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So, Is ‘Cosmopolitan’ An Anti-Semitic Slur Or Not?

Russian scholars remain aghast at Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller’s use of the word “cosmopolitan,” and some warn that it is a very important signal.

“Stephen Miller’s references to “cosmopolitan bias” in the media are so transparently anti-Semitic that it is hard to believe people are not seeing it,” said Russell Valentino, Professor of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures, and Associate Dean for International Affairs at Indiana University.

“Cosmopolitanism was a codeword in the Soviet Union for Jewish,” Valentino said. “Anytime a Soviet apparatchik wanted to criticize a Jewish intellectual, he or she accused him or her of being a rootless cosmopolitan. They did not need to say Jewish. Everyone understood.”

“Of course, in the context of Russian history the word has a strongly anti-Semitic tinge,” said Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University, and president of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

Valentino and Apollonio weren’t alone in the world of Russian scholars immediately thinking along those lines.

“My first thought, as a Slavist, was about the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign under Stalin,” said Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Russian & Slavic Studies at New York University. “But my next thought was: how likely would it be for this usage to have migrated to the alt-right?”

“The appropriation makes sense, but I wasn’t sure about the path that the term would have traveled,” Borenstein said. “So of course, I followed as many of the blog posts and articles about it as I could.”

I wondered if an average American — without a PhD in Russian history — might pick up on the resonances here, and still be reading all he or she could about it, so I tried a bit of an experiment. A simple Google search for “cosmopolitan” leads to a certain women’s magazine, and seems innocuous enough.

Other entries include a Las Vegas hotel and casino, and a few dictionary definitions that don’t mention Jews at all.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for instance, says this: “Since cosmopolitan includes the root polit-, from the Greek word for “citizen”, someone who is cosmopolitan is a “citizen of the world”.

The dictionary also offers a secondary and very familiar definition: “a cocktail made of vodka, orange-flavored liqueur, lime juice, and cranberry juice —called also cos*mo ˈkäz-(ˌ)mō”

I exhaled. But when I typed in “cosmopolitan” and “Jewish”—I found something very different.

The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, for instance, says that “anticosmopolitan campaign” was a “euphemism for the victimization of the Jewish intelligentsia in the late Stalin years.”

Eerily, a Google search for “cosmopolitan” and “Jewish” also turns up a February 1992 essay by Stephen Miller (no apparent relation — the Trump adviser’s parents are Michael and Miriam) titled “Confessions of a Rootless Cosmopolitan Jew” for First Things, a journal of religion and public life.

In the first sentence, that Stephen Miller identifies himself as: “the grandson of devout Orthodox Jews” who is “watching my younger daughter being confirmed in the Lutheran Church.”

As for the word “rootless,” featured in the essay’s title, it comes up right away in search results for “cosmopolitan” and “Jewish,” along with an academic article titled “Hannah Arendt: Jew and Cosmopolitan”.

Hmm. But to find these resonances, and even to get to Hannah Arendt, the casual Googler would still need to type either “Jewish” or “rootless” along with “cosmopolitan,” and that likely requires familiarity with the history of anti-Semitism, or the history of Russia.

“It definitely sounds different to people who know Russia,” said Borenstein. “Plus, I don’t think that America has a very deep tradition of hostility to this particular term.”

“Still, I was accustomed to “globalist” being the preferred alt-right slur,” Borenstein added.

It’s getting hard to keep track of the slurs, not to mention the dog whistles and the winks. The “cosmopolitan” language came just days before Charlottesville, where marchers with torches shouted anti-Semitic statements and surrounded the synagogue, so the scholars’ concern about the particular word seems prescient.

Since Charlottesville, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked a long list of swastikas around the country, though the ADL cautions that it is impossible to make a direct link between Charlottesville and these incidents.

When it comes to “cosmopolitan” and the signals it sends, scholars are also aware of the ancient roots of the term, which are very far from Stalin; they emphasize that they hear the word in several ways.

“I hear the term with two sets of ears,” Valentino explained, when asked for more context on cosmopolitan. “On the one hand, there is the Ancient Greek notion of the cosmopolitan, which I like quite a bit and which the Stoics championed. The former slave Epictetus is perhaps its greatest champion. But like a lot of old words and concepts, it was coopted later by those who wanted to use it for other purposes.”

And this is where it gets interesting.

“In the USSR the resistance to a central, totalitarian state — when you are a citizen of the cosmos, you cannot be beholden to a state, totalitarian or otherwise — was seen by those in power as a threat to that state, in effect as counter-revolutionary,” Valentino explained.

“So, they twisted the idea of the cosmopolitan individual into something narrow and negative, when it is in fact something quite broad and positive,” Valentino added.

All of this made me think of fiction, and our current challenge of guarding the line between truth and falsehood, news and spin, or perhaps, fact and distraction. So, I asked the novelist Boris Fishman, who was born in Belarus and immigrated to the U.S. at age 9, for his take on “cosmopolitan.”

Fishman is the author of the novels “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” and often writes about Russian-Jewish characters and communities.

“I think Miller was using “cosmopolitan” in the sense of “liberal coastal elite” rather than “rootless cosmopolitan,’” Fishman said. “[Jim] Acosta was not as clear, precise, and persuasive as he could be, and Miller used that to do what Trump people always do: Deflect, and call white black.”

“That is, Acosta is the elitist suggesting that only Australians and Brits are welcome (absurd), whereas Miller is the everyman who remembers how many hardworking other nationals speak English,” Fishman said.

“Meanwhile, the conversation has moved away from the real issue, and tragedy: All the nefarious ways Trump and Miller do want to restrict immigration,” Fishman said.

As for Cosmopolitan magazine, which is the association many Americans make when they hear the word “cosmopolitan” — it happens to have an interesting history in Russia.

“I remember when Cosmopolitan magazine was opening in Russia, I was amused and curious as to what they would call it,” Borenstein said. “Calling it “Kosmopolitka” — literally, “female cosmopolitan” — would seem to connected to the anti-Cosmopolitan campaign, so much so that I imagined the cover girl as some vicious caricature of Barbra Streisand. Of course, they simply declined to translate the name, or even put it in Cyrillic.”

And maybe that is how “cosmopolitan” now sounds to many American readers — as just another word in the dictionary, something that might be a cocktail or a women’s magazine. “Cosmopolitan,” to many Americans, has no connection to ancient Greece, and no link to Stalin-era anti-Semitism—and so, it is effectively untranslated. And that’s the deepest danger in this era when the truth is often AWOL: for words to become divorced from their many meanings.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God. Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner

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