22 May 2007

On national mythologies, part 3

A monolithic foreign threat is exactly what the United States needs, wrote Samuel Huntington in 1993.[i] With the absence of the Soviet Union, the world had fractured into too many camps; even the once-united West was divided, and the United States was in economic competition with the European Union. Huntington said that U.S.-led Western solidarity could only be re-established through the existence of a common enemy to replace the Cold War paradigm. For the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party seeking unrivaled U.S.-led global domination a decade later, Huntington provided the model into which Islamic terrorism was inserted.

The less discussed aspect of Huntington’s thesis was that United States was also beset by deep domestic problems that could also be solved by a “clash of civilizations.” Multiculturalism, which champions a group-based conception of equality, was deeply at odds with American individualism, according to Huntington, while excessive immigration from non-Western nations threatened the Western libertarian political values of the largely white, U.S. ruling elite. Furthermore, white racial solidarity was being challenged by right-wing anti-federalism that defied the legitimacy of a powerful state. The scale of that threat was spectacularly apparent in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Huntington also took to the task the American elite, which he claimed had placed its global commercial interests above national political and strategic considerations, widening the gap between the rich and poor and intensifying the class-conflict roots of anti-federalism.

For Huntington, who deeply believes in the mythology of American exceptionalism, only a foreign threat, real or imagined, was capable of forging a alliance among non-white Americans, recent immigrants, their multiculturalist allies, the anti-statist right, the vanishing middle-class, the new poor and the incredibly wealthy. According to this logic, there will be no domestic peace until a common enemy convinces the coalition to subordinate their interests to the political leadership of newly emboldened state.

"Fomenting a clash of civilizations abroad prevents a clash of civilizations at home,” explained Emad El-Din Aysha.[ii] However, Aysha also resists the temptation to see the “class of civilizations” as anything new. “‘Civilization’ is, at best, an unintentional by-product of conflict, at worst a (cynically used) tool of conflict, but it is never the prime mover and dominant source of conflict. The world of civilizations is, thus, a world of power politics.”[iii]

Huntington, his enthusiasts and his apologists represent a deeply anti-democratic belief shared by many of the most privileged Americans that they have been chosen by God or nature to rule by virtue of their inherent superiority. This elitism has historically co-existed alongside and vehemently contested the most democratic impulses of American political thinking. The legitimizing logic of this superiority has been essentialized through the rhetoric of race, sex, class, religion or civilization. Today the U.S. ruling elite employs the rubric of civilization, but it is an approach also used in 1900 by Sen. Albert Beveridge, when he exhorted his congressional colleagues to embrace an imperialist U.S. mission in Asia.

“We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world, “ Beveridge proclaimed. “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world.”[iv]

The inherent dangers of a singular American national identity were blatantly exploited by the Bush administration after fanning the flames of fear ignited by the 9/11 attacks. The people of Iraq have paid the deepest price for this shameless exercise in imperialist brutality, but the families of more than 3,000 American soldiers have also seen then lives forever torn apart. All Americans have seen their Constitution soiled. But what is perhaps most disturbing is that many Americans, including some of this administration’ most vocal critics, are unwilling to challenge their own beliefs in a monolithic and ethnocentric American exceptionalism. Insistence on a single national identity, by denying the democratic multiplicities of diverse Americas, invites the powerful to hijack that mythology in the service of their self-interests.

[i] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72 3 (1993), pp.22-49.
[ii] Emad El-Din Aysha, “Samuel Huntington and the Geopolitics of American Identity: The Function of Foreign Policy in America’s Domestic Clash of Civilizations,” International Studies Perspectives 4 (2003), pp. 124-25.
[iii] Ibid., p. 116. Original italics.
[iv] Sen. Albert Beveridge, “Speech Before Congress,” J. Lane and M. O’Sullivan, eds., A Twentieth-Century American Reader, Volume 1: 1900-1945 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Information Agency) p. 86-87.

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