The heated exchange between White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta this week has been the focus of much coverage. Both men went after each other over immigration and, in my view, neither came off particularly well. Acosta at times seemed more of an advocate than a journalist while Miller seemed bizarrely eager to convert the press conference into some high school debating competition. However, my greatest interest was Miller’s repeated accusation that Acosta had revealed his “Cosmopolitan bias.” This may be a new term of art in political circles but it left me scratching my head. It was like the scene in Princess Bride when Montoya stops Vizzini after he says “inconceivable” for the umpteenth time: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Miller used the term a couple times in the exchange:
In the press conference, Miller berates Acosta that his comments “Actually, it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.” This was the first time I had heard this term and I had to reach for my dictionary.
There are a few common definitions for cosmopolitan:
- a person familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.
- a cosmopolitan person.
- a cocktail
I am going to assume that Miller (who himself could be defined as a beer) is not calling Acosta a vodka drink with Cointreau, cranberry juice and lime juice — though it is quite delicious if a bit decadent.
That leaves a person familiar with or at ease with different countries and cultures. However, that would seem to be the opposite of what Miller is suggesting.
Consider the following exchange:
Acosta objects that we are giving preference to those who can speak English and “Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?” Miller responds “Jim, I can honestly say I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English . . . Actually, it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.”
First, after millions of renditions in Washington since Casablanca first aired in 1942, this was the worst performance as Claude Rains in history. Most of us were “shocked, shocked” that Miller would attempt the transparent “how dare you insult immigrants” line.
Second, a Cosmopolitan in this circumstance would be equally comfortable with all cultures and countries not biased toward English speaking countries. What Miller meant was that Acosta was an Anglophile – though many viewers might conclude that he was accusing Acosta of being in love with Angela Merkel.
A cosmopolitan bias is a rather strange construction because being cosmopolitan is a good thing. It is like saying you have an educated bias or a worldly bias. This is why it is not a very good put down to say “well you just like the food because you are a food connoisseur” or “sure, you only like art because you understand art.”
The assumption is that “cosmopolitan” is meant to be a putdown to contrast the media elite with non-cosmopolitans or regular folk. However, cosmopolitan is not a substitute for elitist. Indeed, even the word elite is a bad substitute for elitist. Elite generally refers to a superior group, which is often based on the merits like “an elite fighting force”. Elitist is someone who believes that they have special status or authority.
Yet, Acosta was not being much of an elitist in arguing for people who are not educated on the English language. Such a view would be neither elitist nor cosmopolitan.
That does not mean that Acosta (who is a respected journalist) sounded much like a reporter at that time. His long argument with Miller seemed better suited for a cable opinion show. Acosta gave a long statement about how “The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country, and they’re not always going to speak English, Stephen.” He spoke of his own family history and insisted that this is not “what the United States has been about.” One can easily agree with that sentiment (my Sicilian grandfather was illiterate and spoke no English), but question whether this was a question or criticism from a reporter. There seemed an uncomfortable level of catharsis in the exchange for both men. It felt like that uncomfortable moment when you walk in on two people in the office having a such a meltdown that they do not even notice others have walked into the room.
So I am left as confused as Inigo Montoya. As someone who has strived to be “cosmopolitan,” I must object. That bias is hard to come by. It takes years of open-minded experimentation, travel, and exposure. Either it “does not mean what you think it means” or I have wasted much of my cosmopolitan life.