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O, My America

From the May 3, 2004 issue: The clash of the Huntingtons.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Who Are We?

The Challenges to America's National Identity

by Samuel P. Huntington

Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $27

SAMUEL P. HUNTINGTON is the author of some of the most important works of political science of this generation, ranging from Political Order in Changing Societies (1969) to The Clash of Civilizations (1998). His latest book, Who Are We?, is without question his most personal. Huntington has written this book not just as a scholar but as a patriot at a time when, according to Huntington, the nation is confronting an "identity crisis." The very unity and cohesiveness of the country are under siege, and the dominant trend--only "temporarily obscured" by Americans' response to the attacks of September 11--is toward national disintegration.

If creating and preserving a common identity is the most important element in maintaining a nation, then it is correct to focus an historical inquiry on two and only two essential moments: the seventeenth century, when "the core Anglo-Protestant culture" was established with the original settlement of North America, and the late twentieth century, when "the primacy of national identity came under challenge."

For the first four centuries, despite massive tides of immigration and enormous demographic shifts, America remained fundamentally the same, as newcomers sought these shores in order to assimilate into this culture. Only in our times has a new ethos emerged in which assimilation is no longer the clear objective. More and more people pass our frontiers with no intention of becoming citizens or embracing the American way of life. In this they are being cheered on by many Americans who disdain their own country.

As dangerous as this situation is, Samuel Huntington is not prepared to claim that America has arrived at a stage of inevitable decline. He is no Oswald Spengler or Paul Kennedy. Things can still be turned around. Nations under some circumstances are "capable of postponing their demise by halting and reversing the processes of decline and renewing their vitality and identity." Who Are We? is intended as Huntington's contribution to saving America.

THE MOST IMPORTANT CAUSE of national disintegration lies in the realm of ideas. Although an intellectual himself and a faculty member at Harvard University, an institution with considerable intellectual pretensions, he has not flinched from launching a frontal assault on the dominant opinion of the intelligentsia. Intellectuals, according to Huntington, have widely abandoned the concept of the nation. Their opposition manifests itself first in the movement that encourages primary identity with sub-national entities linked to racial and ethnic groups. Known as multiculturalism, this movement has promoted a sustained campaign in our schools against any form of civic education, having as its objective, in the typical jargon of one of its proponents, the transformation of the schools into "authentic culturally democratic sites" that give emphasis to the cultures of sub-national groups. But encouraging identification with these cultures hardly begins to describe the depth of multiculturalism's opposition to America. Its moving spirit, according to Huntington, is above all an animosity to Western civilization, which is regarded as the engine of oppression of all nonwhite peoples. Multiculturalism, writes Huntington, "is basically an anti-Western ideology."

An even more serious attack against the American nation comes from a group of thinkers whom Huntington labels "transnationals." These are intellectuals "who argue the moral superiority of identifying with humanity at large" and don't place value in the idea of the nation (let alone this nation). As his centerfold Huntington features the ubiquitous Martha Nussbaum, who denounces "patriotic pride" and urges people to give their allegiance to the "worldwide community of human beings." Where Nussbaum treads, others are certain to rush in. And sure enough Huntington spots Richard Sennett trotting along behind, condemning "the evil of a shared national identity," and Amy Gutmann opining that it is "repugnant" for Americans to learn that they are, "above all, citizens of the United States." Huntington might be dismayed, but certainly not surprised, to learn that Gutmann's heartfelt expressions of repugnance have since helped elevate her from a professorship at Princeton to the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania.

Huntington's challenge to the roster of leading intellectual superstars does not stop here. Many who do not share this basic antipathy to the nation nevertheless come under his critical scrutiny because they are too squeamish to take the elementary steps needed to promote the nation; they follow the weak path of willing the ends while denying the means. He cites, for example, Michael Walzer ("A radical program of Americanization would really be un-American") and Dennis Wrong ("Nobody advocates 'Americanizing' new immigrants, as in the bad old ethnocentric past"). This opposition to Americanization, Huntington declares, "is a new phenomenon in American intellectual and political history."

Aiding this intellectual disaffection have been various effects stemming from economic trends of globalization that work to devalue the idea of the nation in general. The modern economy creates a class of transnational elites who identify more with the world than the nation: "The economic globalizers are fixated on the world as an economic unit . . . as the global market replaces the national community, the national citizen gives way to the global consumer." At the head of this new class of transnationals are the "Davos" men and women, whose ranks include not just business executives but global bureaucrats and members of various internationally minded NGOs. These are the people whose hearts thrill at a ruling from The Hague, whose loyalty goes first to the United Nations, and who regard any expression of patriotism as an act equally as atavistic as attending religious services.

FINALLY, there is a particular development that has taken place over the past few decades that brings home in a concrete way all of these problems. It is "the dominance among immigrants of speakers, largely Mexican, of a single non-English language (a phenomenon without precedent in American history), with the resulting tendencies toward the transformation of America into a bilingual, bicultural society."

Huntington paints a picture of a growing bifurcation in which America is at risk of becoming a permanent two-culture nation like Canada. Worse, America did not inherit this situation, but allowed it to happen. American elites fiddled while the Southwest began to burn. Either elites delighted in the development of a full second culture, or they subordinated long-term political considerations to immediate economic gains--or they buried their heads in the sand and assumed that assimilation must occur automatically, ignoring the special difficulties posed by the geographic closeness of the Hispanic homeland to American territory and by the sentiments of a people who consider the Southwest to have been stolen from them. For some Hispanic intellectuals, what is occurring is nothing less than the reconquista of territories stolen from Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s. There is no interest in Americanization: "Uncle Sam no es mi tío." Although many Americans who only a decade ago were blithely urging unlimited immigration and open borders have finally woken up to the difficulties of assimilation, they often continue today to advocate the same policy on the grounds that it is now too late to do anything about it. Thus do they try to excuse their own errors in judgment by citing the magnitude of the problems they have created.

This part of Huntington's book, which appeared as an article in Foreign Policy, parallels the argument of Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia, published last year. Both works have received a great deal of attention, much of it critical, and the authors have been accused of being ungenerous and unsympathetic. Huntington, to be sure, dwells almost exclusively on the downside of Hispanic immigration, while his critics have sought out more hopeful signs, citing contrary evidence of trends of Hispanic assimilation and noting that Hispanics actually seem to place a greater emphasis on the American values of hard work and family than do most other Americans these days.

WHAT'S MORE, almost all developed nations have recently faced intense population pressures from poorer countries--particularly because these developed nations need additional labor. From this perspective, America might feel itself fortunate that whatever assimilation challenges it faces come from Mexico rather than, say, from Algeria. But while it is fashionable and certainly much easier on the part of Huntington's critics to assume things will work out, who can be sure that the prediction of a "bifurcated" culture will prove to be wrong? Huntington, the patriot, has the resolve of Cassandra, sounding an unwelcome warning that few wish to hear. One thing is certain: He is not about to receive La Raza's man of the year award.

These, then, are the immediate threats to American unity. As a practical thinker, Huntington does not much bother with speculative arguments about the value of the nation. He takes its benefits as more or less given and speaks to "the America most Americans love and want." Huntington has not written Who Are We? to try to win over the non-patriots, but to help patriots figure out what to do. His approach seeks to identify the components of national identity--so that people can then begin to discern the concrete measures needed to save the country.

Huntington argues that America has two sources of identity. The first he calls "the Creed," by which he means the basic principles of individual rights and government by consent of the governed as these are drawn from universal arguments, such as can be found "most notably in the Declaration of Independence." The Creed claims to make its appeal to rational precept (to "nature"), which is in principle available to all people. (It is curious that Huntington selects the term "creed" to refer to this dimension, as the word evokes powerful connotations of acceptance on the basis of faith.)

THE SECOND ELEMENT of identity is Culture. Culture, as any social scientist knows, is a most useful concept until one is confronted with the task of having to say exactly what it means. Huntington does his best, defining it at one point as "a people's language, religious beliefs, social and political values, assumptions as to what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, and to the objective institutions and behavioral patterns that reflect these subjective elements"--in brief, nearly everything. But Huntington boils the concept down, as he must, and culture comes to refer to language (English), to religion (sometimes "dissenting Protestantism," sometimes, more broadly, "the Christian religion"), and to a few basic English ideas of liberty. America's culture, in Huntington's shorthand, is "Anglo-Protestantism."

Given the vagueness of the concept of culture, it might be thought best to leave the complex relationship between the creed and the culture in the state of suitably blurred and loose synthesis. But Huntington suggests this is impossible. For whatever reasons, analysts insist on giving clear primacy to one component or the other. The patriotic party splits into partisans of either the Creed or the Culture. Huntington's own position in this dispute emphasizes the cultural core of American identity. America has a Creed, "but its soul is defined by the common history, traditions, culture, heroes and villains, victories and defeats, enshrined in its 'mystic chords of memory.'" Who Are We? is a defense of the importance, the legitimacy, and the dignity of Culture.

But Huntington goes much further. While never abandoning the Creed, time and again he warns against an overreliance on it. "A creed alone does not a nation make." The further one proceeds in the book, the clearer it becomes that his warnings shade into serious questions about Creedalism itself.

Just who are these Creedalists? Among the patriots, it is again the intellectuals who favor Creedalism, as it seems to speak their own language of theory and rational discourse. Huntington provides a partial list of Creedalists, among whom he includes Daniel Bell and Louis Hartz. He then calls attention to one "scholar," unnamed in the text, who has supplied "the most appropriate formulation" of this position, having stated simply that "the political ideas of the American Creed have been the basis of national identity."

THAT SCHOLAR, it turns out, is Samuel Huntington himself, from a well-known book of more than two decades ago, entitled The Politics of Disharmony. It is at least an oddity that in a work devoted to the theme of identity the author should ultimately supply testimony, albeit slightly repressed, of a split mind. Yet it appears to be a fact that one and the same person has advanced, each time with considerable skill, an almost opposite argument. In the case of Huntington v. Huntington, the author of 1981 ("Huntington I") appears about nine parts Creedal and one part Cultural, while the author of today ("Huntington II") is about the reverse.

This change is most readily observable from the historical analysis offered in each book. For Huntington I, the originality of the Creed is stressed, in the sense of its formative role in shaping and defining a direction for American society. As other Creedalists have argued, without recourse to nature America could have developed into any number of forms, as Anglo-Protestant culture was compatible with theocracy (just look at the Puritans).

By contrast, Huntington II shrinks the status of the Creed. It becomes an organic outgrowth of the Culture: "The American Creed is the unique creation of a dissenting Protestant culture. . . . Out of this culture the early settlers formulated the American Creed with its principles of liberty, equality, individualism, human rights, representative government, and private property." In this new way of thinking, which in American historiography was once known as "germ theory," everything was already there, as it were, from the moment of settlement, just waiting to unfold and develop.

THE MOST INTERESTING and troubling aspects of Huntington's current position are revealed by the reasons for his conversion to Culturalism. Huntington contends, first, that the Creed is inadequate to defend the nation. Proponents of the Creed, while patriotic in their intentions, are almost as responsible for national disintegration as the multiculturalists: "America with only the Creed as a basis for unity would soon evolve into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups." There is simply not enough "glue" in the Creed, Huntington insists, to keep a nation together: The only true supporters of the nation are those who make Culture the core.

Huntington's attack on his old faith in Creedalism undoubtedly has a point if it refers to the most zealous form of Creedalism, which clearly exists, that makes no practical concession to Culture. But one can imagine the earlier Huntington demanding the same treatment for Culturalism--as it, too, in its most zealous manifestations promotes fanaticism and sows its own seeds of disunion.

A second reason for Huntington's conversion is related to his current views of America's position in the world. While the focus of Who Are We? is mostly on the domestic side, the theme of America in the world seems never to be very far from Huntington's concerns. The problem with Creedalism in this arena is its clear "imperial" implication. Huntington is a nationalist, but a moderate one who has little use for contemporary international Creedalists who believe that "people of other societies have basically the same values as Americans, or if they do not have them, they want to have them, or if they do not want to have them, they misjudge what is good for their society, and Americans have the responsibility to persuade them or to induce them to embrace the universal values that America espouses."

FOR HUNTINGTON the emphasis on Culture and the tethering of the Creed to the Culture would perform the salutary role of cooling such universalistic pretensions. It would go too far to read Who Are We? as a complete renunciation of any kind of universal possibilities. Huntington ties the origin of the Creed to Anglo-Protestant culture, but he does not--or does not quite--equate origin with essence. He grants that the Creed can--indeed has--spread, albeit in an attenuated form, to nations that are not Anglo-Protestant. But there is no question that his argument moves in the direction of saying that spreading the Creed very far afield, given its chiefly cultural origins, is a delusion.

It is likewise the case that for Huntington the character of the international situation today, with the rise of militant Islam, fits with a growing emphasis on Culturalism. "Muslim hostility," he writes, "encourages Americans to define their identity in religious and cultural terms, just as the Cold War promoted political and creedal definitions of that identity." His analysis goes on to emphasize the religious dimension of the conflict, citing statements of Islamic militants attacking America "because it is Christian" and calling for a "jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders."

Here, however, Huntington's desire to bolster Culturalism at home may have led him astray. It is not at all clear that the primacy of the cultural assumption in the present conflict is true--Islamic fundamentalism is arguably even more opposed to the Creed than it is to Christianity. And even if it were true, it is not evident on strategic grounds why it would be wiser to allow the enemy to define us on his terms than for us to define him on ours.

HUNTINGTON'S THIRD REASON for converting to Culturalism goes beyond the language of pure "system maintenance" and raises perhaps the most interesting theoretical issue of the book. Huntington argues that Creedalism does not sustain the nation in the form that we want it to have. A great deal of what is most lovable about America, and perhaps also higher and more valuable, is contained in the Culture, not in the Creed. For Huntington, it is clearly not just a matter of convenience that Americans have one language, which happens to be English; rather, it is important that we speak English and find our roots in Shakespeare, not Cervantes. By the same token, it is not just a matter of convenience for Huntington that America is chiefly Christian, rather than Buddhist or Islamic. He wants it to be that way. More broadly, he argues that such preferences are justified, and they should be openly defended and preferred--not be made objects of shame, hidden from view. But Creedalism (at any rate, the zealous Creedalism that Huntington attacks) is not only indifferent to these cultural preferences, but it is almost antagonistic to them.

Samuel Huntington--and this goes for Huntington I no less than Huntington II--has tended to view Creed and Culture as different things, both necessary, but finally at war with each other. It seems to be the old war between rationalism on the one side and religion and tradition on the other. Our choice, for Huntington, seems to be either to subordinate the Culture to the Creed and eventually die, or to subordinate the Creed to the Culture and survive. Huntington has never looked for a higher regulative principle that might somehow subsume these two in a more rational account.

IT WOULD CERTAINLY be a nice theoretical project to consider how these two could be put together in a way that would make sense of each and give each its due. Such a project would have to begin by reflecting on the inevitable fact that universal principles must always be found and expressed within particular contexts. A Catholic or Buddhist or perhaps one day an Islamic nation that embraces the Creed will inevitably look different from America.

Further, the Creed would have to be understood--as it perhaps should properly be understood--not in the outsized way in which, unfortunately, it often appears, but in a way that does not deny the manifestations of Culture. The Creed checks the Culture only at the point at which it conflicts with the Creed--no further. A nation living under the Creed is under no obligation to be neutral. It is entitled, so far as it wishes, though hopefully in accord with its good judgment, to embrace all preferences or prejudices that do not deny essential rights. Finally, the Creed might claim to be the political standard that expresses a principle of justice for living together, not an account of the highest ends of life. Under such principles, and with necessary forbearance on both sides, Culture and Creed might learn to live together.

Samuel Huntington is a fine asset to the nation he loves. We should be pleased that over the past half century we have had the benefit of having had more than one of him. If the first Huntington was too Creedal, and the Second too Cultural, perhaps, if we are fortunate enough, we will yet see a third who gets it right.

James W. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.