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The last throes of patriotism

Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity; Samuel P. Huntington; Simon & Schuster: 428 pp., $27

May 02, 2004|Jim Sleeper | Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" and "The Closest of Strangers" and is a lecturer in political science at Yale University.

With the publication of this, his 13th book, the magisterial, sometimes dyspeptic Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has once again indulged -- nay, has stage managed -- his inclination to administer jolts of counterintuitive, debate-changing Truth to distracted American elites. Once again, establishment players of many stripes are swooning in dismay at his dark revelations or girding up their loins to join him in another long, twilight battle for Western civilization. Once again, Huntington is arrestingly right about challenges facing liberal democracy that many liberals have been loath to acknowledge.

But never before has so big a part of his argument been so thunderously wrong and so cheaply sustained. Those who value his chastening realism about liberalism's dicey prospects will have to work hard to follow his most important insight in "Who Are We?": that American cosmopolitans who would like to dispense with nations and multiculturalist zealots who would like to dismantle them have converged with American multinational profiteers to fray the fabric of liberal democracy, which only a renewed civic patriotism here at home can sustain. This argument, eminently worth arguing about, has already been overshadowed by another debate: one about Huntington's ill-conceived, crotchety and (pardon the word) undocumented jeremiad against Latino immigration.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Foreign relations -- A review of Samuel P. Huntington's book "Who Are We?" in Sunday's Book Review incompletely identified the period in which Woodrow Wilson tried to impose democracy in Mexico as 1917. The time frame extended from 1914 to 1917.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 09, 2004 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Foreign relations -- A review of Samuel P. Huntington's book "Who Are We?" in the May 2 Book Review incompletely identified the period in which President Woodrow Wilson tried to impose democracy in Mexico as 1917. The time frame extended from 1914 to 1917.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Foreign relations -- A review of Samuel P. Huntington's book "Who Are We?" in the May 2 Book Review section incompletely identified the period in which Woodrow Wilson tried to impose democracy in Mexico as 1917. The time frame extended from 1914 to 1917.

The distraction is the fault of Huntington the stage manager as much as of Huntington the thinker. In 1993, to prompt a national debate about themes that would figure in his 1996 book, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," he published a Foreign Affairs essay of virtually the same title highlighting his most important warning: The economic, ideological and nationalist rivalries that most global analysts and activists presumed were driving world affairs would soon be eclipsed by deep cultural and religious differences among civilizations. He foresaw the ferocity of our conflict with Islamicist terrorists and warned against the American unilateralism and moralism that have been brought to bear on it, widening the civilizational divide.

Huntington didn't clearly define these civilizations; he seemed unsure whether Latin America is a distinct civilization or is part of the West. Two months ago he seemed to answer the latter question by heralding "Who Are We?" with an essay in Foreign Policy, this one called "The Hispanic Challenge." It has made the book a lightning rod for the least credible of his warnings: America's Latino immigration deluge, he claims, is so little like any earlier wave, so hostile or resistant to sharing the common American language, civic rites and virtues upon which our republican self-governance depends, that it constitutes "a major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States." If this clash isn't civilizational, what is?

The problem is that, most likely, it isn't, and "Who Are We?" doesn't persuade this reader that most Latino immigration is a threat to liberal democracy. Two months ago, Huntington also published (in the conservative journal National Interest) a less-noted essay, "Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite," whose title and contents come from another, smaller section toward the end of the book. Contradicting his own claims that the Latino tidal wave is shifting the balance of American political culture against patriotism, he announces, "A major gap is growing in America between its increasingly denationalized [academic, corporate and cultural] elites and its 'Thank God for America' public." The latter, he reports, has remained consistently patriotic over time, even as the former "reject expressions of patriotism and explicitly define themselves as multinational.... The CIA ... can no longer count on the cooperation of American corporations ... [which] view themselves as multinational and may think it not in their interests to help the U.S. government." And we're supposed to wring our hands instead about Mexican immigrants?

He opens "Who Are We?" by admitting he's too close to our crisis of American identity to address it only as a scholar; he's writing also as a patriot to defend a distinctive "Anglo-Protestant" political culture, which he believes is indispensable to republican self-governance here. Anyone of any race or ethnic background can join this "nonracial society composed of multiracial individuals," but only after having absorbed and adapted -- or been absorbed into -- the enduringly Anglo-Protestant idiom and ethos that most Americans of all colors and ethnicities do share but which, he says, most Latino immigrants resist.

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