There is no question that our nation is in dire straits. But so far consensus on the cause and nature of the crisis — to say nothing of the solution — eludes us.
In his new book, “Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” Samuel Huntington contends that many of our problems stem from our wavering sense of identity, rather than from the more intrinsic structures of our lives which others have faulted. Arguing that the greatest internal threats to the nation come from the potential for cultural division, especially between “Anglo” and “Hispanic” groups, he calls for a re-commitment to our Anglo-Protestant origins.
The Albert J. Weatherhead III university professor at Harvard, bestselling author of “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1998) and formerly a founding editor of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Huntington thus turns here from the sources of conflict throughout the world to the problem of social cohesion at home.
While immigration is nothing new to Americans, the influx of 23 million immigrants since the 1960s differs drastically in character from earlier waves. Whereas earlier immigrants tended to assimilate to the dominant culture, recent developments — multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity, businesses’ embrace of immigrant workers and ethnic markets, cultural relativism — now make pressures for assimilation unfashionable.
And instead of speaking a variety of languages and dispersing geographically once on American soil — easing absorption — many of the new immigrants speak a single language (Spanish) and appear reluctant to define themselves as Americans.
Mr. Huntington proposes a massive Americanization movement of the type that characterized the early years of the 20th century, when numerous programs run by government, business, and private philanthropy aimed to absorb immigrants into the nation by teaching, for instance, the English language, civics, and history.
He warns that without such a national commitment, we may witness the splitting of the nation into two separate cultures defined by separate languages and geographical concentrations.
Rejecting liberals’ tendency to see political ideology as a sufficient basis for commonality, Mr. Huntington finds a richer and more meaningful basis for identity in culture. He urges renewed commitment to the “American Creed” (a phrase from Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study “The American Dilemma”), which he traces back further than Enlightenment political beliefs to the rich tradition of dissenting Protestantism in early America.
It was that tradition, he emphasizes, that placed a premium on individual conscience and responsibility, the work ethic, opposition to hierarchy, moralistic reform, and other core beliefs. The author thinks it was the great triumph of the civil rights movement that the racial and ethnic sources of an American identity were revealed to be illegitimate. But he fears that without a sense of a shared culture, those illegitimate sources may find new life.
There is much that is valuable in Mr. Huntington’s work, which represents a real effort to address threats to social cohesion and to recover useful knowledge about a culture all but eclipsed in our time. But his argument, sprawling and ambitious, leaves much undeveloped.
And at times it borders on a kind of love-it-or-leave-it intolerance, as when he goes so far as to say that atheists are “outsiders” and that non-Christians “may legitimately see themselves as strangers” to American culture. It is a fine line between acknowledging that a majority of Americans adhere to some form of Christianity and calling Americans “a Christian people,” a line Mr. Huntington does not seem to see.
He makes his boldest and most compelling points when he questions the wisdom of now well-entrenched policies of affirmative action, bilingual education, and dual citizenship. Buttressing his case with numerous polls and surveys, he points out that such policies were enacted not through the proper political process, in which the public has a say, but as a result of bureaucratic developments inaugurated by government and other policy elites.
Throughout the book he makes it clear that it has not been just government, academic, and media elites who celebrate ethnic identity and ties over citizenship to a nation out of a kind of rootless cosmopolitanism that serves their interests, but multinational business elites as well. That the United States has become an “unrepresentative democracy” is a powerful and persuasive claim.
Yet this call for Americanization has a dissonant ring. It’s not because immigrants shouldn’t be asked to adapt to the principles held by their adopted country (as self-professed celebrants of diversity would argue), but because the cultural foundation Mr. Huntington says Americans hold so dear has all but eroded.
Two major historical developments — the challenge to the religious worldview posed by the therapeutic culture and the triumph of consumer capitalism — have altered many Americans’ notions of selfhood and have assaulted both social bonds and the quality of collective experience and public life.
Rather than character or citizen, the self is now often thought of primarily as victim or consumer, which paves the way for identity-group politics as well as individual gratification at all costs. The notion of living by a transcendent moral good as rooted in and revealed by community traditions has given way to a search for individual well-being as an end in itself.
As a result, the obsession with individual identity takes the place of the search for meaning in commitments of all kind, both religious and civic.
Admirably skeptical on many subjects, “Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity” would benefit from more rigorous questioning of its conceptual framework. Mr. Huntington’s approach is limited by his adoption of the contemporary concept of identity, for instance, in place of other forms of self-definition.
Though reifying early American Protestantism, he seems unaware of the disjuncture between modern terms like identity and, say, the Puritan concept of a calling, in which the individual discovers what contribution he or she can make to the larger community in service to a transcendent good.
In a forthcoming book called “Culture’s Vanities,” historian David Steigerwald questions our tendency to define culture as either something chosen (as in our choice of consumer items, popular entertainment, and lifestyle) or the seemingly fixed attributes of an identity group.
He urges us to reconsider the ancient origins of the English word “culture” in the notion of cultivation (hence the word “agriculture”). Current views are shorn of the idea that rooted in a culture—what defines a culture and makes it unique—is a way of producing lasting objects of beauty and skill as well as forging enduring human ties.
It is not a static set of attributes or beliefs — which can be drilled into children and newcomers — but an evolving tradition to which the individual is necessarily related, sometimes in agreement and other times in resistance or even rebellion.
The problem with “Who Are We?” is ultimately that it proposes too incomplete an answer to an incompletely drawn portrait of our problems. Our difficulties may involve an inability in our current state to deal with the real problem of vast immigration and insufficient assimilation, but they go much further than that, to our lack of cultural moorings.
We face this crisis in part because the unbridled market has helped decimate culture itself. Our core beliefs — those to which every American supposedly adheres, such as the fundamental dignity of the individual — are not with us unchanged. Rather, they are at this moment under serious and constant assault.
Market values — in which sellers cater to every impulse of buyers — have attained dominance over nearly all others. Release from the strictures of manners and social mores now often leads to rule by base instinct of the most inhumane sort.
Culture — as a set of practices and traditions rather than a set of chosen values, lifestyles, or identities that suit our needs at the moment — has been all but wiped out by the ravages of the market and the attendant hyper-individualism that has served it so well.
It is now the “money culture,” as Kevin Phillips calls it, which dominates. The money culture has drawn us into globalization (a euphemism for global capital) and a self-oriented hedonism that has helped replace any sense of a transcendent and non-consumable good, community, or self-definition. Any proposal for assimilation of newcomers would best include the retrieval, renewal, or remaking of culture itself.
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is professor of history in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and author of “Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution” (W.W. Norton, 2001).