Not too long ago, I found myself having a vegan dinner with a young progressive Irish man and woman in Berlin. You would think that in a country known for filling intestine lining with the most repugnant parts of animals, veganism wouldn’t be a thing. But then Berlin isn’t really Germany. It’s more of a giant commune for the world’s counterculture that has recently been overtaken by hipsters (hence the vegan restaurants).
At any rate, and despite the hipsters, a clear alternative vibe radiates throughout the city. Berlin is a mess of ideas, opinions, and cultures, and I half-expected (well hoped actually) that at any minute there would be a general uprising against hipster conformist tyranny. Alas, anarchists are not the best at organizing.
Hipsters aside, Berlin’s nonconformity (not to mention its casual attitude to public drinking) highly appealed to me. Sure the city isn’t much to look at, but the usually stringent authoritarianism that seems to run through German culture is pleasantly absent, and people are pretty much left to themselves.
It may seem odd to some that a city so often associated with Prussian militarism and Nazism would be at Europe’s cultural avant-garde. But Berlin has a long history of breaking with orthodoxy, which one could argue began, a bit ironically, with the establishment of the city as Prussia’s capital. This mostly had to do with the influence of Prussia’s 18th-century monarch Frederick the Great and his adherence to enlightenment principals (Voltaire, for example, spent several years at Frederick’s court).
During the 19th century, Berlin was at the center of Europe’s great philosophical debates, housing such minds as Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Schelling. Later, with the establishment of the Weimar Republic, Berlin was considered, alongside Paris, to be the center of Europe’s night-life and underwent one of its most prolific periods in regards to artistic contributions.
It was this liberal and open atmosphere which led me, between bites of tofu filet mignon, to state that I couldn’t think of a more cosmopolitan city with maybe the exception of New York (another city with an unfortunate hipster infestation). My Irish companions immediately jumped on me, rambling off a list of world cities that they asserted were undeniably more cosmopolitan than Berlin. Toronto they said was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. Berlin, apart from its Turkish populations, was basically devoid of minorities, a pale comparison to even the likes of London and its Brits.
I decided not to press my point, no less because it took every bit of my concentration to choke down my “filet.” But I found their insistence that cosmopolitanism was unequivocally linked to ethnic diversity troubling. Indeed, it’s a view that appears to be very much ingrained in society at large: that what makes a place worldly is racial composition.
There is no doubt that ethnic diversity can be a component of what makes a city cosmopolitan. But the real question is why is that the case. Skin color is as superficial as a fresh coat of paint on a building; it may alter outward appearances, but it doesn’t change the structure itself. Naturally, then when one talks about ethnic diversity, in reality, we are talking about what those different ethnic groups often do bring: unique cultures and perspectives, both of which can have a profound impact on a city’s atmosphere. Yet, if what makes a city cosmopolitan is different cultures and perspectives, are we not just talking about ideas? And if it’s ideas that are important, does it matter where they come from?
I realize that the whole concept of cosmopolitanism is subjective and ill-defined. But if my Irish friends were right, if ethnic diversity was truly the defining factor in what makes a city cosmopolitan, then along with your Torontos and Londons you would have to include cities like Dubai, Mecca, and even Riyadh. And I’ve never heard anyone describe the UAE, and much less Saudi Arabia, as cosmopolitan.
The fact is it takes much more than ethnic diversity to make a city cosmopolitan; it takes ideas. A racially homogeneous city in which individuals are allowed to express themselves freely, think for themselves, and present an array of fresh perspectives is inherently more cosmopolitan than an ethnically diverse city in which conformity is celebrated as a virtue. Without an open society, it doesn’t matter where you came from or what you think, whatever unique perspectives that you have to offer will ultimately be stifled.
This is what makes Berlin so great. It isn’t perfect, and it’s far from being a utopia. There is plenty of racism and intolerance to go around, and group think is a problem here just like anywhere else. But in Berlin, there is fertile ground to be who you are and grow into who you want to be. Here society has accepted the idea of encouraging expression and new visions. It is a cauldron of ideas, ceaselessly churning and boiling, and even if it’s not the most diverse place on earth, its values still serve as a model for the world.