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My kind of liberal

People don’t always die to fit the news cycle, and Samuel P. Huntington, a great and arguably the greatest of recent American political thinkers, did so on Christmas Eve, when we were all taking holidays or trying to do so. He was a contrarian, of the kind I most admire: not someone who opposes prevailing views for the sake of getting attention (I don’t mind such people, though they can become wearying). Rather, a man who could see that the consensus was wrong, shallow, selectively blind, over-convenient, self-serving, even smug, and would therefore have to be opposed.

He is remembered at the moment for his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World (of 1996, expanded from a provocative essay of 1993), in which, among other things, he contradicted the optimistic thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992, expanded from a 1989 essay) about international relations in the post-Cold War world.

Let it be noted that Mr. Fukuyama has written one of the more eloquent flattering obituary squibs. It draws attention to one of Huntington’s earlier and very brilliant “pessimistic” books, Political Order in Changing Societies. This was the work in which Huntington challenged the background assumption of progressive American scholars, that all the benefits of modernization they could enumerate must naturally go together—economic growth, education, urbanization, de-tribalization, secularization, democratization, and so forth.

Huntington showed that the actual experience of the newly-independent countries of the Third World did not bear this out, and suggested that many of these supposed good things worked at cross-purposes. Social developments tended to outpace institutional ones, creating various kinds of civil disorder. Moreover, not all developments moved in the direction liberal scholars would characterize as forward.

Both Huntington and Fukuyama came at the late American academic end of a long intellectual tradition, originating in what we call the Enlightenment. The very idea that we can understand society in a scientific way, discern the laws by which it develops, and extend past trends to predict the future, has guided this tradition—together with a core faith in “modernization” and “progress.”

Samuel Huntington himself did not fundamentally question that “modern is better.” He is very much in the tradition. Instead he displayed a more European skepticism about the inevitability of progress, founded in the experience of terrible modern catastrophes. World wars, genocides, totalitarianism—these were also among the gifts of modernity. We should perhaps be more circumspect in pushing the envelope for progress. For human happiness is not necessarily advanced by the purposeful destruction of an ancient social order.

President Lyndon Johnson had once dispatched Huntington to report on the progress of the Vietnam War. He made a signal sociological observation in the field: that it was the more traditional and hide-bound elements in Vietnamese society that were best resisting the advance of the Viet Cong; not the more urbane, better-educated, and progressive. American schemes to advance “democratization” were contributing to the habit of capitulating to a monstrous enemy.

The Clash of Civilizations was in some ways a recapitulation and summation of Huntington’s life work. It argued that secular ideological conflict between the “Capitalist West” and “Communist East” had masked deeper conflicts between cultures and civilizations, and that these would re-emerge. He called particular attention to the Islamic realm, as a source of potential world-altering violence, and made his infamous, politically incorrect observation that “Islam has bloody borders”—not only with Israel, but wherever the Islamic realm comes in contact with non-Islamic realms, from West Africa to the Caucasus to the Philippines.

As I hinted above, Huntington was essentially a liberal, but one of the old-fashioned kind who insisted on wrestling with facts and realities, rather than drawing the happyface over them. He was predictably not merely chastised, but wilfully misrepresented and demonized, for calling attention to this problem, well before 9/11.

To people who think that human cultures are the transient product of purely material influences—to “social Darwinists” in the broadest sense of that term—evidence that they are not is deeply upsetting. And to those with a vested interest in the current doctrine of “multiculturalism,” the notion that we should examine a flaw in any civilization other than our own is deeply repugnant.

The old-fashioned liberal did not pretend to be impartial; he wanted the culture that supported old-fashioned liberalism to prevail. In this sense alone, there is truth in the late Edward Said’s otherwise fatuous argument that Enlightenment anthropology was the handmaid of European Imperialism. Said could not understand that the “orientalists” were not propagandists; that they could advance the larger cause only by seeking genuine insights into foreign cultures, and thus by becoming genuinely sympathetic to what they studied.

The oldest-fashioned liberal idea of all is, “that you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” It was the kind of liberation to which Huntington aspired.

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