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Who We Will Be

Friday, October 1, 2004


Samuel Huntington.
Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.
Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. $27.00

Samuel huntington is a Harvard professor and an American patriot, categories less mutually exclusive than they might at first glance appear. What makes Huntington an anomaly among his intellectual peers is not his love of country but the brand of patriotism he espouses specifically, a deeply unfashionable belief that being American has meant, and should continue to mean, more than allegiance to the set of political principles that make up the American creed. In Huntington’s view, Americans aren’t just a people with a Constitution, but a people with a culture a culture handed down from the English-speaking Protestants who founded the republic three centuries ago, and a culture that is now in danger of disappearing.

Huntington puts forward the case for this understanding of America, and American-ness, in his latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, which has earned an outraged, spluttering, Bell Curve-esque reception since its release this summer. In the wake of the firestorm, actually reading the book is a peculiar experience, akin to sifting through a haystack of cautious, uninflammatory prose in search of a needle of controversy. The reader is conditioned to expect a jeremiad, but Huntington has produced a mild book — a careful, dryly written book — and a book whose diagnosis of the present American situation seems inarguable, if its prognosis leaves something to be desired.
Throughout our history, Huntington argues, America has been understood to be more than a vast “nation of immigrants” united only by their allegiance to the Bill of Rights. In point of fact, the first Americans were not “immigrants” at all, but rather “settlers” who planted a preexisting society and culture on the seventeenth-century Atlantic coast. This distinction is crucial for Huntington, who insists that it is the initial settler culture — English in language and custom, Protestant in religious inclination — into which every subsequent immigrant group has assimilated, losing their own particular identity in a general Anglo-Protestant sea.
Of course, the story of America is more than simply a matter of ethnic group after ethnic group dropping its old identity in favor of a static Anglo-Protestant American-ness — as Huntington sometimes implies. Even in the colonial era, it was the American colonies’ willingness to welcome a wide pool of foreign immigrants that distinguished them from rival colonies, where only subjects of the ruling monarch, French or Spanish, were permitted to settle. But this caveat aside, the core of Huntington’s case is convincing:  “Americanization” has always required two shifts, one from an ancestral language to English, and the other from an ancestral religion either to Protestantism itself or to a Protestantized version of the original faith (think of Reform Judaism or “cafeteria Catholicism”).
Convincing, too, is Huntington’s insistence that neither shift took place in a vacuum. During the waves of industrial-era immigration, European immigrants became Anglo-Protestant Americans in large part because of pressure from a motley coalition of Progressive politicians, intellectuals, and industrial leaders like Henry Ford, who sought to educate immigrants in the language, mores, and civic ideals of their new country. And there was pressure from within immigrant communities as well, where the ethnic and religious leadership — bishops and rabbis, politicians and bosses — often took the lead in encouraging assimilation and in cultivating and celebrating American nationalism.
The decade following World War ii marked the peak of American national unity — in part, Huntington argues, because of the unifying impact of a global conflict and in part because of the 1920s curtailment of immigration, which allowed the nation a breathing space in which to fully assimilate its millions of new inhabitants. But the peak was also the turning point and the beginning of a slow fraying of the United States’ common culture that continues to the present day.
To some extent — it’s here that Huntington’s argument has generated the most critical hand-wringing — this decline has been driven by an unprecedented wave of immigration from a single country (Mexico) with a single language (Spanish). In the nineteenth century, the vast majority of immigrants arrived in the United States legally, from countries with widely disparate languages and cultures, separated from the American mainland in many cases by a thousand miles of ocean and weeks of travel. As a result, as late as 1960 the foreign-born population was divided nearly equally among a variety of ethnicities — Italian, German, Canadian, English, and Polish.
Today, by contrast, most immigrants cross into the United States illegally — coming, as Huntington puts it, from “a poor, contiguous country with more than a third the population of the United States . . . across a two-thousand-mile border marked historically simply by a line in the ground and a shallow river.” Thus, the number of Mexican-born immigrants — nearly eight million, by the 2000 census — dwarfs the next-largest foreign-born group by nearly seven-to-one.
This population, all of whom speak the same language and nearly half of whom inhabit a single state, California, would have posed a challenge to assimilation in the most nationalistic of eras. But the strain on American unity from the wave of Mexican immigrants has been accompanied by pressure from the American elite, which once labored to forge a national identity and preserve a common culture, but has increasingly turned its back on both.
Driven by a transnational, post-patriotic loss of interest (among business elites) and a commitment to a fashionable multiculturalism (among intellectuals, policymakers, and the political leadership of immigrant communities), America’s leaders have actively discouraged assimilation, Huntington argues, by allowing the spread of dual citizenship, by encouraging the maintenance of ethnic and linguistic enclaves, and by doing almost nothing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the Southwestern United States.
Huntington’s critics have hammered  him for a variety of supposed sins, but they have barely disputed his portrayal of the American elite’s multicultural and anti-assimilationist predilections, perhaps because these are positions most of them share. Indeed, one suspects that these prejudices — which see the specter of racism in any attempt to talk seriously about immigration’s impact on the body politic — are largely responsible for the overheated reviews, whose hysteria is wildly disproportionate to the book’s actual sins.
In fact, little of Huntington’s analysis seems particularly controversial, or even particularly debatable. His detractors have argued with his suggestion that Mexican rates of assimilation — in language, education, and patriotism — are lower than historical rates for earlier immigrant groups, though he himself allows that the data are as yet too sketchy to draw any definitive conclusions. They have accused Huntington of conflating Hispanics and Mexicans, though he explicitly distinguishes between them. Most outrageously, they have claimed that he endorses a resurgence of white nativism when he does no such thing.

It’s a shame, because these knee-jerk reactions haven’t just prevented critics from seeing the good in Who Are We?, the uncomfortable truths that Huntington puts forward and the important questions that he raises. They’ve also kept them from recognizing the book’s major flaw, which lies not in its analysis of where we find ourselves, but in its vision for where America is likely to go from here.

This vision, Huntington’s vision, is at once too optimistic and too dark — too sanguine about the chances to arrest the decades-long transformation of America’s national identity and too pessimistic about what such a transformation portends for the country’s future.  
His optimism places its hope for the future in the common man, the average American, who is patriotic, pro-assimilation, and still Anglo-Protestant in language and custom. Despite the trend away from a common culture, the “overwhelming bulk of the American people,” Huntington insists, are committed “to preserving and strengthening the American identity that has existed for centuries.”
This is true enough in theory — but many of the problems facing the preservation of a common culture are unlikely to disappear even with a renewed commitment to America’s waning Anglo-Protestant identity. Even with a reformed immigration system, for instance, Mexican-Americans would still be more likely than previous migrants to enter the country and create ethnic enclaves in the American Southwest, thanks to Mexico’s economic weakness and its proximity to the United States — and more likely as well to maintain what Huntington labels “ampersand identities,” thanks to the speed of modern travel and communication. Neither of these realities, geographic and technological, can be wished or legislated away.
Similarly, the mass industrial economy in which the earlier waves of immigration and assimilation took place has largely disappeared, and with it the industrial barons who saw the promotion of assimilation as being in their economic self-interest and applied principles of the assembly line to citizen-making. Save for the military, no institution with a similar interest in Americanization exists today, and most economic incentives actually push the other way. In an age of health benefits and the minimum wage, the uneducated and undocumented alien is a boon to a thrifty businessman; the Americanized, upwardly-mobile employee isn’t.
Above all, though, Huntington offers no reason to expect that the “overwhelming bulk of the American people” can overcome the principal barrier to a revitalized sense of national identity — specifically, the fact that the large American ruling class, the prime movers of American society, no longer sees itself as “American” in the sense that Huntington desires.
Elite Americans still love their country, and Huntington’s claim that they consider patriotism passé isn’t quite fair, as anyone who has watched the aclu wrap itself in the stars and stripes can attest. But they direct their love toward a misty, unhistorical vision of America — an America that has no common culture and perhaps no common language; an America with a “wall of separation” between church and state; an America that subordinates its foreign policy to various multilateral institutions; an America, above all, where the very term “American” is emptied of any meaning beyond “one who lives within America’s borders.” Their ideal nation resembles a federalized version of the United Nations — an institution dear to many elite hearts — or a peculiar variety of empire, in which American-governed but essentially foreign provinces are created within the national borders.
Such an elite is poorly equipped, if it were inclined that way at all, to create the ambitious Americanization programs that Huntington would presumably like to see, or to reform the educational system to inculcate patriotism, or even to propose and implement a serious reform of immigration law. And elite attitudes are so deeply entrenched (extending as much to the leadership of George Bush’s Republican Party as to John Kerry’s Democrats) that it would take a groundswell indeed to alter them.
The hope of a groundswell may be why Huntington so often invokes military conflict — the only obvious source for such a paradigm shift — as a crucible for national identity. Indeed, one gets the sense, particularly in his discussions of September 11 and its flag-waving aftermath, that some small part of him even hopes for a grand international struggle, grander even than the war on terror, to shake America from her drift away from nationalism.
But as Huntington himself would doubtless be the first to admit, wars of the totalizing, paradigm-shaking kind — the Revolution, the Civil War, the Second World War — are neither desirable nor easily conjured. Nor would such a conflict necessarily have a salutary impact on national unity. The Cold War may be cited wistfully, by Democrats and Republicans alike, as a time when “we knew who the enemy was.” But the struggle with the Soviet Union tended to divide Americans as much as unify them.
Even at this early date, one suspects that the war on terror may eventually have a similarly negative effect on attitudes toward patriotism and national identity. Imagine the impact on the elite consciousness of a dozen Abu Ghraibs, extending through the limitless years of a battle with an elusive foe. And we at least won the Cold War, whereas the outcome of the conflict with radical Islam is far less certain.

But if Huntington’s optimism is unfounded, and the trends that he limns so well are not arrested, what then will be the fate of the United States? It’s here, unfortunately, that the tone of the book veers from sobriety to alarmism. He notes darkly that unspecified “Mexican-Americans” believe the Southwest “was taken from them by military force in the 1840s, and that the time for la reconquista has arrived”; he invokes an obscure academic who predicts the foundation of a “Republica Del Norte” in the American Southwest by the arbitrary date of 2080; he warns balefully that “the greatest surprise might be if the United States in 2025 were still much the same country it was in 2000 rather than a very different country (or countries).” He compares the U.S. to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, speeding toward a political breakup — and then, more egregiously still, to Yugoslavia, drawing a parallel between California’s dwindling white majority and the Bosnian Serbs, who resorted to ethnic cleansing to preserve their power.

By giving in to such alarmism, Huntington has fallen into a trap common among those who map disquieting trends: He conflates the impending disappearance of an America he loves with the collapse of America itself. For people who share his unfashionable form of patriotism, the problem is not that America cannot continue on its present course, but rather that it can — that the end of Huntington’s America will not mean the end of America itself.
If Huntington’s hoped-for reaction against “the challenges to America’s national identity” fails to emerge, the likely alternative is not political disunion — a Mexifornia, a Cuban-ruled Miami, a Muslim Michigan. Rather, it’s a country like the one we already have, except more so: a semi-bilingual America in which a cosmopolitan and post-patriotic elite governs a shrinking middle class and an ever-expanding, badly-assimilated population of immigrants.
One need not share the more perfervid fantasies of Pat Buchanan to worry that this emerging America is closer to a democratic imperium than it is to the democratic republic of the founding fathers. But while the term “empire” may be redolent of decline and dissolution in this post-colonial age, America’s position in the world has never been more secure — her military and economic might unmatched, her supposed rivals (China, Russia, the eu) weak and beset with internal contradictions, her cultural power unparalleled. The threat of terrorism and the wave of global opposition to U.S. policy are both challenges, to be sure, but they are challenges that flow from American strength, not from weakness or decay.
What decay there is lies within, in “the challenges to America’s national identity” that Huntington so ably describes. But there is nothing in the evidence he marshals to suggest that the hour is late, nothing to justify the specters of Soviet Russia and Yugoslavia that haunt his prose. Even if the declinists are right and the United States is slowly undergoing the transition from republic to empire that Rome once endured, then we are doing so while maintaining remarkable domestic tranquility and political continuity. And however grave the challenges we face today, they are minor compared to those facing our rivals — the spread of Islam in Europe, the mixture of overpopulation and old age in East Asia, the political and religious sclerosis of the Middle East — and minor, too, compared to the challenges of racial strife, depression and civil war that faced America in the past.
No, insulated by a professionalized military and an overwhelming technological advantage, protected from foreign threats (with the obvious exception of terrorism) by two oceans, enriched by a strong economy and vast natural resources, there seems no reason that America can’t continue in the direction that so dismays Huntington for many years to come, without forfeiting either political unity or global power. We are, and will continue to become, a less unified country, a less orderly country, and a less virtuous country than we once were — and eventually, no doubt, a less prosperous and less powerful country as well. But eventually can be a very long time. It was 500 years, after all, from the fall of the Republic to the fall of Rome.
In the meantime, in this new dispensation, people who hold to the earlier form of American patriotism — people like Samuel Huntington, who has served this country so wisely and so well — will need to decide whether the America that we increasingly inhabit is an America they can continue to love and call their own.