Until his death last year, the New York-based Palestinian academic, Edward Said, had acquired a reputation of being the most influential thinker in the world. His trenchant critique of the skewed cultural assumptions of Orientalism influenced an entire generation of social scientists, not least in the heartland of Western supremacist thinking. In the aftermath of the Cold War, when the East-West polarization lost both its urgency and bite, the ideas of Said played a significant role in reshaping social policy in democratic societies. Said became an icon of a political approach that came to be known as multiculturalism. In more ways than is as yet appreciated, the new multicultural orthodoxy cast its spell on political activism. Recent debates in India on a range of issues from nationalism, secularism, reservations and school curricula have been influenced by ideas that can be traced to the Said-inspired intellectual churning in the fashionable quarters of Manhattan.
It was too good to last. Even before the traumatic events of 9/11 crystallized the process, many of the fundamentals of multiculturalism were put under a scanner and found to be less than kosher. Whereas multiculturalism had directed its ire at the hegemonic assumptions of a white, mainly Anglo-Saxon and male tradition, a new breed of conservative thinkers highlighted the political dangers and moral flaws of a civic culture centred on a “nation of nationalities”. Even as the United States of America became the world’s only superpower and market economics flourished globally, there was concern at the manner in which multiculturalism had sapped the inner vitality of Western societies and made them vulnerable to a new “axis of evil”.
There were many powerful voices that were raised against this new permissiveness, but none was as compelling and influential as Samuel P. Huntington. The Harvard professor’s prognosis of an emerging cultural faultline that would trigger a “clash of civilizations” provided the theoretical underpinnings of the concerns felt by a Moral Majority on both sides of the Atlantic, and even beyond. Without a hint of shrillness, Huntington outlined the grim implications of brushing aside tradition and what the philosopher, Roger Scruton, called “ordinary decencies”, for fashion. By the time Osama bin Laden became the new juju man, versions of the “clash of civilizations” formed the basis of the global counter-offensive to Islamism.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Huntington has become the new poster-boy of conservatism. With the West and many other multi-religious societies preoccupied with the terrorist threats from radical Muslim groups, Huntington has replaced Said as the new intellectual icon. His views have begun influencing people and shaping policies.
Huntington’s latest offering, Who Are We' The Challenges to America’s National Identity, published earlier this year, is a treatise against the multiculturalist assumptions of American nationhood. Here, with an uncharacteristic polemical flourish, Huntington contests the emerging belief that nationhood and national identity rest exclusively on what Gunnar Myrdal called the “American Creed”, an ideological construct built on the constitution, opportunity, individualism and, above all, a social ethos. To him, the American Creed is undeniably important, but it is no more relevant than a national culture built on Christian religiosity, the English language and Anglo-Protestant culture.
What of the minorities' Huntington quotes, with more than a tinge of approval, the advice conservative Irving Kristol gave to fellow Jews. Americans, argued Kristol bluntly, “have always thought of themselves as a Christian nation”. They are “equally tolerant of all religions so long as they were congruent with traditional Judeo-Christian morality”.
A rounded appreciation of national identity, claims Huntington, is relevant in the post-9/11 world in which “people define themselves primarily in terms of culture and religion” and where the “real and potential enemies of the United States now are religiously driven militant Islam and entirely non-ideological Chinese nationalism”. The implication is obvious: to defend itself, America must realize itself.
One of the obstacles, identified by Huntington, in the path of American self-realization is the growing gulf between a “patriotic public” and “denationalized elites”, a mismatch that has led to popular disillusionment with the government. Actually, it is more than that. There appears to be a fundamental conflict of values between the opinion-makers and those in less privileged positions.
This could well be a larger affliction. Earlier this month, the United Nations Development Programme released its Human Development Report, 2004. Employing the expertise of a battery of intellectuals and social scientists drawn from many countries, most notably, the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, the report, Cultural Liberty in Today’s World, is an explicit assault on Huntington. Blessed with the letterhead of a UN agency, the HDR also sets out the multiculturalism agenda for the world’s democracies. In many ways, the whole exercise resembles a gladiatorial encounter between disciples of the late Said and Huntington.
The two world-views are sharply delineated. The HDR is categorical that “cultural liberty is about expanding individual choices, not about preserving values and practices as an end in itself with blind allegiance to tradition”. Where Huntington sings the virtues of the Americanization (in a secular sense) of all immigrant communities, the HDR makes a case for “respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that explicitly recognize cultural differences-multicultural policies”. If Huntington links the English language with American identity and culture, HDR pleads for a “politics of recognition” that embraces “the distinct perspectives of ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, as well as of gender differences”.
Tragically, “vile people” are not easily disarmed by a culture of diversity and assurances of cultural liberties. Just as there are arrogant Yankees determined to reshape the world in America’s image, there are jihadis bent on mastering the technology of terror for the establishment of a new Caliphate. The cosmopolitanism and diversity that the HDR celebrates is a plausible option in a world where security is complemented by the rule-based authority of global institutions like the UN, the World Trade Organization and the International Court of Justice. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near this elevated stage of political evolution.
On his part, Huntington recognizes it too. In a post-9/11 world, marked by imperfect globalization and security threats, he sees merits in a “national approach” that both acknowledges and accepts American distinctiveness. “America cannot accept the world and still be America. Other peoples cannot become American and still be themselves. America is different, and that difference is defined in large part by its Anglo-Protestant culture and its religiosity. The alternative to cosmopolitanism and imperialism is nationalism devoted to the preservation and enhancement of those qualities that have defined America since its founding.”