Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard, fluttered the PC dovecote nearly a decade ago by arguing that after the Cold War, ancient cultural systems, largely coterminous with the territories of major world religions, would reassert themselves and become the main source of future conflict among nations. His book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, puzzled many in the West accustomed to thinking that religion had no great role in human affairs. At the same time, it gave rise to numerous conferences, especially in moderate Muslim countries, aimed at trying to convince Westerners that the clash might become a dialogue. But since 9/11, Huntington’s thesis seems almost a truism. Even if the current threat of extremist Fundamentalism is eliminated, cultural divides around the world will not be easily bridged.
So his latest thesis in Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon & Shuster) warrants some attention, though it has already begun provoking criticism—sometimes among the very people who agreed with his earlier analysis (myself included). Put simply, Huntington greatly fears that Hispanic immigration is about to overwhelm the basic institutions of the United States. Those institutions were rooted in white, mostly British, and Protestant culture, he says. The advent of large numbers of brown, Hispanic, and Catholic immigrants, legal or illegal, who will not assimilate because of the constant feeding of their enclaves by newer arrivals, cannot help but change American society, mostly for the worse. Had Catholics from France, Spain, or Portugal settled America, Huntington argues bluntly, we would not be what we are; we would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.
This is a controversial contention and is obviously meant to be. There are some reasons to think Huntington is partly right. For instance, past waves of immigration were diverse mixtures of various languages and ethnicities. So even when they constituted a large cohort, it was not a single culture opposed to mainstream culture. In order to participate in the mainstream, immigrants had to learn English and understand American institutions. By contrast, today Mexicans alone account for over one-quarter of all foreign-born people living in the United States (another 8 million to 10 million
Mexicans are illegals). The next largest groups—Chinese and Filipinos—do not even reach 5 percent. And our elite ethos does not much want to tell any group that they need to become Americans, in fact quite the contrary.
Hispanics tend to be concentrated in the South and West, though they are found increasingly throughout the country. The Los Angeles Unified School District is over 70 percent Hispanic (mostly Mexican) and that percentage continues to grow. This makes the persistence of Spanish-only families more likely, and an even wider survival of bilingual populations. And it may create a kind of separatist culture within the United States the way that French speakers in Quebec have in Canada, which can only weaken the nation. Huntington foresees problems if we come to accept, for instance, that government business should be done in Spanish as well as English. Canada has had trouble finding politicians who can operate comfortably in two languages. And there may be even more dangerous divisions at the street level. During a 1998 Mexico-U.S. soccer match in Los Angeles, Hispanic fans booed when the American national anthem was played and openly rooted for Mexico.
Huntington notes that there are variations among Hispanic groups. Mexicans—mostly poor, uneducated, distrustful of state institutions, and often even unaccustomed to contacts with the official Church—present one face of immigration; Cubans present another. Miami was shaped by highly talented and dynamic people who turned it from a somewhat sleepy backwater into one of the truly astonishing success stories. Its Hispanics are relatively well off and becoming more so. A leading city of the United States, it also hosts the headquarters of many companies who do business in Latin America. Huntington is not entirely happy that, for example, Spanish language television and radio are the most common media in any U.S. city. But even he seems to work to find reasons why a city like Miami should be thought of as a problem.
Yet when all is said and done, this analysis is incomplete. Huntington does not much consider that WASP culture is in deep decay. Ethnic English identification has been weak for a long time. British, German, and Dutch early settlers were joined by Irish, Italians, and Slays. All these ethnicities are “white,” in a way, but with very different, and sometimes anti-English, attitudes. And perhaps the religious dimension, which Huntington has emphasized both domestically and internationally, shows the problem with his thesis in its most acute form. America’s mainline Protestant denominations have largely self-destructed, joining the Zeitgeist rather than shaping it. So renewal movements in Protestantism and evangelicalism would need to reform the traditional culture, if Protestantism were to perform its old culture-forming role. At present, that seems highly unlikely.
And even all these problems pale, perhaps, in comparison with disastrous fertility rates among the old-line WASPs. Huntington, like many other analysts, notes that non-Hispanic white women in America, while not at the truly suicidal reproductive rates of their European counterparts (1 child per woman and even lower), still have on average only 1.85 children, well below replacement rates. Hispanic women in America average 3.1. But what conclusion should we draw from these numbers? Is the higher Hispanic rate merely a menace? Or have radical feminism and promiscuous contraception left our nation with manpower needs that currently can only be met by immigration? Hispanics may create many problems, but they offer no small number of solutions to social imbalances as well. Imagine, for instance, if—like Europe—we were facing a future where two or three workers are going to have to support each retiree, at rather high levels of benefits. Thanks to Hispanic and other immigration, one great social problem will be much more unlikely to overtake us.
Huntington sometimes seems to view Hispanics the way that a very fastidious, meat-and-potatoes Boston Brahmin might look upon a plate of very spicy tacos. But perhaps the best approach to this whole question is to take a realistic attitude about some other crucial facts. First, large Hispanic populations are going to be with us, no matter what anyone says or does, for the foreseeable future. Those new Americans must understand the value of core American institutions. For a new American, it is far more important to be taught about the constitutional fabric of American society—and to appreciate well-functioning institutions—than to be affirmed in ethnic identity. That was the genius of older assimilation policies; today’s multicultural love fests will neither lead to Hispanic integration nor reinvigoration of our civic life.
America needs to be both open and confidently itself to deal with new circumstances. It is not necessarily a bad thing that desiccated American popular culture will have to face a potent rival from a very different religious and social tradition. WASP elites once thought Jews, Italians, and Irish would wreck the country. We can now see that they made great contributions to a good basic structure. If America can find a way for new Hispanic immigrants to make their own distinctive contributions, it may not matter that they do not assimilate according to earlier patterns. And the freshness, dynamism, cultural color, and religious values Hispanics bring to the United States may very well—if they are not made an end in themselves by Hispanics and other American leaders—show up as a great benefit rather than a burden to the nation.