Friday, March 24, 2017

Who are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (2004) - Note for a book mentioned in a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

"An Identity Crisis for Norman Rockwell America," Review by Michiko Kakutani of Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity by Samuel P. Huntington, New York Times (May 28, 2004)

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In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Samuel P. Huntington's 1996
book ''The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order'' became a best
seller. Its thesis was that in a post-­cold war world, conflicts between cultures would
replace conflicts between nation­states and conflicts between ideologies.

Mr. Huntington's portentous new book looks at the flip side of that thesis: if
peoples and countries with similar cultures (that is, values, traditions, religions) are
coming together, then countries made up of different cultures are in danger of
coming apart. He argues in ''Who Are We?'' that multiculturalism, diversity and
bilingualism in the United States are strengthening racial, ethnic and other
''subnational identities'' at the expense of an overarching national identity, while
global business ties, global communications and global concerns (about matters like
the environment and women's rights) are increasingly promoting ''transnational''
identities among American elites.

As a result, Mr. Huntington suggests, the United States is not only undergoing a
profound identity crisis, but it may eventually find its very existence threatened:
''Historically the substance of American identity has involved four key components:
race, ethnicity, culture (most notably language and religion), and ideology,'' he
writes. ''The racial and ethnic Americas are no more. Cultural America is under
siege. And as the Soviet experience illustrates, ideology is a weak glue to hold
together people otherwise lacking racial, ethnic, and cultural sources of community.
Reasons could exist, as Robert Kaplan observed, why 'America, more than any other
nation, may have been born to die.' ''

In laying out these ideas, Mr. Huntington ­­ a Harvard professor and chairman of
the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies ­­ has written a crotchety,
overstuffed and highly polemical book.

Like its predecessor, this book tries to grapple with huge, sweeping social and
political developments, but turns out to be a considerably more shopworn volume,
recycling arguments made by a wide array of earlier thinkers, from Alexis de
Tocqueville to Nathan Glazer to S. I. Hayakawa, while glossing masses of research
with decidedly subjective analysis. Many of its arguments feel like leftovers from the
1980's and 90's, when debates about multiculturalism and core curriculums were all
the rage; an era that feels strangely distant given the post­9/11 surge of patriotism
and the more recent red state-­blue state divisions of this war­-torn campaign year.

Mr. Huntington writes, he says, ''as a patriot and a scholar,'' and his book clearly
interprets facts, polling data and historical events in light of his own firmly held
beliefs: namely that the United States is defined ''in large part by its Anglo-Protestant
culture and its religiosity,'' that Americans ''should recommit themselves''
to those values, and that old-­fashioned cultural assimilation played (and should
continue to play) a major role in America's success.

In what is by far this book's most alarmist chapter, Mr. Huntington contends
that ''the continuation of high levels of Mexican and Hispanic immigration plus the
low rates of assimilation of these immigrants into American society and culture
could eventually change America into a country of two languages, two cultures, and
two peoples.'' He writes that illegal immigration is a ''threat to America's societal
security,'' and snidely adds that ''Mexican­-Americans will share'' in the American
dream ''only if they dream in English.''

In another chapter Mr. Huntington argues that two currently popular attitudes ­
­ cosmopolitanism (in which ''the world reshapes America'') and imperialism (in
which ''America remakes the world'') ­­ fail to reflect the state of the early­-21st-century
world, as both notions ''attempt to reduce or to eliminate the social, political,
and cultural differences between America and other societies.'' What he seems to be
proposing instead is a sort of neo­-isolationist nationalism in which ''the American
identity that has existed for centuries'' is preserved and strengthened.

Mr. Huntington tries to drive these ideas home by delivering what amounts to a
400­page PowerPoint presentation. Every argument is neatly divided into an
arbitrary series of parts, each phenomenon given a neatly enumerated series of
causes and consequences. We are told that there are four challenges to America's
core Anglo-Protestant culture and its political Creed of liberty and democracy, four
phases to the evolution of America's national identity, three ways of responding to
potential threats posed by immigration, three important consequences to sustained
high levels of immigration, and so on and so on.

This schematic approach is reductive in the extreme, turning enormously
complex, often ambiguous developments into bite­size entries on a flow chart, and it
seems especially unsuited to grappling with the sort of broad historical and social
developments that Mr. Huntington has tackled in this volume.

In fact ''Who Are We?'' is riddled with gross generalizations: ''Immigrants
become citizens'' today, Mr. Huntington writes, ''not because they are attracted to
America's culture and Creed, but because they are attracted by government social
welfare and affirmative action programs.'' And equally questionable assertions: ''The
past difficulties, discomforts, costs, risks, and uncertainties of migrating to the
United States have now largely evaporated. Contemporary immigrants may have the
grit, determination, and commitment of previous immigrants, but they do not have
to have them.''

This book is also pockmarked with perplexing contradictions and curiously
blindered observations. Early on Mr. Huntington writes that ''crises of national
identity have become a global phenomenon,'' but later states that ''nationalism is
alive and well in most of the world.'' He spends a lot of time arguing that Americans
today are increasingly religious and increasingly worried about a moral crisis in the
country, but fails to reconcile such observations with evidence of a more laissez-faire
attitude, from Bill Clinton's continuing popularity post-­Monica­-gate to the lucrative
celebrity enjoyed by Paris Hilton in the wake of her much-­talked­-about sex video.

''Who Are We?'' may want to be provocative the way ''The Clash of Civilizations''
was, but in the end it simply rehashes a lot of familiar debates about immigration,
religion and WASP culture, while injecting them with a bellicose new spin.

From Amazon:

In his seminal work The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington argued provocatively and presciently that with the end of the cold war, “civilizations” were replacing ideologies as the new fault lines in international politics.

Now in his controversial new work, Who Are We?, Huntington focuses on an identity crisis closer to home as he examines the impact other civilizations and their values are having on our own country.

America was founded by British settlers who brought with them a distinct culture, says Huntington, including the English language, Protestant values, individualism, religious commitment, and respect for law. The waves of immigrants that later came to the United States gradually accepted these values and assimilated into America's Anglo-Protestant culture. More recently, however, our national identity has been eroded by the problems of assimilating massive numbers of primarily Hispanic immigrants and challenged by issues such as bilingualism, multiculturalism, the devaluation of citizenship, and the “denationalization” of American elites.

September 11 brought a revival of American patriotism and a renewal of American identity, but already there are signs that this revival is fading. Huntington argues the need for us to reassert the core values that make us Americans. Timely and thought-provoking, Who Are We? is an important book that is certain to shape our national conversation about who we are.


James A. Nuechterlein, Commentary (May 1, 2004)

Who are We? The Cultural Core of American National Identity
by Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster. 448 pp. $27.00

Samuel P. Huntington is not only a distinguished social scientist, he is a notably brave and independent one. His new book, Who Are We? The Cultural Core of American National Identity, is almost defiantly unfashionable and counter-cultural. In the face of dominant pieties in the academy, Huntington not only takes on a presumably atavistic subject—national identity—but offers an unapologetically traditional interpretation and defense of the concept as most Americans, against their presumed intellectual betters, experience and understand it. His analysis of our situation and his prescriptions for renewal are not without flaws, but they deserve careful attention and serious consideration.

Through most of their history, Americans have had a strong and unabashed sense of national identity. Huntington argues, however, that this instinctive patriotic urge, having come under assault since the 1960’s, may not be able to endure in its traditional form, even with the boost it experienced in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. How long will the flags continue to fly, he asks metaphorically, as that day fades from our memory?

As for how Americans have defined their national identity, that, Huntington notes, has varied over the centuries, with the relevant terms being race, ethnicity, ideology, and culture. The first two of these categories, for reasons almost all to the good, have largely been eliminated. The third, ideology, has been most strongly emphasized. Americans are firmly bound together, it is commonly held, by the bundle of principles that make up the American Creed: liberty, equality before the law, equal opportunity, individualism, human rights, representative government, private property.

Huntington does not deny the importance of the Creed, but he doubts that it can long survive without continued support from the Anglo-Protestant culture in which it grew and flourished—and which is now under attack. It is a misleading half-truth, he says, to refer to America as a “nation of immigrants.” The British Protestants who created America in the 17th and 18th centuries were not immigrants in the customary sense. They were, rather, founders or settlers who created the society and culture that all future immigrants assimilated into. As he nicely puts it, “Before immigrants could come to America, settlers had to found America.”

The distinctive features of the American Creed, in Huntington’s view, grew out of a culture that included “a work ethic, the English language, British traditions of law, justice, and the limits of government power, and a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy, and music.” Subvert that culture, he believes, and you subvert also the foundations of the Creed and thus eventually of American national identity.

Ultimately, Huntington insists, the sources of the Creed and of American liberal principles are not secular but religious. They derive from Christianity in general and from a dissenting Protestantism in particular—a product of the English Puritan Revolution, itself described by Huntington as “the single most important formative event of American political history.” It is the distinctively Protestant emphases on the individual conscience, the work ethic, opposition to hierarchy, and the responsibility to transform society that “have shaped American attitudes toward private and public morality, economic activity, government, and public policy.”

Huntington hastens to add that his is an argument “for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people.” America has happily become a multiethnic, multiracial society in which individuals can succeed on their own merits without regard to their origins. If a commitment to Anglo-Protestant culture is sustained, “America will still be America long after the Waspish descendants of its founders have become a small and uninfluential minority.”


But can the commitment to a national identity based on Anglo-Protestant culture be sustained? Huntington identifies a number of factors undermining it. The end of the cold war, welcome though it was, had the negative side-effect of removing the USSR as a threatening “other” that inclined Americans to unite behind their own nation and its political economy of democratic capitalism. Enemies help to create identity.

More significant than the end of the cold war, according to Huntington, has been the emergence of theories and programs of multiculturalism and diversity that have encouraged Americans to identify themselves not with the nation as a whole but with sub-national (gender, race, and class), dual-national (especially among immigrants), and trans-national attachments. Today’s elites characteristically encourage the first two tendencies in others and are themselves drawn to the third. In a globalizing world, business leaders naturally adopt international perspectives while intellectual and cultural elites increasingly think of themselves as citizens of the world, united with humanity at large.

National identity, in the view of these elites, is itself regarded as a problem. Huntington cites the well-known political theorists Martha Nussbaum and Amy Gutmann, the former denouncing “patriotic pride” as “morally dangerous,” the latter urging that the “primary allegiance” of Americans “should not be to the United States . . . but to democratic humanism.” In the perspective of such Left-liberal thinkers, traditional imperatives for the Americanization of immigrants have themselves become un-American. These views reveal a gap, emphasized by Huntington throughout, between ordinary Americans, most of whom are ardent and unembarrassed in their patriotism, and intellectuals and academics who tend to view patriotism with suspicion, if not contempt.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Huntington’s argument concerns immigration. He sees ominous implications in the fact that, in recent years, immigrants to the U.S. have been heavily Hispanic (almost 50 percent) and particularly Mexican (27.6 percent). There are now, he notes, slightly more Hispanics in America than blacks (both make up about 12 percent of the population), and the proportion of Hispanics is likely to increase significantly in the years to come because of continued high rates of both immigration and fertility.

Huntington does not ignore the economic implications of this influx—downward pressure on wages, high incidence of poverty and welfare—but he again focuses on issues of culture. Conceding that evidence about the pace of assimilation (e.g., English-language acquisition, intermarriage rates, self-identification, naturalization) is mixed and even contradictory, he worries that Hispanic immigrants—and, again, especially Mexicans—may, unlike previous waves of newcomers, be more resistant to assimilation in the second, third, and succeeding generations.

These immigrants, Huntington points out, though coming from many different countries, overwhelmingly speak a single foreign language, Spanish, a circumstance unprecedented in our nation’s experience. The result has been the formation of enclave communities in which it is not necessary to learn English to conduct the public, non-family aspects of one’s life. With language being so essential to culture, Huntington raises the possibility of a future “bifurcated America, with two languages, Spanish and English, and two cultures, Anglo-Protestant and Hispanic.”

Critics have been quick to argue that Huntington’s thesis—which I have only been able to sketch here—is too pessimistic. They may well be right. America is still a long way from having a substantial minority deeply separated from the majority culture, as has been the case in, for example, Quebec (though tensions seems to have abated there recently). But if Huntington is undoubtedly alarmed, he is not an alarmist, and his concerns should not be dismissed out of hand.

In terms of Huntington’s larger argument, the most striking feature is the crucial place he accords to religion. This, he says early on, “has been and still is a central, perhaps the central, element of American identity.” By any measure—and Huntington adduces copious empirical evidence—America is a religious nation, one of the most religious in the world. More than that, it is a Christian nation, culturally as well as numerically. Huntington easily dismisses those who depict America’s religious condition as radically pluralistic. Americans are 63 percent Protestant, 23 percent Catholic, 8 percent non-Christian, 6 percent with no religion. And most studies indicate that the intensity of Christian belief and commitment has not subsided in recent years; it may well, in fact, have increased.

Here, indeed, in both the country’s general religiosity and its Christian particularity, lie the essential underpinnings, in Huntington’s view, of our distinct national identity. Our religiosity distinguishes us from the rest of the West; our Christianity distinguishes us from most non-Western nations. More than that, religion and nationalism are positively correlated. Committed religious believers—who are, in America, mainly Christians—are more likely to be committed patriots than those who are nominally religious or not religious at all. Religion, patriotism, and American exceptionalism all go hand in hand.

Huntington is surely right about this in the large. Still, even for those who, like me, are essentially sympathetic to his analysis as well as to the preservation of our distinct national identity, there is at least one significant flaw in his program. It is the term that lies at the heart of the argument: Anglo-Protestant culture. It is simply too late in the day to suppose that words so restrictive in their connotations can serve as a rallying point for a reaffirmation of national identity.

The problems with “Anglo” are so obvious as not to need elaboration, even if Huntington insists that he is speaking of a culture, not a people. And what will the more than one-quarter of American Christians who are Catholic (not to mention other, non-Christian groups) make of their presumed need to affirm Protestant culture? It is true enough, as Huntington points out, that Catholics in America have in many ways internalized values that are generally Protestant in character. But in my experience, American Catholics, especially the more devout ones who are in many ways the most likely to buy into Huntington’s argument, are not simply quasi-Protestants who happen to have a thing for Mary and the Pope. The differences go deeper.

All that aside, this is a significant and important book. Whatever its limits, it recognizes and affirms the fact that Americans are still the most patriotic people in the world and that positive visions of the nation’s future must build on that foundation. And this, although historians have been taught not to say so, is a Good Thing.

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