Loaded word of the week: Cosmopolitan

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Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Stephen Miller's use of the word "cosmopolitan" during a discussion of immigration should alarm all Americans.
  • The word has terrible echoes from history, and was used by authoritarians to tag those who oppose them for harassment and worse, she writes

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When I was a child, we had a next-door neighbor, an elderly woman. She spoke only to my mother, who was blonde, green-eyed and Scottish. When my dark-skinned father (who was from the Middle East, but often taken for Indian or Hispanic) would cross her path, she would stare stonily into the distance. It was awkward.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat
My father was the American citizen, with a security clearance for the contract work he did for the United States Navy, but my mother, a green card holder, was the one who apparently made this lady comfortable. One day my ball went over the fence and I had to knock on her door. I decided to ask her why she only said hello to my mother. Referring to my father, she replied, "I am never sure how good his English is. He seems ... rather cosmopolitan."
    This episode, and her use -- for whatever reason -- of that curious word, stayed with me, and came back to me Wednesday when President Trump's senior adviser, Stephen Miller, accused CNN's Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta of showing "cosmopolitan bias" in challenging an administration-backed immigration plan. The proposed legislation would sharply limit legal immigration and privilege "skilled" workers for, among other things, speaking English. "It sounds like you're trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country," Acosta said.
    In fact, that's exactly what a long tradition of racist regimes have tried to do, while branding those who oppose them as "cosmopolitan." The word has served as a convenient way to tag people suspected of having extra-national allegiances or elitist cultural tastes, or of being insufficiently "assimilated" because of how they look, speak or live.
    For both fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century, Jews were the biggest "cosmopolitan" offenders. They were easy to accuse of being somehow foreign. The Jewish community of Rome had been around for thousands of years, and yet was included in Mussolini's 1938 racial laws that targeted Italian Jews, who were widely implicated in the state press as the agents of a "cosmopolitanism" led by a people "without countries, ideals, or traditions."
    Adolf Hitler's Nuremberg Laws were justified through similar language, while attacking "cosmopolitanism" became a common way to fight Jewish and Western influences during the Cold War-era regime of Joseph Stalin.
    Regrettably, Miller's use of the word carries echoes of this terrible history, and meshes with the authoritarian-loving tone of the Trump administration. It also speaks to a Trump constituency that, as Thomas Edsall wrote in July, is "against open-mindedness, open borders, and an open society in general."
    Yet conservatives are not Miller's most avid target audience. Something of an alt-right whisperer, Miller has long made Islamophobia one of his main causes. The "cosmopolitans" he speaks of are well known to those who embrace population management less for economic reasons than as a means of saving white Christian society.
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    Representative Steve King, R-Iowa, is a good example. He fantasizes openly about an America returned to some perceived state of racial and cultural purity. "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies," King tweeted, explaining on CNN's "New Day" that his ideal is a country "that is just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same."
    Throughout history, people who seem to have no clear point of origin and belonging have been singled out for harassment and worse. Today's turn to the right in Europe is linked to the migrant crisis and the fear of "foreign invasions." The spike in hate crimes toward people of color, and people who "look Arab," is part of this global trend -- and has already caused deaths in our country.
    That Trump's adviser uses such a freighted and consequential term in a discussion of immigration -- particularly lawful immigration -- should alarm all Americans.
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    Trump's own mother was an immigrant, but from Scotland, like my mother. Her English must have been heavily accented, like my mother's, but her skin was the right color. She came from the proper "stock," to use that old-fashioned expression.
    Miller's use of code words on this occasion can't hide the sentiments that come through clearly from him and some of his colleagues in the Trump administration: in the future, if they have their way, only some people will be welcome here.