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friedrich braun
Thursday, December 30th, 2004, 07:11 PM

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The crusade for monoculture
Who Are We? America's Great Debate by Samuel Huntington

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 "shaped by 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 the world.

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 8).

Settler nation
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".

Core culture
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.

Zigzag path
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 2002).

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.

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