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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.