Book Review: Who are we? by Samuel P. Huntington

Well what do I say about Huntington? All I can is you can love him or hate him but you cannot ignore him. All his books that I have read (The political order in changing societies’, ‘The soldier and the State as well as The Clash of civilizations) are hugely controversial but they sure make you think. Same is true of this book!!

Huntington in the foreword says that this book is shaped by his own identities as a scholar and a patriot. The book is his search of what defines the American identity. He says that he is deeply concerned about the unity and the strength of the country as a society based on liberty, equality, law and individual rights.

Some interesting insights from the book are;

1. American identity has evolved over history and it was only in the late 18th century that the British settlers started to think ‘also’ of themselves as Americans. National identity became prominent only after the civil war and American nationalism then flourished for the next 100 yrs. This however gradually started weakening in favour of multiculturalism since the 1960s. It was only the tragedy of 9/11 which brought national identity and nationalism back to the fore. The opening chapter makes an interesting reference as to how Walmart sold 116000 flags on Sept 11th and 250,000 on Sept 12 when the same figure was 6400 and 10000 on the same day a year earlier. Huntington of course is for renewal of American nationalism amongst Americans.

2. Huntington challenges the view that America was a country of (and made by) immigrants. He makes an interesting distinction between ‘immigrants’ and ‘settlers’ and argues that America was a land of settlers not immigrants. According to him settlers and immigrants differ fundamentally. Settlers leave an existing society, usually in a group, in order to create a new community in a new territory. They are imbubed with a sense of purpose. Immigrants on the other hand do not create a society. They move from one society to the other. He argues that it is a myth that Americans always welcomed immigration and curbs have been placed on immigrants from time to time (with its large scale prohibition in 1924).

3. For Huntington the key element for defining American identity (now) is what he calls the ‘American Creed’ as formulated by Thomas Jefferson. This creed was the product of the distinct Anglo Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America. Key cultural elements of this creed are: ‘the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of rule of law, the responsibility of rulers and the rights of individuals, the dissenting Protestant values of individualism and work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try and create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on the hill’. He says millions of immigrants were attracted to America because of this culture and the accompanying economic opportunities that it offered.

4. Huntington argues that the American culture is being challenged by the new wave of immigrants from Latin America and Asia and also by the popularity in the intellectual circles for the doctrines of diversity and multiculturalism.

5. He argues that all Americans (of all races, ethnicities and religions) should recommit themselves to the Anglo Protestant culture traditions and values which has been a source of unity, prosperity and liberty at home. He however clarifies that he pleads for the importance of the Anglo Protestant culture and not for the Anglo Protestant people. He believes that if the Americans as a whole continue to sustain their commitment to the American creed, America would continue to be the great country that it is, even when the WASPs become a minority in the USA.

A thoroughly enjoyable re read. I have to confess that I have enjoyed reading his critics too. Afterall Huntington is also reviled by many. But it would be idiotic to completely dismiss him without trying to understand what he is really trying to say. Incidentally, we in India are going through much of the same debate now: Who are we? What defines indian nationality? What is the source of Indian identity? etc..etc..

PS: I heard one of his talks and I was surprised that with all his conservative beliefs, politically he remained a committed Democrat through out his life.

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