And yet for Marx and his modern heirs, class interests are all that matter. And for a certain breed of capitalist rationalist, financial self-interest is all that motivates.
Barack Obama articulated a watered-down version of this nonsense when he lamented that western Pennsylvanians cling to religion and guns out of unrecognized economic frustration. If they'd only seen how their financial interests were bound up with his candidacy, they would've discarded such concerns. This isn't to say Obama is a crass materialist; he's not, as his memoirs make clear. Rather, it's to note that the role of culture is not only powerful but often powerfully confusing.
If I had one book recommendation -- another journalistic fad at this time of year -- it would be Huntington's last, "Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity." In it, Huntington argued that American culture needed to be nurtured, not rejected in the name of a "multiculturalism" that too often serves as a stalking horse for anti-Americanism. He recognized that tolerance and pluralism are not modern inventions intended to replace America's traditional culture, but that evolving notions of tolerance and pluralism are a central part of the American tradition (a point Obama echoed somewhat in his famous "A More Perfect Union" speech on race last March). For example, every civilization has known slavery, but only Anglo-American civilization, fueled by religious and philosophical conviction, set out to destroy it, at enormous costs. Huntington offered "an argument for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people."
But Huntington saw in a cadre of "denationalized" elites a contempt for the idea that the fruits of tolerance need roots in the soil of culture and identity. These citizens of the world look skeptically at notions of sovereignty and contemptuously on the authority of tradition.
Obama is at home among -- and revered by -- this crowd. His comment during the campaign that the real problem is that there aren't enough American kids learning Spanish, not that there aren't enough immigrants learning English, was music to cosmopolitan ears. But he also speaks movingly about American cultural solidarity. To date, much of that language has been eloquent but platitudinous, perhaps because specifics highlight Obama's own confusion about the thorny question of national identity. There's still time for him to read up before his inaugural address.