Thursday, March 11, 2004

Update (Huntington's Critics and Me)

My moderate defense of the perspective (if not the point) of Samuel Huntington's recent essay on Hispanic immigration and American culture attracted the attention of Matthew Yglesias, who wrote that I was "all wrong." More accurately, Matt thought I'd been conned by Huntington; that what I described as a "wealth of data" supporting Huntington's claim that "this particular wave of immigrants--both legal and illegal--is larger and different from all previous waves" is in fact nothing of the sort. Could be. As I wrote originally, and in a comment on Matt's blog, I'm in no position to evaluate his evidence. My interest in Huntington has nothing to do with his particular conclusions, which--even if they were supported by his data (and I'm willing to grant they may not be)--I think show a rather simplistic understanding of cultural identity and change. But at least Huntington is talking about such things; and while Matt is correct that "neither [David] Brooks nor I denied that it is important for immigrants and their descendents to learn English," neither of them appeared inclined to attribute much weight to the engagement with (cultural) particularity which language acquisition requires. To repeat: Huntington may be, indeed probably is, all washed up when he equates American identity with a simple "Anglo-Protestant" particularity....but in some ways, I'd rather any discussion of some particularity than no discussion at all. And that's what happens when you treat language--as Brooks, at least, appeared to--as just some neutral, interchangeable tool, just something that you pick up (or your kids pick up, or your grandkids) once what is really important--your "values"--inspire you to cross a border.

And speaking of those values, and that particularity, check out the fisking which Scott Martens has launched against Huntington over at Pedantry. Scott knows the data on language acquisition, and plans to tear to pieces Huntington's argument about the "uniqueness" of the current resistance by Hispanic immigrants to assimilation; but his first post is a broad, indignant attack on Huntington's "value-driven nationalism" and the culture in implicitly praises. Scott cuts right to the quick of Huntington's conception of America, writing with dark humor that he should begin by pointing out that "the American dream--hard work gets you a decent life--is almost completely mythical; that Anglo-Protestant values didn't build America nearly as much as the sweat of cheap immigrant labourers (first from Africa, then from Europe and now from Mexico); and that anglophone Protestants have been happily rejecting Anglo-Protestant values for quite a long time now and have been doing so far more vocally and threateningly than Mexicans ever have." He correctly observes that Huntington's conception is built upon a definitional fiat: he comes up with an Anglo-Protestant majority culture by excluding African-American slaves and Native Americans as from his measure of the American public. (Historically justified, perhaps, but nonetheless a stacking of the deck, allowing him to claim that what was, in truth, actively constructed was simply constituted by virtue of majority preference.) And I couldn't agree more with his dismissal of Huntington's Weberian association of American Protestantism with entrepreneurialism and individualism; as Scott puts it "America's religious dissenters--the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the refugee German churches, the Huguenots--were overwhelmingly organised into tightly-knit interdependent communities...the very opposite of self-reliant or individualistic."

Unfortunately, I do think some of Scott's ire gets in the way of his critique. He gets a little snide, wondering if believing "it's only a crime if you get caught" isn't a central American value as well (no, Scott, I suspect that's more "human" than anything else). He says the idea that Americans have long identified with "a duty to build 'heaven on earth'" is nonsensical, and quotes some selfish conservative pseudo-Christian to that effect--but of course, if that was the case (and if people such as the one he quotes really had defined our history), then the tremendous careers, reputation and influence of such "city on a hill"-type moral leaders as John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King would be inexplicable. And there are a few other things I disagree with as well. But all in all, a good fisking, and one that will continue. Check it out.