GETTING ME WRONG
Samuel P. Huntington
In evaluating a novel, a poem, or a scholarly study, it can be useful and insightful to consider that work in the context of the author's other writings, if those exist. For social science, the relevant questions concern how the recent work embodies continuities or changes from previous works in terms of subject, style, methods of analysis, normative assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. Elaboration of these similarities and differences can greatly help a reader gain an understanding of the meaning and the significance of the volume under review.
Alan Wolfe is thus to be commended for his effort ("Native Son," May/June 2004) to relate my new book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, to several of my previous studies. He is also, however, to be faulted for getting wrong the nature of my previous books and for misrepresenting the argument of Who Are We? I do not normally respond to critical reviews of my books, but his errors are such that I feel I must correct them.
Since whatever knowledge Foreign Affairs readers have of Who Are We? is likely to reside in their fading memories of Wolfe's erroneous description, I will first spell out what the book is not and what it is.
First, it is not a book primarily about immigration, which gets one chapter out of twelve, or the growing Hispanic presence in the United States, which gets another chapter. It is a book about the salience and substance of American national identity. Salience refers to the importance Americans attach to their national identity compared to the many other identities they have. The salience of national identity has varied over time, in large part reflecting the threats that Americans see to their country. Before the Civil War, national identity ranked low compared to local, state, and regional identities. The Civil War made America a nation, and the following century was the century of American nationalism. In the 1960s, however, subnational ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural identities rose in importance compared to national identity. The attacks of September 11, 2001, dramatically brought national identity back to the fore. As the profusion of flags demonstrated, Americans quickly rediscovered their nation. Since then, however, that salience has eroded; its future will depend in part on whether Americans experience or perceive major threats to their country.
Second, substance refers to what Americans believe they have in common and what distinguishes them from other peoples. My book argues that Americans have historically defined themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and ideology (what Gunnar Myrdal called the "American Creed"). Race and ethnicity have now been largely eliminated. Culture and creed remain but are under challenge. Central to American identity from the beginning has been the Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers. Would America be the America it has been (and, in some measure, still is today) if it had been settled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil. Among the key elements of this Anglo-Protestant founding culture are "the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a 'city on a hill.'" That culture has evolved and been amended by the contributions of subsequent immigrants and generations, but its essentials remain. This culture is also the primary source of the political principles of the American creed, which Jefferson set forth in the Declaration of Independence and which have been articulated by American leaders from the Founders and Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wolfe begins his review with some favorable comments on The Soldier and the State, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. He argues that Who Are We? differs fundamentally from these previous works in at least three respects.
First, the earlier works reflected "a steadfast commitment to realism" and "distaste for sentimentality." These, however, are "gone" from Who Are We?, which is "riddled with . . . moralistic passion-at times bordering on hysteria." Wolfe does not quote examples of this passion or hysteria, and on the realism-moralism dimension Who Are We? is right in line with my previous work. All these books have their origins in my moral concern with major political and social problems, which often have been neglected. I then try to analyze them in strictly realist fashion. Wolfe says that in Who Are We? I "eschew" a "realistic treatment of American history in favor of romantic nostalgia for Anglo-Protestant culture." In fact, I argue that for three centuries race was central to American identity: Americans were white; blacks were enslaved and then discriminated against and segregated; Asians were excluded; the Indians were massacred and set apart on reservations. In addition, for two and a half centuries, Americans defined themselves ethnically, first as British and then as northern European. Only in the mid-twentieth century did Americans begin to think of themselves as a multiracial, multiethnic society. This is, I submit, a not very pleasing but highly realistic portrayal of American identity, free of moralism or hysteria.
Second, Wolfe praises me for making elites the "heroes" in my previous works but then criticizes me for allegedly portraying them as villains and embracing a distasteful populism in Who Are We? This effort at line-drawing is without merit. Military professionals are certainly the heroes of The Soldier and the State, but they are shown to be a dissident minority whose conservative outlook is rejected by the overwhelming liberalism of American political elites and the American public. They were, I say, the "universal target group." He also gets the thesis of American Politics totally backward when he alleges that I argue that, in the Revolution, the Jacksonian period, the Progressive era, and the 1960s and 1970s, "Americans' unrealistic expectation of moral perfectibility prevented their leaders from doing the right thing." The central argument of that book is that the major efforts at reform in these "creedal passion periods" were essential to American development and stability because they brought American institutions and practices more in line with American values. What Wolfe calls "hopeless moral crusades" were in fact, I say, "the major source of political change in America." In Who Are We?, I do contrast the highly patriotic and nationalist attitudes of the American public with the growing cosmopolitanism and "denationalization" of many business, professional, media, and scholarly elites, who are largely the product of economic globalization. I clearly am critical of this recent trend among elites-but no more so than I am of elites in my other books.
Third, Wolfe claims that Who Are We? is permeated with "fatalism," the view that America is "hapless," "too fragile for the challenges it faces," and that the book "ends on a note of relentless pessimism." This is total nonsense. At the very start I argue that all societies face threats to their existence from time to time but that America is one of those societies that are "capable of postponing their demise by halting and reversing the processes of decline and renewing their vitality and identity." Throughout the book, I stress that America's future is open-ended and will be shaped by the choices its people make among four broad alternatives: a multicultural America united only by the principles of the American creed; a bilingual, bicultural, and probably bi-creedal Anglo-Protestant and Hispanic America; an exclusivist America in which renewed white nativism makes race and ethnicity again central to American identity; and a culturally revitalized America in which Americans reinvigorate their Anglo-Protestant culture, religious faith, and creed. Wolfe quite falsely accuses me of partiality toward the exclusivist option, thereby missing the obvious central argument of the book, which is in favor of the revitalization of American culture.
Much of Wolfe's argument is vitiated by his refusal to recognize the distinction between ethnicity and culture and his belief that I assume that only those who are ethnically Anglo-Protestant adhere to Anglo-Protestant culture and that all those of other ethnicities do not. In fact, I make exactly the opposite point and criticize other scholars for confounding culture and ethnicity. Americans of all races and ethnicities, immigrants and nonimmigrants, can and have absorbed this country's Anglo-Protestant culture; it was, I argue, precisely that culture and the opportunities it promised that attracted immigrants to America. When I talk about America's pervasive Anglo-Protestantism to Jewish friends, a common response is, "Of course! I am an Anglo-Protestant Jew!" I explicitly state that so long as Americans, whatever their race, religion, or ethnicity, continue to embrace America's founding Anglo-Protestant culture, then "America will still be America long after the waspish descendants of its founders have become a small and uninfluential minority." That, I say, "is the America I know and love," and it is "the America most Americans love and want."
But somehow Alan Wolfe did not get the message.
When a reader has as much admiration for an author as I do for Samuel Huntington, when he is as passionately interested in a subject as both Huntington and I are in immigration, and when he has spent a very large portion of his career reviewing books without prompting undue controversy, it is highly unlikely that what he writes will be "total nonsense" or that he will "quite falsely" characterize the views of the author about whom he is writing. Huntington's use of epithets such as these in response to a fair and even generous review is further proof that on the subjects he addresses in Who Are We?, he has set aside dispassionate analysis in favor of embittered polemic.
To say that Who Are We? is about "the salience and substance of American national identity" and not primarily about immigration is like saying that Macbeth is about jealousy, not regicide. Professor Huntington should refer to his own index. There one finds 6 lines devoted to identity and 14 to immigrants (and the latter do not include the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Immigration Forum, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, or the Immigration Restriction League, let alone the "specific nationalities" to which readers are also referred). Far from being confined to two chapters, as Huntington claims in his response, his references to immigration run throughout the entire book. Who Are We? is not a treatise on a fashionable academic concept. It is a Cri Du Coeur lamenting the threat to American unity its author sees coming from immigrants, primarily those from Mexico.
When he does deal with the question of identity, Huntington has to decide whether it is creedal or cultural in nature. His decision to opt for the latter is problematic for two reasons. On empirical grounds, American culture has never been uniformly Anglo-Protestant. Not only has our culture been shaped by faiths that were neither from Great Britain nor Protestant, as I point out in my review, but some of the individuals who contributed to the achievements Huntington attributes to this culture, such as Thomas Jefferson, were religious doubters. On normative grounds, Huntington's emphasis on culture rather than creed leads him to take an exclusionary rather than an inclusionary view of our identity, a view that is unfair to all those who can choose their creed but not their culture. Unlike Huntington, I have never come across someone claiming to be "an Anglo-Protestant Jew." Most Jews claim to be Jewish. No other sentence in either Huntington's book or his letter reveals the problems of talking about culture rather than creed more than Huntington's variation on the old saw, "But some of my best friends are Jewish." And if assimilated Jews might take umbrage at Huntington's nativism, imagine how Mexican-American Catholics must feel.
All the other points Huntington makes involve the highly interpretive question of whether his new book is in continuity or instead breaks sharply with his previous ones. Readers will have to decide this for themselves. It is hard for me to imagine that, on matters of both style and content, any reader of The Soldier and the State and Who Are We? would conclude that the same person wrote both.
Alan Wolfe may not want to face the facts, but his claim that my book reeks of pessimism about America is indeed "total nonsense," as any reader knows, and his claim that I endorse an exclusivist America based on race and ethnicity is totally false. Notably, he does not provide any evidence to support his unwarranted allegations.
The central substantive difference between us concerns the important question as to whether a nation can be defined solely by a set of political principles or ideology. Wolfe claims it can and that American identity is defined only by its creed. The principal instance of a country in fact defined only by ideology was the Soviet Union, which required a ruthless dictatorship to hold it together until the ideology became totally discredited and its citizens could revert to their historic communal identities as Russians, Georgians, Estonians, Ukrainians, et cetera. America, in contrast, is happily more than an ideology. It has been and is a community defined by the culture of the founding settlers, including language, religion, customs, legal traditions, and institutions.
The people of a nation may share a set of principles that shape their political life, but these principles cannot by themselves define their community and what distinguishes them from other communities. If Iraqis embrace the principles of the American creed, they may become Iraqi democrats but they will not become American democrats. Americans believe in the creed as one component of their identity, but they also define themselves by their history, traditions, culture, heroes and villains, victories and defeats, enshrined in their "mystic chords of memory."