BOOK REVIEW The crusade for
monoculture Who Are We? America's Great Debateby Samuel
Reviewed by Chanakya Sen
The prophet-provocateur of international relations, Samuel P
Huntington, is back to rattle some bones with a combative teaser
on American identity. In the tone-setting foreword, he states
that his new book, Who Are We? America's Great Debate, is
my own patriotic desire to find meaning and virtue in America's
past and future". Americans are exhorted by the "clash of
civilizations" guru to recommit themselves to Anglo-Protestant
culture, the source of their identity and moral leadership of
Prior to September 11, 2001, the salience of the American
national identity was eroded. The proportion of immigrants with
"other national loyalties" and dual citizenships had risen to
record levels (7.5 million). Intense programs of
"Americanization" to assimilate immigrants into mainstream US
culture had stopped since 1965. Various sub-national racial,
ethnic and gender identities cropped up. Denationalized elites,
intellectuals and business persons pursued multicultural
diversity theories. The "global speak" of these "cosmocrats" was
influencing US government policies.
Post-1991 Americans were shaky about the substance of their
national identity, being "not what we were and uncertain who we
were becoming" (p 11). They joined several other societies
facing identity crises as globalization mixed and huddled
various races and cultures. The absence of an external "other"
after the collapse of the Soviet Union undermined American unity
and bred splits. Rhetorically, Huntington asks, "Does it take an
Osama bin Laden to make us realize that we are Americans?" (p
Huntington bewails the half-truth that the United States is a
"nation of immigrants". Americans' ancestors were not immigrants
but Anglo-Protestant settlers who came to the New World in the
17th and 18th centuries to create a new society. "Immigrants
came later (1830s) to become part of the society the settlers
had created" (p 40). The Anglo-Protestant settler culture and
its political and economic freedoms attracted immigrants to
America. Settlement was central not only to the nation's
formation but also to its internal westward expansion, the
"peopling of the frontier".
Liberal beliefs that American identity is defined entirely by
political principles of liberty, equality and individual rights
is another partial truth for Huntington. Settler Americans
enslaved and massacred native peoples, segregated blacks,
excluded Asians, discriminated against Catholics and obstructed
immigration from outside northwestern Europe. From King Philip's
War (1675) onward, white Americans ethnically cleansed "savage",
"backward" and "uncivilized" natives. Until 1965, blacks were
denied basic liberties and insulted as an inferior class of
beings. Up to 1952, Asian immigrants were shunned as "a menace
to our civilization".
The core components of Huntington's American identity are
Anglo-Protestant practices inherited from fragments of English
society whence the settlers came. The English language, Tudor
governance and Protestantism were the bedrocks from which
emerged the "American Creed" (Gunnar Myrdal). "America was
created as a Protestant society just as Pakistan and Israel were
created as Muslim and Jewish societies" (p 63). Evangelicals and
Puritans carved the American national value system - extreme
individualism, glorification of work and self-made men. The
moralistic dualism of US foreign policy is derived from the same
Anglo-Protestant culture that sets right apart from wrong and
appropriate from inappropriate.
The United States, a predominantly Christian nation, was always
the most religious country in the Western Hemisphere. Throughout
American history, the proportion of church members has
increased. Sixty-eight percent of respondents in a 1992 opinion
poll felt that belief in God was "extremely important for a true
American". So-called "de-Christianization" of the country was
and is a myth. The US Catholic Church was "de-Romanized" in the
late 19th century and adapted to the Protestant environment.
American "civil religion", centering on special destiny and a
mission to save the world, originates from the Protestant ethic.
Revolutionary warfare in the late 18th century stimulated an
American identity distinct from British colonial identity. The
long spell of peace that followed uncovered sub-national,
sectional, state and partisan identities. "English-speaking
America could have become divided as Spanish-speaking America
did" (p 114). However, the unqualified patriotism of the Civil
War reified an identifiable American nationhood. Mushrooming of
a national economy and national voluntary associations
solidified the identity.
The 1898 Spanish-American War spawned mass jingoism and
patriotic indoctrination of previously unseen dimensions. The
cult of the Stars and Stripes, "equivalent of the cross for
Christians", was a development of that era. Americans deplored
cultural pluralism as fissiparous during World War I. Major
social movements to Americanize immigrants and infuse them with
nationalism flourished in the inter-war years.
National identity climbed to its zenith during World War II and
stayed there until the 1960s. Huntington lays the blame for
bringing the flags down after that on "tossed salad"
deconstructionists who hoisted affirmative action. Government
institutions, newspapers and businesses supported the
"replacement of individual rights by group rights" through
racial preferences, even though the majority of Americans
opposed quotas for admissions and jobs. Federal administrators,
judges and intelligentsia promoted minority languages and
downgraded English against the will of the majority of Americans
(pro-English forces won 11 popular referendums between 1980 and
Multiculturalism, which Huntington vilifies, was anti-European
in essence and "challenged the Anglo-conformist image of
America" (p 173). It removed patriotism from the educational
curriculum and marginalized national history. American youth
lost memory and "became something less than a nation" (p 176).
For Huntington, the greatest threat to American "societal
security" (identity, culture and customs) came from waves of
Hispanic immigration. Sixty-nine percent of illegal immigration
to the United States is of Mexican origin. Latin American
immigrants were reluctant to approximate US norms, especially
Mexicans, who remained highly concentrated. Separatist Mexicans
engendered the "most serious cleavage in American society" by
converting the country's southwest into a "MexAmerica" that has
the potential of going the Quebec way.
Ampersand efforts for not getting Americanized were supported by
liberals who claimed that ethnocentrism was dangerous. A
"reactive ethnic consciousness" resulted, especially among
Mexican immigrants, whose identification with American values
was zilch. They grew "increasingly contemptuous of American
culture", living "in America but not of it" (p 256).
Non-assimilatory immigrants detrimentally affected the meaning
and practice of US citizenship. Naturalization was trivialized
into an exercise of claiming government economic benefits.
Lacking any requirement of loyalty and nationalism, US
citizenship was rendered unexceptional.
Hispanization, in Huntington's assessment, can threaten the
political integrity of the US, what with the Mexican Embassy
issuing consular cards to illegal immigrants. "The Mexican
government, in effect, determines who is an American" (p 282).
Congressional contests in the US are fought between opposing
diaspora lobbies. Cuban dominance of Miami has transformed the
city into an "out-of-control banana republic" with an
"independent foreign policy" (p 251).
'Thank God for America'
Nationalism is today alive and well with huge majorities of
Americans, giving hope to Huntington. Americans rank first in
extent of national pride in every world values survey. The
number of unhyphenated white Americans is on the rise. More
Americans identify themselves as pure "American" instead of
relating to their ethnic background. Younger blacks prefer the
title "African-American", an affirmation of their multi-racial
heritage. White American nativism and racism do pose specters of
renewed intolerance and division.
Elite multiculturalism and mass American craving for national
identity stand at loggerheads. The public feel that the federal
government's efforts to curtail illegal migration have been
"very unsuccessful", although they identify it as "a very
important goal" (p 331). Governmental policy is deviating more
and more from the wishes of the plurality of Americans.
Huntington concludes that political creeds cannot alone sustain
a nation. They cannot match the deep emotional content and
meaning provided by religion and culture. The dramatic
resurgence of conservative Christianity in the US responds to
the psychological and moral needs of Americans. Perceived
decline in morality and family values played a big factor in
George W Bush's election in 2000. The September 11 attacks
"pinpointed America's identity as a Christian nation" (p 358).
What the US must do is rediscover its Anglo-Protestant roots in
this "age of religion".
Huntington's populist crusade for monoculture misrepresents
categories such as "elites" and "race", broad-brushes
institutionalized discrimination and structural violence in US
society, and fails to link the images of evangelical Brother
Jonathan and imperial Uncle Sam. To those hoping for a milder,
mellower and more tolerant United States, reinvigoration of US
nationalism pours fuel over the inferno.
Who Are We? America's Great Debate by Samuel Huntington.
Penguin Books India, September 2004, New Delhi. ISBN:
0-14-303241-0. Price: US$7.50; 428 pages.