Review of Samuel Huntington's Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity

Culture Watch

Mr. Sleeper is the author of LIBERAL RACISM and THE CLOSEST OF STRANGERS and is a lecturer in political science at Yale University.

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With the publication of this, his thirteen book, the magisterial, sometimes dyspeptic Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has once again indulged - nay, has stage managed - his inclination to administer jolts of counterintuitive, debate-changing Truth to distracted American elites. Once again, establishment players of many stripes are swooning in dismay at his dark revelations or girding up their loins to join him in another long, twilight battle for Western civilization. Once again, Huntington is arrestingly right about challenges facing liberal democracy that many liberals have been loath to acknowledge.

But never before has so big a part of his argument been so thunderously wrong and so cheaply sustained. Those who value his chastening realism about liberalism's dicey prospects will have to work hard to follow his most important insight in Who We Are?: that American cosmopolitans who would like to dispense with nations and multiculturalist zealots who would like to dismantle them have converged with American multinational profiteers to fray the fabric of liberal democracy, which only a renewed civic patriotism here at home can sustain. This argument, eminently worth arguing about, has already been overshadowed by another: about Huntington's ill-conceived, crotchety and (pardon the word) undocumented jeremiad against Latino immigration.

The distraction is the fault of Huntington the stage manager as much as of Huntington the thinker. In 1993, to prompt a national debate about themes that would figure in his 1996 book, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," he published a Foreign Affairs essay of virtually the same title highlighting his most important warning: The economic, ideological and nationalist rivalries that most global analysts and activists presumed were driving world affairs would soon be eclipsed by deep cultural and religious differences among civilizations. He foresaw the ferocity of our conflict with Islamicist terrorists and warned against the American unilateralism and moralism that have been brought to bear on it, widening the civilizational divide.

Huntington didn't clearly define these civilizations; he seemed unsure whether Latin America is a distinct civilization or is part of the West. Two months ago he seemed to answer the latter question by heralding Who We Are? with an essay in Foreign Policy, this one called "The Hispanic Challenge." It has made the book a lightning rod for the least credible of his warnings: America's Latino immigration deluge, he claims, is so little like any earlier wave, so hostile or resistant to sharing the common American language, civic rites and virtues upon which our republican self-governance depends, that it constitutes "a major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States." If this clash isn't civilizational, what is?

The problem is that, most likely, it isn't, and Who We Are? doesn't persuade this reader that most Latino immigration is a threat to liberal democracy. Two months ago, Huntington also published (in the conservative journal National Interest) a less-noted essay, "Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite," whose title and contents come from another, smaller section toward the end of the book. Contradicting his own claims that the Latino tidal wave is shifting the balance of American political culture against patriotism, he announces, "A major gap is growing in America between its increasingly denationalized [academic, corporate and cultural] elites and its 'Thank God for America' public." The latter, he reports, has remained consistently patriotic over time, even as the former "reject expressions of patriotism and explicitly define themselves as multinational…. The CIA … can no longer count on the cooperation of American corporations … [which] view themselves as multinational and may think it not in their interests to help the U.S. government." And we're supposed to wring our hands instead about Mexican immigrants?

He opens Who Are We? by admitting he's too close to our crisis of American identity to address it only as a scholar; he's writing also as a patriot to defend a distinctive "Anglo-Protestant" political culture, which he believes is indispensable to republican self-governance here. Anyone of any race or ethnic background can join this "nonracial society composed of multiracial individuals," but only after having absorbed and adapted - or been absorbed into - the enduringly Anglo-Protestant idiom and ethos that most Americans of all colors and ethnicities do share but which, he says, most Latino immigrants resist.

But Huntington is disappointingly dull in evoking the Anglo-Protestant civic nationalism he wants to defend. These sections are as potted and derivative as an undistinguished term paper. "Eighty-five percent of Americans … cited their 'governmental, political institutions' as that aspect of their country of which they were the most proud, compared with 46 percent of Britons, 30 percent of Mexicans, 7 percent of Germans, and 3 percent of Italians. For Americans, ideology trumps territory." Endless recitations like this trump reader engagement.

Sometimes his flinty realism yields observations as arresting as they may be uncongenial: "America was created as a Protestant society just as and for some of the same reasons Pakistan and Israel were created as Muslim and Jewish societies in the twentieth century." This is classic Huntington - an understatement so true it makes us realize how much we have forgotten. (It also makes me wonder if he understands how much we have changed.) He chooses interestingly among familiar culinary metaphors for American civic identity, rejecting "melting pot" (too monolithic and suppressive of legitimate differences) and "tossed salad" (too diffuse) for a sturdy Anglo-Protestant "tomato soup," to which new arrivals contribute croutons and distinctive spices without changing its basic constitution.

Most new Americans have been glad to do this, but Huntington turns the holdouts' own words against them with a trademark sang-froid: Writers such as the black nationalist Harold Cruse declared that "America is a nation that lies to itself about who and what it is. It is a nation of minorities ruled by a minority of one - it thinks and acts as if it were a nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants." To which Huntington responds, Kabuki-like: "These critics are right." Then he says that Anglo-Protestant conformity, which absorbed people of many colors and faiths into a common identity that made possible the New Deal, the war against fascism and the rise of a new middle class, has "benefited them and the country."

Why doesn't it do so now? Here he sounds diversionary and at times testy. Pondering widespread adoption of the name "African American" over "black" in the 1980s, he writes, "Given the pervasive penchant of Americans to prefer single-syllable over multi-syllable names for almost everything, this high and growing popularity of a seven syllable, two-word name over a one-syllable, one-word name is intriguing and perhaps significant." As is Huntington's own preference for the eight-syllable "white Anglo-Saxon Protestant" over "WASP" to denote his own ethno-religious group.

He doesn't take black Americans seriously in this book, by whatever name. It was the black civil rights movement that made Huntington's Anglo conformism even possible for millions of nonwhites, and yet he takes no cues from that breakthrough and its subsequent breakdowns: The fabric of American civic trust has been nowhere more severely tried than in blacks' cultural, electoral, legal and public psycho-dramatic renderings of disaffection with white America.

Nor does Huntington examine such Latino responses to black disaffection as a 1992 editorial in San Diego's Mexican American newspaper La Prensa that declared Latinos the new "bridge between blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos." Latinos, the editorial said, "will have to bring an end to class, color, and ethnic warfare. To succeed, they will have to do what the blacks failed to do: incorporate all into the human race and exclude no one."

If Huntington wants "a non-racial society composed of multiracial individuals," shouldn't he reach for those Latino immigrants whose notions of race are more fluid and ecumenical than those of most blacks and whites, locked together for so long in a brutal embrace? Mightn't they lead in renewing the quasi-ethnic bondings of an American civic culture that, shorn of racist exclusions, could ask more of citizens than does the current ethnic pandering in commercialism and demagoguery?

There's no denying Huntington's observations about the uniqueness of the 2,000-mile-long border that (barely) separates Mexico's northern states from its former provinces in the United States, or that Mexican and other Latino immigrants' sheer numbers and concentration bring them linguistic and political hegemony, not only in southern Texas and California but also in Miami and parts of New York.

But he conflates demographic and political developments through intuition, stray anecdotes, newspaper stories and poll after vapid poll, whose findings are often contradictory: At times the gaps between Latinos and the rest of us in patriotism and perception are growing; at other times the American public - already 12.5 percent Latino, thanks to immigration that is 50 percent Latino - is maintaining its patriotism, defying cosmopolitan and capitalist elites. He can't have this both ways and describe a Latino "reconquista" of former Spanish territories in California, Texas and Florida that is "well underway."

Although he gives no evidence of having left a metaphorical armchair, Huntington sometimes writes as if he's just returned from a visit like the ones Henry James made to Eastern European Jewish immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he concluded that the Yiddish- speaking "hard glitter of Israel" could never be truly American. And Huntington glosses the tortuous reception of peasant, supposedly anti-republican, "papist" waves of Irish Catholics, and of Germans in the Midwest who long resisted efforts to impose English.

Not surprisingly, the public and private bureaucrats in our vast, national race industry are lambasting Huntington's claims. Some have noted quite rightly that American forces in Iraq are commanded by Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who grew up in one of the dirt-poor, 98 percent-Latino counties in Texas that prompted Huntington's quasi-civilizational despair. But they and Huntington's Latino "nationalist" critics ignore his condemnation of American interventions abroad, such as the very war Sanchez is fighting. That skews debate about who we are as a nation. (It also misses the possibility that Huntington would be relieved if his pessimism about Latinos' becoming full Americans provoked enough of them to prove him wrong.) Keeping him busy answering charges of racism only spares him the trouble of having to own up to his book's anti-corporate arguments and implications.

For example, even as he angers multiculturalist activists by condemning the Ford Foundation's national "diversity" crusades - on the grounds that a country as diverse as ours should work overtime to deepen some common bonds - he also condemns Ford Motor Co., one of the corporations he tells us no longer describes itself as American and has non-Americans as top executives. The company, even more than the foundation, drives what he bemoans as the "deconstruction" of civic patriotism. That's a point worth developing, as are his criticisms of such enemies of civic trust as these companies' intrusive culture of consumer marketing and what he considers our government's faux-patriotic interventions abroad.

Huntington's condemnation of the latter, in which some honorable conservatives are now joining, is squarely in the tradition of his Harvard predecessors William James and Charles Eliot Norton, and of Andrew Carnegie and Carl Schurz, who opposed the Spanish-American War on republican grounds. And since he's writing about clashes between Mexican and American identities, why not examine Woodrow Wilson's disastrous, humiliating efforts to impose "democracy," Iraq-like, in Mexico in 1917?

Why doesn't he ponder the irony that George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, two of this country's most prominent "Anglo-Protestant" political leaders, accept the corporate defections from America and, in the former Spanish territories, including Texas, Florida and California, bear responsibility for immigration policies that Huntington would tighten and enrich with stronger civic socialization?

When the venerable black former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1995, she called for just such programs to induct immigrants more fully into American civic life. She noted that the word "Americanization" had "earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s…. But it is our word and we are taking it back." Shouldn't Huntington join Jordan's successors against both facile multiculturalists and caste-forming, low-wage employers, instead of sniping at blacks and uttering dire prophecies about Latinos? This book and the way he has promoted it suggest he isn't up to the challenge.

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Daniel B. Larison - 5/9/2004

I will be the first to admit that I find Prof. Huntington's conception of American history to be based very heavily on the Puritanical and Whig influences, which makes his conception of American identity obsessively ideological and anti-traditional. If his idea of the Anglo-Protestant core, which is fine in itself as an historic identity, means a kind of Whig justification of the consolidation of the American state under northern Anglo-Saxon Protestants, then there is no need for anyone to pay much attention to it. To the extent that it sounds a necessary alarm to the undue influence of corporations and their inextricable links with government expansion and foreign interventions, as well as the immigration crisis, then it is long overdue.

The concerns he raises about the mass immigration of Latin Americans and the proximity of Mexico making this process different from all those before it are legitimate and reasonable, though it may be that Prof. Huntington does a poor job developing them. I don't know about the details of his argument. I do know that the LA Times has been running hostile reviews of his Foreign Policy article and now his book in advance of their release in an attempt to brand the mere discussion of these topics as racism.

Mr. Sleeper's treatment of this book, which very few people have yet read, is not very informative. He sets up a dichotomy of concern about multinationals and immigration as if they were all that different, when they are two sides of the same coin. Multinationals that owe no particular allegiance to the United States are only too happy to push the cheap labour that mass immigration brings. The multinationals' influence in government and their lack of concern for the well-being of this country are directly tied to the government's indifference in combating mass illegal immigration. It is their hand, as much as anyone else's, that is behind the efforts to obtain an amnesty for illegal immigrants. In turn, mass immigration creates the political dynamic of new voting blocs to continually support the welfare-warfare state, as virtually all immigrant groups have done since mass immigration and government consolidation first appeared in this country.

As the population becomes less attached to the constitutional republican heritage with each new wave of immigration (as it has done since the 1840s), imperial interventionism, especially for dubiously 'progressive' purposes, becomes more acceptable, and the sons of immigrants will fill the ranks of the imperial forces in order to prove their loyalty to their new regime. At some point, immigration is not a process in which new peoples come to become part of the old America, but where new peoples are incorporated into the effort to eradicate the old America by the denationalised elite of which Prof. Huntington correctly speaks. Empires of old understood this all too well: use uprooted peoples, who want to integrate into the state, to smash institutions and populations that resisted consolidation.

This is where Huntington's emphasis on the Anglo-Protestant heritage misses the point: it has been the Anglo-Protestants, especially from the Northeast, who have been the leading edge of stripping America of any particular ethnic, cultural or historic meaning. As Mr. Sleeper suggests, products of that elite are perfectly happy to do the work of multinationals and the Mexican government; these elites have no sense of identity outside of abstract platitudes, and so they come to believe that America is nothing but a gigantic platitude. To the extent that Prof. Huntington cannot imagine an American identity without linking it to political institutions and theory, he belongs to the same elite; he simply happens to dislike what his fellows have wrought.

The power of multinationals, frequent interventionism and mass immigration are the trifecta of American deracination and deconstruction of national identity. Mr. Sleeper cannot begin to grasp the interrelations of these phenomena, or if he does he does not see fit to explore them. It seems that he cannot offer much other than snide remarks in his criticism of the book.

Daniel B. Larison - 5/9/2004

Personally, I don't expect very good history from HNN, and Mr. Sleeper does not change my opinion of the quality of historically-informed commentary on this site. The 1917 intervention to which he was referring had nothing to do with democracy or the imposition of it (just as Wilson's intervention in the San Domingo had nothing to do with anything except fending off a supposed German influence in the Caribbean and securing the interests of American sugar men). I seem to recall that there was a third Mexican intervention under Wilson, but I can't be sure.

Wilson supported Pancho Villa's enemies in Mexico City during the revolution/civil war; Villa made his little raid on Columbus, which provoked Gen. Pershing's completely futile punitive expedition. If Mr. Sleeper thinks that old Blackjack was down there to give the Mexicans democracy, then perhaps he is not the most qualified person to tell us about the realities along our southern border and in our border states. So the charge of inaccuracy is entirely justified, albeit not for quite the reasons Mr. Socolow suggested.

Mike Socolow - 5/4/2004

Mr. Sleeper writes of "Woodrow Wilson's disastrous, humiliating efforts to impose "democracy," Iraq-like, in Mexico in 1917 [?]"

Is he referring to the Tampico Incident of 1914? When US soldiers occupied Veracruz?

http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/tampicoincident.htm">Here is more information on the event. http://www.archives.gov/research_room/federal_records_guide/print_friendly.html?page=military_government_of_veracruz_rg141_content.html&title=NARA%20%7C%20Research%20Room%20%7C%20Guide%20to%20Records%20of%20the%20Military%20Government%20of%20Veracruz">Archives records here.

One expects a little better from the History News Network (but not necessarily the Los Angeles Times).