Huntington’s Legacy

Samuel Huntington has died, though it took a few days for the news to reach the media. Huntington, a Harvard professor of political science, was the author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When someone dies, the custom is to praise him. I’d like to honor custom, but Huntington’s most famous book was a pernicious work that has seems to have served as ideological underpinning for America’s failed foreign policy under George W. Bush.

Soon after 9/11, when everyone was talking Huntington, I wrote a riff on the book and my concern that it would create unneeded battle lines. I’m sorry to say that my worries were justified. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

…as some ideas do, this one seeped into popular culture, ready to be quoted when the need arose even by people who couldn’t quite recall the source. September 11 created the need. Say “civilization,” and instead of a battle against an invisible enemy with an opaque ideology, you have a war of the West against Islam. The problem is that Huntington’s thesis is intellectually fuzzy, factually incorrect – and likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

…Huntington defined a civilization as a “cultural entity” – “the broadest level of cultural identity people have, short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” Since “culture” itself is a slippery concept, so is “civilization.” A civilization, he said, is defined by common language (though the only civilization on his list with a common tongue is Japanese), a common history (though Indonesians hardly share a history with Iranians) and most importantly, by religion (though he places Catholic Italians in one civilization and Catholic Argentinians in another).

The lines between religions, Huntington asserted, are sharper than those between nations… In fact, we live in an era of unparalleled religious mixing. Charismatic Catholics copy Pentecostal Protestants and speak in tongues. Islamic preachers of the End cite the New Testament. New Age Jews borrow from Buddhist meditation. The liberals of sundry faiths often find it easier to speak to each other than to the conservatives of their own religions.

…[Huntington] described fundamentalism as a force uniting civilizations from within and sharpening the borders between them. Yet the divisions between fundamentalists, mainstream believers, and secularists slice through America itself, Islamic countries, Hindu India and the Jewish state, and opposition to fundamentalism creates a common cause across the supposed borders of civilizations.

For the West, Huntington sometimes substituted “Western Christianity.” That erased the differences between Catholics and Protestants, and required ignoring the protracted agony of Northern Ireland. His passing references to Jews and Israel appeared to place them in the West. Perhaps Judaism is an honorary Protestant denomination.

In the real world, Jews identify with the West precisely to the extent that it excludes religion and history as conditions for full membership in society… We can happily sign on the Bill of Rights. We cannot identify with Western history as a package deal; that history includes Nazism, the Inquisition and the Crusades. When George W. Bush refers to America’s current war effort as a “crusade,” he reminds us to be queasy about Western civilization. In Jewish historical memory, “crusade” means the same thing as “jihad,” and neither is healthy for us.

…Defining today’s conflict as the West against Islam satisfies the desire for a large, easily identified enemy. Yet framing this battle as a clash of civilizations invites every Muslim from Morocco to Indonesia to take the side of the men who crashed the planes. It labels every Muslim who opposes fundamentalists, every Muslim leader willing to work with the U.S., as a traitor. It risks turning a misconception into a political fact.

6 thoughts on “Huntington’s Legacy”

  1. Ahh yes the “Clash of Civilizations” — I remember reading Huntington’s work all too well, and how disturbing it was to know that the Bush administration took his teachings not only to heart, but into practice. As you rightly attest, while Huntington has passed, his theories have had a tremendously influence on U.S. foreign policy, and not in a good way.

  2. In Northern Ireland, denomination is not the primary issue of contention. In the days of William of Orange religion had an overbearing role in public life and political power, but that’s not true anymore. These days, and for the last century or so, the real issue is Irish nationalism vs. British unionism. The two denominations overlap virtually completely with these politics, respectively (in a one-way kind: almost all Republicans are Catholics, but not all Catholics are Republicans; same for Unionists), but religious affiliation in itself is secondary, a tag by which to identify people, not unlike different jerseys in team sports. Unionists, e.g., might make derogatory comments on the “papists” in a similar way as fans of one team might refer to the colours of their own vs. the other team. Indeed, the two sides are identified with the colours green and orange, but of course the fighting was never about colours.

    You write “We cannot identify with Western history as a package deal; that history includes Nazism, the Inquisition and the Crusades.”
    I hope you aren’t suggesting that, as we Westerners identify with our history, we do so approvingly in every instance. Persecution of Jews by Christians and Nazis is part of your history no less than ours.

    “In the real world, Jews identify with the West precisely to the extent that it excludes religion and history as conditions for full membership in society” – that might be the case for diaspora Jews, but for Israel, exactly the opposite it true. Isn’t it precisely Jewish religious and cultural identity that full membership in Israeli society is contingent on?

  3. I agree with Gershom: there is little to praise because Huntington’s major work was a pernicious, deeply self-contradictory, totally unrigorous and self-congratulatory ethnocentric fantasy. It projected a quasi-fascist notion of ethno-religio-cultural group conflict onto the global stage, and had to go looking for the requisite ethno-cultural groups (even where none could be shown to exist, now or ever) to make the model work. Huntington was wrong not only about the ‘civilizational entities’ he claimed to have identified and about their interactions, he was also wrong about the histories that supposedly produced the phenomena he examined too. Huntington got one major thing right: religion and culture matter in human affairs, now as always. However, he was utterly unqualified to write or pronounce in public on matters of religion or culture: he was a political scientist, for pity’s sake, a member of a profession that makes it its business to analyze everything it encounters using the tools of either pre-modern and early modern political philosophy or presentist models based on mechanical calculations of how power works in situations of conflict. Most political scientists 15 years ago were unprepared for the onrush of history — at a time when another authoritative Ivy League pundit, Francis Fukuyama, had just declared its end — and of religion in September of 2001, a watershed event that woke high modernism from its complacent slumber, secure as it was in the sense that religion would, as in Star Trek, eventually die out or be superseded. But Huntington felt that religion and culture mattered IN POLITICS, as though they did not exist in their own right, and thus he failed — because his training and his research could not prepare him — to analyze what are in fact deeply historically rooted phenomena. His real field of historical reference amounted to no more than a few decades of ‘background’ (i.e., WWII and the Cold War). When he appealed to earlier history, he stuck to to the stuff of imaginary ancient conflicts, atavistic hatreds, etc. — triumphalist stereotypes of the past that social scientists rely upon to bolster self-congratulatory and self-serving narratives of progress, rationality, rational choice and even rational policy for the future improvement of the human species. Unfortunately, Huntington and his colleagues also continue to rely on the political mode of history for access to the past, a mode of research that lay dying just as political science took off as a discipline in the 1940s and 1950s. The methods and assumptions of both political history and political science are so completely unsuited to the study of religion and culture that new disciplines and subdisciplines have had to be invented to get around the deeply distorting effects of overemphasizing conflict and projecting current understandings of conflict on all realms of past human activity, not just the one where it is most at home and most appropriate, namely public high politics. One of Huntington’s colleagues at Harvard, in what might otherwise seem a typical case of Ivy brand boosterism, called Huntington the most influential political scientist of the last 50 years. It’s probably true, unfortunately. One might add that he was also the most influential generalizer, the most unselfconscious presentist and the most recent Kulturkaempfer too.

    In response to Fiddler’s parting shot, a rhetorical question laced with anti-Israeli if not worse innuendo, the answer is ‘no’, and even if it were ‘yes’, what would that have to do with what JEWS (we are not all Israelis–not even half of us are) think about ‘the West’, now or at any point in the past? Precisely nothing.

  4. Andrew, I made quite clear (or so I thought) that I differentiate between Jews and Israelis, which implies that I’m aware that not all of the former are the latter. I was pointing at the contradiction that Jews in the diaspora rightly reject religious and ethnic bigotry that seeks to discriminate against them while Israel, which is no doubt a Jewish project regardless of critique or opposition by some Jews, is set up as an ethnocracy. American Jews would rightly be outraged if America declared itself a “WASP country” and started to treat them like the Jewish state does its Arab minority, even insisting that such discrimination to an extent is necessary to retain the status quo.
    In short, excluding religion and history as conditions for full membership in society is de facto demonstrably not an universal Jewish (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, you name it) value.
    That’s not anti-Israeli but anti-tribalism innuendo.

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