A review of Who We Are?: The Challenges to America's National Identity, by Samuel P. Huntington (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 428 pages.
Huntington claims that alongside its immigrant nature, the American nation was, and remains, a white, religious, Puritan-Protestant nation that absorbed human elements, especially from (white) Europe, along with ideas from the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It became an immense melting pot in which people and ideas were subjected to a blunt process of Americanization. As long as the mechanisms of Americanization functioned properly (while also carefully selecting who would be allowed to join the nation), the United States became the fulfillment of prosperous humanity's most advanced dreams, and it marched vigorously on toward a world hegemony.
But like all other hegemonic empires in human history, it, too, began to crumble from within as it reached its zenith. And that -- claims the Harvard professor who has become something of an American guru -- is exactly where the US stands today. He believes that unless appropriate measures are taken soon, by around 2025 the US will implode and come to resemble the countries of South America. Such a prospect fills the heart of any "real" American with deep dread.
Huntington, who for decades has been a pillar of American academia, began his career as a world guru with the appearance of his book The Clash of Civilizations. When his thesis seemed validated by the September 11 attacks (although it is doubtful that he had something like this in mind), the political scientist became an international celebrity. The new book is better than the previous one, mainly because Huntington knows American history and culture much better than he does the nuances of the world's cultures and religions. The thesis of the new book, like that of the previous one, can be strongly disputed. It is important to note, however, that it was written by a first-rate American scholar about America and for American readers; yet that is precisely why it needs to be studied carefully all across the globe.
Culturally and as a secular political entity, the US is a Protestant-Christian and not a Judeo-Christian nation. According to Huntington, secularism (unlike atheism) does not clash with religion; rather, the two complete each other, with civil religion serving as an adhesive between political secularism and religious secularism. There is quite a bit of confusion in the book regarding the essence of American "religion". In some places the term denotes a universal faith in God (Christians of all stripes, Jews, Muslims and even Hindus believe in the transcendental entity that created the world and continues to direct it); elsewhere it means Christianity in general. In many other places it stands for Protestantism, usually American-style Protestantism, which is as unique as the rest of the country's culture. This uniqueness is what made the US into the land of promise - the goal and destination, Huntington believes, of every person on earth. But that is also its biggest problem.
New territorial demands
The unique American creed finds its foremost expression in the English language (as the only language uniting all Americans), in Christianity, in commitment to the religious community, in the English legal conception and heritage, in the personal accountability of the governing figures, in individual rights and individualism in general, in the work ethic, and in the unshakable belief that individuals have a right and a duty to create heaven on earth. Huntington is himself a great believer in the American myth of the shoeshine boy who can go far in life through hard work, profound intention (both expressed in actual work and God's work) and perseverance. Two central concepts are not part of this paradigm: democracy (Huntington is a meritocrat) and capitalism (a term not found in his dictionary).
Between 1820 and 1924, some 34 million European immigrants came to the US Those who remained there, or their children, were completely assimilated into American culture, for two main reasons. One was the immigrants' deep desire to shed their original identity and culture; the other was the uncompromising demand of American political and civil society that they undergo a rapid process of Americanization. When, in the mid-19th century, German immigrants tried to create for themselves an autonomous cultural and linguistic enclave, their attempt was swiftly suppressed. Huntington knows that in the first and even the second generation of non-white immigrants (especially those from Italy and Eastern Europe, who were not really "made white" until after World War II), the Americanization process was not complete, and they tended to huddle in ghettos and to remain ethnically distinct through endogamous marriages. Yet they presented no threat to the Anglo-American core culture, because they were dispersed throughout the US and had no real connection to their country of origin. Nowhere did a critical mass emerge to challenge the core culture. Whoever could not handle this had no choice but to return to his native land.
By contrast, from 1965 to 2000 about 23 million legal immigrants and several million illegal ones came to the United States, most of them from Latin America. They found a changing country, but they also became increasingly involved in causing these changes. Huntington focuses mainly on the Mexicans. The U.S. has a border of over 3,500 kilometers with Mexico, a border separating a Third World country from the richest, most highly developed country on earth. According to Huntington, out of 135 million Mexicans, about 35 million are currently living in the US, legally or not. Estimates hold that by 2040 they will account for some one-quarter of the American population: The birth rate among non-Hispanic whites is 1.8 (the rate required for maintaining a population of a fixed size is 1.2), among African Americans it is 2.1, and among the Hispanics it is 3.0. The Hispanics are concentrated mainly in the southern states along the Mexican border and constitute a culturally and socially homogenous mass, including second- and third-generation immigrants -- a critical mass of consumers of products and cultural items the likes of which the U.S. has never seen before.
Moreover, no other immigrant population can make the kind of territorial demands that the Mexicans can and do make. About one-half of Mexico was conquered in the border wars of 1835-1836 and 1846-1848. Texas, California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico are almost entirely made up of captured and annexed Mexican land. Huntington believes that the Mexicans, encouraged by their governments, are now conducting a "reconquista" (reconquering) of this land through immigration and demographics. The blurring of the territorial border is also the blurring of cultural and linguistic boundaries: The dominant Anglo-American culture of the U.S. is giving way to Hispanic-American culture.
Huntington goes to the trouble of providing many examples and figures to prove his thesis. Thus, for example, Miami has become a Cuban city, the economic capital of Latin America, through the immigration of Cuban exiles, entrepreneurs and activists who were also in possession of material and cultural capital.
Country of diasporas
The US, Huntington argues, has not yet completely lost its Protestant core culture, but this no longer commands a hegemonic position. From a country of immigrants, the US has turned into a country of diasporas, with each ethnic group serving as a lobby for a foreign country or people. The loyalty of these groups is uncertain, double; in some cases, their members' primary loyalty is not to the US at all, even though they are its citizens and in some cases were even born and raised as Americans. In this context Huntington mentions the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who claimed at his trial that he had never conceived that Israel and the US could have conflicting interests.
Huntington blames the economic, political, and above all academic, elites of embracing anti-patriotic and trans-national values, and of displacing their loyalty from the American nation to abstract universal values that often clash with American values and interests. Globalization, he argues, has created for these elites loci of interests and loyalty outside their own country (for example, most large American corporations have become multinational, and neither their top executives nor many of their shareholders are American). Many people outside the US view globalization as "Americanization." But Huntington, like a number of conservative thinkers, sees it as the de-Americanization of American economy and values, and as the blurring of boundaries between the national and the meta-national - which to Huntington is also a-national, if not anti-national.
However, Huntington's approach is full of logical and conceptual contradictions. He rejects collective rights (mostly those of nonwhites and non-Protestants) in support of the protection of individual rights within the US in the name of liberalism. At the same time, however, he argues for the absolute privilege of national (collective) rights over the trans-national individual rights of "the world's citizens." This double standard is underscored by, one the one hand, Huntington's objection to having international bodies (the United Nations, the international court at the Hague, and so on) investigate and sit in judgment of US violations of human rights (which are distinct individual rights) and, on the other hand, his defense of the American right to intervene anywhere in the world to protect these same values. In other words, the rules of the game - in the US and elsewhere - are determined according to the interests of the very stratum to which Huntington himself belongs, and whose privilege must be protected.
Veneration of wars
On the domestic front, Huntington attacks the laws of affirmative action, which he sees as one of the reasons for the decline and deterioration of Americanism. He is, as stated above, a meritocrat, who believes that acceptance to educational institutions, to public office and to jobs in general, as well as professional advancement, should be based solely on one's qualifications. Affirmative action, as he sees it, not only discriminates against better-qualified people and encourages individual and national mediocrity, but stigmatizes the African-American population. It is important to note that many African Americans now embrace this view as they compete against the Hispanics.
Huntington venerates wars, which he sees as the primary cause of humanity's advancement. Too often his book reads like an American version of the German geo-politicians. He takes the empirical claim of Charles Tilly, his colleague from Columbia, that "nations make wars and wars make nations," and turns it into a normative statement: The American War of Independence created the American country. The Civil War created the American nation. The wars in France and Spain tightened the nation's spokes. World War I advanced the concept of egalitarian citizenship. World War II ended the racial discrimination of black Americans (although he admits they are still excluded and underprivileged).
The worst thing that ever happened to the US, he writes plainly and without flinching, is the collapse of the evil Soviet empire; the best thing was the September 11 attacks, which restored the sense of an external threat, revived American patriotism and led to the declaration of America's war on global terror. Huntington openly admits that in his previous book, he was looking for an external enemy or constructing one. He is proud of having correctly identified this enemy. Like the many other claims made in this substantial volume, this one can -- and should -- be disputed.
Huntington's ambivalence toward the African Americans is fairly obvious, despite his claim that the US no longer has a racial problem. When the first group of freed slaves visited the White House after the Civil War, he writes, they were told that it would be best if they returned to Africa. This indeed happened, at least in part and probably by coercion, when the state of Liberia was established for African Americans seeking to fulfill their right of return. His attitude toward the Native Americans is even more problematic. He argues, and rightly, that they still are not and cannot be part of the American nation (hinting at their territorial demands).
This issue brings us to another aspect of the book: It is, to a great extent, a revisionist political history of the US -- or, to be more precise, a return to the American historiography of the 19th century, with its "good guys" and "bad guys" and no shades of gray. Huntington stresses that the white settlers of New England were initially on good terms with the Native Americans; this, he argues, was the golden age of their relations. But the Native Americans, who began to feel that the settlers were coveting their land, waged a war of annihilation against the whites (a period known as "King Phillip's War"). In 1675 Native Americans attacked 52 out of 90 white settlements, badly damaging 25 of them and utterly destroying 17. The settlers only barely managed to repel the assault. The casualty rate among the settlers was double that of the bloody Civil War, and seven times as high as that of World War II.
After the natives lost, they were systematically pushed to the West or exiled to the islands of the West Indies. In the 1830s president Andrew Jackson persuaded Congress to pass a law mandating the transfer of all Native Americans west of the Mississippi, leading to the second Seminole war (1835-1843), which was the main phase of the Native American genocide. Huntington does not use the word "genocide," and this chapter is recounted from a position of detachment and scientific objectivity, unlike other chapters, in which the author takes an ideological position.
The US, then, is currently caught in a process of eradicating its own American-ness. Huntington does not provide an explicit recipe for dealing with this self-destructive dynamic. He says there may be a counter-reaction by "real" Americans, that is, white Protestant men, which may manifest itself as a strongly selective immigration policy, perhaps even an absolute immigration ban; it may also lead to the construction of a hermetic separation fence along the US-Mexican border. It is not clear whether this reaction would include a renewed isolationism or continued over-involvement in global matters ("the war on global terror"). At times it seems as though Huntington would like to see both of these antithetical positions exist at once.
"Who Are We?" is a brilliant, compelling, frightening and thought-provoking book about our world, written by one of the best American minds. It is a frightened mind, one that has converted its religion from traditional liberalism to radical conservatism as it stands powerless before the interrelated shifts that are changing the face of the US and the world.
Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent books are Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003), Immigrants, Settlers and Natives (Alma and Am Oved, Hebrew, 2003), and The Palestinian People (Harvard University Press, 2003) with Joel S. Migdal.