This time of year, newspapers and magazines swell with retrospectives on the year that was, predictions for the year to come, and cogitations on meaningless trends and contrived fads.
Against this backdrop, there's an added poignancy to the death of Samuel P. Huntington, who died Christmas Eve at the age of 81. A decent, profound and profoundly consequential man, the Harvard professor was one of the lions of 20th century social science. He spotted trends and made predictions, too. But he did so not with a wet finger to the air but with his nose in the books, his hands on the facts and his eyes fixated on the Big Picture.
His 1993 essay "The Clash of Civilizations" (and subsequent book) argued that the hoopla over a New World Order was deeply misguided. Indeed, he spotted one of the most consequential trends of the post-Cold War world: Most societies were intensifying, often radically, their cultural identities, not shedding them. Disharmony, not some U.N.-led Parliament of Man, lay in our future.
The book was deeply, and often willfully, misunderstood and mischaracterized by those who didn't want it to be true. But after 9/11, it largely set the terms for how we look at the world. In it, he argued that culture, religion and tradition are not background noise, as materialists of the left and the right often argue. Rather, they constitute the drumbeat to which whole civilizations march.
This view ran counter to important constituencies. The idea that man can be reduced to homo economicus has adherents among some free-market economists, most Marxists and others. But it's nonsense on stilts. Most of the globe's intractable conflicts are more clearly viewed through the prisms of culture and history than that of the green eyeshade. Tensions between India and Pakistan or Israel and the Arab world have little to do with GDP.
Even in America, the notion that economics drives our politics cannot stand scrutiny. For instance, gay-marriage advocates might decry the tax code's unfairness to same-sex couples, but if all they wanted was to file joint returns, they'd settle for domestic partnerships. Gays desire respect and acceptance more than tax deductions. Meanwhile, opponents of same-sex marriage don't even bother with economic arguments, nor should they. Abortion, race, drugs, gun control, political correctness, public-school curricula: The list of cultural issues driving our political conflicts is endless.
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