To be American, Part 2

I just finished reading Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? I picked up the book under the advisement of one of my mentors, who believes that my work is in dialogue with Huntington’s, particularly when it comes to his dire assessment of multiculturalism’s impact on U.S. national identity. I argue that contemporary multiculturalism standardizes the cultural and religious practice and public perception of recent immigrants, glossing over aspects of culture that conflict with mainstream values, and casting newcomers as another in the long line of immigrants becoming American. Huntington argues that the multicultural emphasis on group identity and the preservation of subcultures undermines national identity and will likely lead to balkanization as immigrants see themselves merely as residents but not citizens or members of the U.S. In fact, Huntington snidely labels as
“deconstructionists” those who advance multicultural goals.

Huntington’s assertions regarding multiculturalism and contemporary immigration fly in the face of the evidence. Contemporary immigrants are assimilating (using English, intermarrying, moving up the occupational ladder, and acquiring more education) just as their immigrant forbears did (See Waters and Jimenez for a start). Furthermore, contrary to his unsupported assertions, not all immigrants in the past arrived on American shores expecting to stay. Return migration has always been common, more among some groups than others (e.g. more Italians that Irish left the U.S.) In addition, Mexican migration has been a fact of life for the entire history of the United States. As Doug Massey demonstrates, the contemporary problem of undocumented workers remaining in the U.S. is just more the result of U.S. policies making it more difficult to cross the border (and thus decreasing the willingness of folks to return to Mexico, and increasing their dispersion within the U.S.) as the response to Vincente Fox’s celebration of his country’s emigrant workers.

Anyway, I digress. Back to American identity. Huntington offers a reply to the earlier post in which I ask what it means to be an American. Huntington’s book offers his view of what American national identity is, why it is important and imperiled, and what the future holds for America as a self-consciously national project.

What is national identity? According to Huntington, the U.S. may be a nation of immigrants, but those immigrants by and large assimilated into a “settler” culture dating from the colonial “founders” of the nation. Thus, Americans identify themselves as:
1. Citizens of a Christian nation
2. Sharing values and social mores derived from the Protestant beliefs of the settlers.
3. In possession of a work ethic derived from those values and mores. 4. Speaking the English language.
5. In possession of a well-developed legal system concerned with ensuring justice and limiting the power of government.
6. Inheritors of European culture (art, literature, music, etc).

While there is also an American creed (liberty, democracy,
individualism, human rights, the rule of law, private property), Huntington claims that the creed is insufficient to cement national cohesion and that the creed depends upon the elements of national identity I just laid out.

Huntington asserts that the U.S. is at risk because national identity is declining due to the end of the Cold War and the corresponding fact that the U.S. has no enemy to make national identity relevant, the efforts of deconstructionists, the absence of immigrant assimilation and the rise of people who maintain dual identities and nationalities (he calls these people “ampersands”), the rise of Spanish as a single immigrant language contesting the status of English as a unitary language (my
characterization , not his – see Bakhtin, Discourse & the Novel), and the growth of a class of “denationalized” liberal elites who see themselves as citizens of the world instead of the U.S.

Huntington envisions 3 possible futures for American national identity. 1. National identity becomes meaningless and a cosmopolitan/global identity takes its place (the U.S. becomes the world).
2. An imperialistic identity develops in which the U.S. seeks to spread its culture throughout the world (the world becomes the U.S.) 3. A renewed nationalism in which Americans reassert the centrality of their American identity over all other identities and embrace the settler culture laid out above.

I could go on all day about logical and factual problems in this book. A key problem is the fact that only for a few years (mid 40s until the late 50s or early 60s) of unprecedented cultural homogeneity and national identification due to many years of limited immigration, suburbanization of whites, economic and industrial growth, the fear of nuclear attack and the height of the Cold War might plausibly offer an example of a time in which people in the United States have identified with their nation first as opposed to State, religion, region, class, race, country of origin, etc. Furthermore, the settler culture that Huntington makes foundational fabricates a distinction between settlers, who, he claims, arrived with the intention of setting up a new society, and immigrants, who came to become a part of that society. In fact, with a couple of notable exceptions in New England, most colonial settlements were established as business ventures and most settlers came for land of their own. The nation that emerged was based upon imported practices as well as the practices developed in the colonies themselves. Then there is the whole Christianity thing. This is really just a majoritarian argument – because Christianity was/is the religion of most Americans it should be recognized as central and its influence retained. By the same argument you could say that the U.S. is a racist country, or a nation of sexists because these beliefs characterized most Americans for much of the history of the country and are written into our founding documents, institutions, etc. Huntington further assumes that the move from Protestantism to pan-Catholicism is unproblematic, identificationally speaking, but the move away from Christianity (or religion of any kind) is problematic.

As I said, I could go on all day…

And at all the end of it all I am left out in the cold, I suppose. By Huntington’s definition, I am American in creed, but not in spirit since the national identity he describes does not characterize my nation as I see it and imagine its progress. For practical purposes, then, I am at best “denationalized,” and at worst, one of those “anti-national” deconstructionists.

I am feeling a bit glum about it all. Perhaps I need to read some classical American Pragmatism. There is nothing like John Dewey to renew my flagging patriotism with celebration of democracy, and optimism regarding American progress toward the creation of a society that allows each individual to recognize his or her fullest potential, etc. The thing is, on this count Huntington is right. If there is one thing I have learned during this year away, it is that these ideals, the creedal American beliefs listed above, are not universally applicable, valued, or attainable but are instead the pure expression of a forward-looking American individualism untainted by the practicalities of power making up Huntington’s national identity. In some societies, people look back instead of forward to measure their progress, and individuals contribute by doing what is expected and necessary. I do not seek to impose my creed in places that, in these regards, are fundamentally
(foundationally) different.

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