Thursday, May 20, 2004

Culture Clatches 

Samuel Huntington, fresh from the triumph of having predicted a global "Clash Of Civilizations" that the American right may well be able to take credit, in the near future, for having made into a reality, has recently moved from the macro to the micro. In an article based on a chapter in his new book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity” published recently in Foreign Policy, Huntington zeroed in on Hispanics as the weak link attenuating what it is that makes us Americans, which turns out to be having last names that couldn't possibly be taken for Hispanic ones, like, for instance, Huntington. Of course there's always a Bill Richardson...oh, never mind.

Lucky us, Louis Menand, writing in the New Yorker, takes on Huntington's not so new new ideas, and pays them the enormous compliment, coming from a critic and prose stylist of Menand's stature and grace, of taking Huntington exactly as seriously as his work here deserves, not a jot less, and not a jot more. What ensues, in addition to delicious merriment of a very high order, is a way to think about the differences between the liberal response to 9/11 and the right wing response to it, in which our side does rather better than than the other side does, to indulge in a bit of bifurcation that isn't entirely true to the tenor or Menand's review.

A few samples to whet your appetite:

Most readers who are not political scientists know Huntington from his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” which was published in 1996, and which proposed that cultural differences would be the major cause of global tension in the future. The book was translated into thirty-three languages and inspired international conferences; its argument acquired new interest and credibility after the attacks of 2001 and the American response to them


The optimal course for the West in a world of potential civilizational conflict, Huntington concluded, was not to reach out to non-Western civilizations with the idea that people in those civilizations are really like us. He thinks that they are not really like us, and that it is both immoral to insist on making other countries conform to Western values (since that must involve trampling on their own values) and naïve to believe that the West speaks a universal language. If differences among civilizations are a perpetual source of rivalry and a potential source of wars, then a group of people whose loyalty to their own culture is attenuated is likely to be worse off relative to other groups. Hence his anxiety about what he thinks is a trend toward cultural diffusion in the United States.

You might think that if cultural difference is what drives people to war, then the world would be a safer place if every group’s loyalty to its own culture were more attenuated. If you thought that, though, you would be a liberal cosmopolitan idealist, and Huntington would have no use for you. Huntington is a domestic monoculturalist and a global multiculturalist (and an enemy of domestic multiculturalism and global monoculturalism). “Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes,” as he put it in “The Clash of Civilizations.” The immutable psychic need people have for a shared belief system is precisely the premise of his political theory. You can’t fool with immutable psychic needs.

"Who Are We?” is about as blunt a work of identity politics as you are likely to find. It says that the chief reason—it could even be the only reason—for Americans to embrace their culture is that it is the culture that happens to be theirs. Americans must love their culture; on the other hand, they must never become so infatuated that, in their delirium, they seek to embrace the world. “Who Are We?” would be less puzzling if Huntington had been more explicit about the larger vision of global civilizational conflict from which it derives. The new book represents a narrowing of that vision. In “The Clash of Civilizations,” Huntington spoke of “the West” as a transatlantic entity. In “Who Are We?” he is obsessed exclusively with the United States, and his concerns about internationalism are focussed entirely on its dangers to us.

The bad guys in Huntington’s scenario can be divided into two groups. One is composed of intellectuals, people who preach dissent from the values of the “core culture.” As is generally the case with indictments of this sort, recognizable names are sparse. Among those that do turn up are Bill Clinton, Al Gore, the political theorist Michael Walzer, and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. All of them would be astonished to learn that they are deconstructionists. (It is amazing how thoroughly the word “deconstruction” has been drained of meaning, and by the very people who accuse deconstruction of draining words of meaning.) What Huntington is talking about is not deconstruction but bilingualism, affirmative action, cosmopolitanism (a concept with which Nussbaum is associated), pluralism (Walzer), and multiculturalism (Clinton and Gore). “Multiculturalism is in its essence anti-European civilization,” Huntington says. “It is basically an anti-Western ideology.”

He thinks that the deconstructionists had their sunny moment in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, and were beaten back during the culture wars that their views set off. They have not gone away, though. In the future, he says, “the outcomes of these battles in the deconstructionist war will undoubtedly be substantially affected by the extent to which Americans suffer repeated terrorist attacks on their homeland and their country engages in overseas wars against its enemies.” The more attacks and wars, he suggests, the smaller the deconstructionist threat. This may strike some readers as a high price to pay for keeping Martha Nussbaum in check.

Menand shreds both the theoretical and the statistical basis for Huntington's belief that Hispanic migration,(he means from Mexico), is somehow different (he means worse, because of a refusal to assimilate) from all the other historical waves of immigration from everywhere else in the world, a faith-based creed shared alike by Jonah Goldberg, David Frum, Michele Malkin, and pretty much most others of their ilk. Menand's discussion here, based on some very smart academic research by others, is not to be missed and leads to this rollicking insight.

This brings us back to the weird emptiness at the heart of Huntington’s analysis, according to which conversion to a fundamentalist faith is counted a good thing just because many other people already share that faith. Huntington never explains, in “Who Are We?,” why Protestantism, private enterprise, and the English language are more desirable features of social life or more conducive to self-realization than, say, Judaism, kibbutzim, and Hebrew. He only fears, as an American, their transformation into something different. But how American is that? Huntington’s understanding of American culture would be less rigid if he paid more attention to the actual value of his core values. One of the virtues of a liberal democracy is that it is designed to accommodate social and cultural change. Democracy is not a dogma; it is an experiment. That is what Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address—and there is no more hallowed text in the American Creed than that.

Multiculturalism, in the form associated with people like Clinton and Gore, is part of the democratic experiment. It may have a lot of shortcomings as a political theory, but it is absurd to say that it is anti-Western. Its roots, as Charles Taylor and many other writers have shown, are in the classic texts of Western literature and philosophy. And, unless you are a monoculturalist hysteric, the differences that such multiculturalism celebrates are nearly all completely anodyne. One keeps wondering what Huntington, in his chapter on Mexican-Americans, means by “cultural bifurcation.” What is this alien culture that threatens to infect Anglo-Americans? Hispanic-American culture, after all, is a culture derived largely from Spain, which, the last time anyone checked, was in Europe. Here is what we eventually learn (Huntington is quoting from a book called “The Americano Dream,” by a Texas businessman named Lionel Sosa): Hispanics are different because “they still put family first, still make room in their lives for activities other than business, are more religious and more community oriented.” Pull up the drawbridge!

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

I should admit a bias: If it's possible to have a crush on someone's mind and writing style, then I have a crush on Louis Menand. If you haven't read "The Metaphysical Club," a brilliant work of intellectual history that is also a captivating page-turner, hop to it. I noticed the other day at The Corner that Jonah G was putting out a call to receive recommended citations for works of intellectual history, John Dewey being one of the subjects he mentioned, perhaps some kind reader might like to email Jonah this recommendation, although I think he was looking for works that debunk, and doubtless would regard any work of intellectual history that aims at a complex understanding its subject as being biased. Such is the rich life of ideas enjoyed by our rightward brothers and sisters.

BTW, don't just go to The New Yorker online; the new issue just went up (an excellent Nick Lehman takedown of on Russert's new book replaces Menand's review), so use the link, and hurry while it's still good.

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