Book Review: Who Are We? by Sam Huntington

From time to time I write longer book reviews on books I find particularly interesting. Some previous formal book reviews have been on national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace, 21st century college life according to Tom Wolfe, the 4 Hour Workweek, and Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?. This review is about Huntington’s latest book on American identity and immigration.

Samuel Huntington, in Who Are We?, offers the following argument. America historically has defined itself through race, ethnicity, ideology, and culture. As we are now a multiethnic and multicultural society, our two remaining pillars of unity are our Anglo-Protestant culture and our ideology (or creed). Our Anglo-Protestant culture is being fractured by the proliferation of the Spanish language and Latino culture, and by cosmopolitan elites who subordinate their American identity to a global variation. Without a common culture, our sole unifying factor is the American Creed, something not strong enough to maintain a national identity. American identity, then, will evolve in one of a few directions: a purely creedal America; a bifurcated America with two languages and cultures; an exclusivist America once again defined by race; or, Huntington’s clear (and ambiguous) preference, “a revitalized America reaffirming its historic Anglo-Protestant culture, religious commitments, and values and bolstered by confrontations with an unfriendly world.”

I believe his book succeeds in raising the important issue of immigration and the many challenges it poses for America. Yet it fails on four fronts. First, he exaggerates the isolation and lack of assimilation of Mexican culture in America. Second, he incorrectly juxtaposes “cosmopolitanism” and “nationalism” as mutually exclusive. Third, he undervalues the integration power of just an American Creed. Finally, he fails the test of realism: he describes many problems but offers no solutions. When the issue is immigration, the train has already left the station, and pragmatism should reign.

The crux of Huntington’s argument concerns recent Mexican immigrants’ lack of assimilation. Whereas past immigrants learned the English language, adopted American customs, and identified themselves foremost as “Americans,” Huntington thinks today’s Mexican immigrants are doing none of these things. This is highly arguable. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in discussing his book Ethics of Identity, says, “New immigrants, like the old, learn English…Not only do Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States learn English de facto, they believe in learning English. 97% of Spanish-speaking immigrants say it is very important for their children to learn English.”  Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, devotes a chapter of his book refuting Huntington’s charges. He tells the American Enterprise Institute: “While only one in three foreign-born Latinos describe themselves as American, this rises to 85 percent among their US-born children–and 97 percent among the US-born kids of US-born Latino parents.”  So, Huntington overstates Mexican-Americans’ lack of assimilation.

Huntington’s second failure is opposing “nationalism” with “cosmopolitanism”. He repeatedly bashes the elites who hold cosmopolitan views. These elites consider themselves citizens of the world and consider their multi-national corporations as global entities rather than strictly American ones. So what? I consider myself cosmopolitan. I have traveled widely, sampled diverse cultures, and project an identity that is a synthetic of many tastes, products, personalities, and beliefs. I also consider myself American. Contrary to what Huntington says, it is the very essence of Americanism – its porous nature – that allows someone to have one foot in his national culture and one foot out in the world. Appiah has argued: “I defend a cosmopolitanism that recognizes that we have collective human identity and also the crucial importance of many more local forms of identity, and that many forms of identity crosscut national identities.”  I would concede that my commitment to national interests has diminished as a result of my more global attitudes, but it has not disappeared. Nationalism and national identity has its place, but Huntington does not explain why it has to exist alone rather than alongside of a cosmopolitan worldview.

Huntington posits that American identity can not sustain on the Creed – or political principles – alone. It must, in other words, maintain the Anglo-Protestant culture. I disagree. First, it is not clear what Anglo-Protestant culture actually entails. As Alan Wolfe points out in his Foreign Affairs review, “Protestants have disagreed vehemently with each other over what that culture is.”  Second, even if there were consensus, I don’t think it needs to be the common thread. We should welcome diverse cultures for the excitement and indeed economic advantages such diversity confers, so long as all immigrants adopt a few core ideas. The most important of which, according to Appiah, is the celebration of individuality and the “individual conscience as sovereign” a la John Stuart Mill. This is a value that influenced the Founding Fathers and as such they placed an individual’s liberty and related skepticism of government at the center of their concerns. This is the American creed. It is unique. It is accessible to anyone who chooses to believe in it. If you do, and you live in America and pay your taxes, you are American.

Finally, Huntington fails the realism test. Sure, we should be grateful he tackles these important issues with focused passion. The impact of immigration is important and worthy of debate more serious than the politically charged back-and-forth that occurs in Washington. But serious passion is not enough. Solutions are better. Huntington, in his advanced age, will not experience the impact of all the immigration he details. We young bucks will. How, exactly, should we screen and integrate immigrants? How should dual-nationality work? How do we continue doing a better job than Europe at assimilating Muslims? Like it or hate it, immigrants will continue flooding over the border; regular people (not just elites) will gain exposure to more and more global cultures and probably become more cosmopolitan thanks to cheaper travel options; and America will continue to accommodate these changes by changing itself. Huntington’s last paragraph begins: “America becomes the world. The world becomes America. America remains America. Cosmopolitan? Imperial? National?” This is a false choice, una pregunta falsa. The answer is all of the above. The better question is, What are we going to do about it?

4 comments on “Book Review: Who Are We? by Sam Huntington
  • I enjoy visiting you blog and recently read your book review of Samuel
    “Who Are We?”.

    One other book I would recommend to you is Victor Davis Hanson’s “Mexifornia”.

    I don’t know if you have seen it before, but let me leave you with this quote:

    “In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes
    here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us,
    he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is
    an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or
    birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming
    in very fact an American, and nothing but an American…

    There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an
    American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have
    room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red
    flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just
    as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are
    hostile…We have room for but one language here, and that is the
    English language…and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that
    is a loyalty to the American people.”

    –Theodore Roosevelt, 1919

  • “How do we continue doing a better job than Europe at assimilating Muslims?”

    Apparently you already do.

    One of the explanations of our failure to integrate Muslims with the broader society? Here is my hypothesis.

    One of the key things that fails us is the welare culture in Europe. When people can sit on their hands, and receive benefits, it is highly unlikely they will do anything to improve their lot through education or through ‘allowing’ their women to participate in the workforce. Both – education and economically active women – would aid integration into the wider society. So our culture effectively allows caveman-esque interpretations of Islamic credos and in the process creates schisms between the society as us and Muslims as them.

    The US does not offer such options. No job, no health insurance, no council housing, no automatic access to benefits.

  • human first… then nation or gender or whatever …. and i think what you are saying is that being “american” is what would allow one to have that outlook… anyway, for me, how big is our “we” is what determines one’s level of awareness… we need more people who, when they say “we”, refer to the entire human race… enjoy, thanks for your work

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