As I read the newspaper this morning, I noticed that Samuel P. Huntington, one of my favorite professors, died on Christmas Eve. Two friends of mine also died in 2008, one very recently. Because Professor Huntington was a public figure, I feel somewhat comfortable talking about his prodigious accomplishments and his considerable gifts as a teacher. While interning at The New Republic, one of my colleagues taped an irate letter I sent the magazine that defended Huntington against the charge of “anti-Americanism.” The thesis of the essay, which was actually pretty interesting, was that intellectual anti-Americanism had migrated from the left to the right as critics of American decadence and diversity pointed to authoritarian Singapore and states like it as models of civic order. That I was sufficiently moved out of my undergraduate sloth to compose and send an actual letter to TNR in defense of my favorite professor won’t strike most of you as particularly remarkable, but let me tell me you: it was a feat. But of course it was the least I could do.
I had the great pleasure of talking two courses with Professor Huntington, a fellow Stuyvesant alumnus I might add: one was a seminar called “Explorations in American National Identity,” a searching examination of the ethnic, cultural, and political roots of American nationhood that gave me a chance to “explore” lots of disparate interests and draw them together in a somewhat more rigorous way. I also had the great pleasure of meeting lots of campus characters in the seminar, a few of whom are still friends of mine. This was, I’m proud to say, the first of a series of seminars that contributed to Huntington’s highly controversial Who Are We?, which argued that American national identity was rooted in an Anglo-Protestant ethnocultural identity, and that incipient efforts to make the U.S. a bilingual and bicultural polity were wrongheaded in the extreme. Given the fact that Huntington was possibly the most celebrated political scientist of his generation, the book was also noteworthy for its denunciation of the American elite, which he considered extremely parochial in its cosmopolitan pretensions.
Then, of course, there was The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, a book that has suffered more deliberate mischaracterization and obtuse misreading than any other I can name. Huntington knew that he was entering thorny territory — that he was describing historical shifts that would take decades to take shape and thus to think through — and I certainly counted myself, and count myself, among the skeptics re: the central importance of “civilizational identity” in shaping state behavior. That said, I think the idea that the world is going through a normative shift as non-European societies gain power and influence and that clashing sensibilities regarding individual rights will cause considerable international friction strike me as obviously true. Huntington was very clear about the fact that he was using a somewhat oversimplified framework to draw out the implications of how cultural cleavages would layer on top of other conflicts. And though some of his observations proved a little misleading — the problem isn’t so much “Islam’s bloody borders” as conflict within and among Muslim societies, among other things — we shouldn’t forget that he was tilting against thinkers who maintained that we were seeing lots of normative and cultural convergence that would sharply reduce armed conflict in the world. Actually, I’m in the John Mueller camp — there has been normative convergence regarding the appropriate use of military force, and this has been a powerful force for good — but I think Huntington’s discussion of diasporas and fraternal dynamics among states offered powerful insights.
Huntingon was above all a realist who was deeply concerned with the question of political order. And so he sounded a mildly pessimistic note during the great Third Wave expansion of democracy — will the fragile democracies survive? do they have the mix of institutions they’ll need to remain robustly liberal? — that now strikes us as forehead-slappingly central.
I’ll also note that Huntington was an incredibly kind, decent, and humble guy who would jot notes whenever his students would speak — you’d almost think he was gleaning insights from us. Perhaps he was doodling … but he certainly seemed very engaged. He loved being challenged, provided the student was willing to back up her tart remarks. He was focused on very big questions. I also recall that he was not a very astute observer of the political scene. I went to see him on Election Day 2000, the last time I voted. Though he was a lifelong conservative Democrat, he worried that Al Gore would pursue a hyperactive, interventionist foreign policy, and so he was reluctantly hoping that George W. Bush would win and, as promised, pursue a humble, unadventurous foreign policy. At the time, he was convinced that Gore would win. My guess is that Huntington was decidedly displeased with the Bush years. So perhaps it came as some consolation that he lived through the repudiation of a foreign policy approach he had been arguing against for many years.
We’ll miss you, sir.