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.
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.