right. I hope that this proves false for the sake of conservatism in American, for it appears that Newt believes that being a citizen of the world requires him to be a citizen of specific countries, for example, North Korea and Zimbabwe, in addition to the United States. It’s hard to imagine how anyone with a Ph.D., and Newt has one, least of all a historian, could be so confused about an idea that has been central to Western (and world) civilization for at least two thousand years. The idea is not that one should be willing to trade one’s nationality for another, but that one should seek to look beyond the borders of one’s nation to a common humanity. (Was this not Christ’s message?) We are citizens of nations, but as human beings we share a common humanity.
And it appears that Ronald Reagan had little difficulty understanding and asserting this claim. He opened a speech to the UN on June 17, 1982, with the following words:
“I speak today as both a citizen of the United States and of the world. I come with the heartfelt wishes of my people for peace, bearing honest proposals and looking for genuine progress.” The American Presidency Project
Gingrich fallaciously paints everything in black and white terms, either it is this or that, and asserts with absolute certainty that it is one or the other, citizen of the U.S. or of the world. This is just the kind of ideological mind-set that has proved so devastating in Washington and in the country in the last few decades. It surfaced in the way in which Gingrich railed against Sotomayor and targeted Obama on the issue of empathy.
“Look, the whole concept that President Obama has talked about — that he worries about empathy. We don’t have the rule of empathy. We have the rule of law.” Media Matters
But as Media Matters points out, Gingrich’s claim is misleading, to say the least. Obama never suggested replacing law with empathy. He spoke of his desire to appoint a judge who is empathetic and dedicated to the rule of law.
During the June 4 edition of Fox News’ Hannity, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich forwarded the false conservative talking point that President Obama said he would seek a justice who shows “empathy” rather than a commitment to follow the law. But Obama actually said his nominee will do both. Gingrich claimed, “Look, the whole concept that President Obama has talked about — that he worries about empathy. We don’t have the rule of empathy. We have the rule of law.” In fact, in Obama’s May 1 statement to which conservatives have repeatedly pointed, immediately after saying, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes,” Obama said he “will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role.”
There is a connection between Gingrich’s attack on the idea of world citizenship and his attack on empathy that extends beyond his fallacious bifurcations. One reason that we can be world citizens is because we are capable of being empathetic toward those who may not be members of our own tribe or nation. Empathy should be understood in two ways. First, there is the sense in which one is empathetic if one can stand in the other guy’s shoes, that is, see the world from alternative perspectives. Obama often speaks about this “skill.” Second, empathy can be understood as synonym for compassion. The ability to stand in the other guy’s shoes doesn’t necessarily lead to compassion, but it does lead to a better understanding of where he or she is coming from. Our capacity to empathize in both senses of the term is an important factor in our ability to be world citizens. Gingrich doesn’t want this capacity to be a feature of our judges and, I suggest, he doesn’t want it to be a feature of the way in which we approach other peoples. If we approach other peoples with empathy, we enter the dangerous territory of world citizenship, which detracts from being an American. Empathy tears down “natural” boundaries that Newt would prefer to leave intact, and it will turn us into bleeding heart liberals who care more about other folks than members of our own nation. What nonsense. When seen in this light, Gingrich’s comments on world citizenship are not merely provincial. They are xenophobic. He is waiving the flag in a way that is dangerously close to nationalisms that plagued the twentieth century and gave us two world wars.
If I am wrong about the connection between Gingrich’s distrust of empathy in the courtroom and his anti-cosmopolitanism, then I believe it is Gingrich who must set the record straight. His words thus far make this a more than reasonable inference.