Nov 21, 2008

Book Rant: Samuel Huntington is Wrong

Given that I'm taking the U.S. Foreign Service Exam in February, I've been devouring political science books for the past two months. Recently, I held my nose and picked up The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. I read Huntington's original article in Foreign Affairs back in university, and found him to be a deplorable xenophobe. Nevertheless, he is widely quoted, refuted, and talked about, so reading what he had to say was important for my autodiactic endeavors.

To sum up Huntington's argument: The principal divisions in the world are now among so-called "civilizations." Huntinton names seven major ones- Western, Latin American, Orthodox, Islamic, Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese. He also identifies separate African and Buddhist civilizations, but does not regard them as of major importance. These divisions, says Huntington, will define the chief source of conflicts after the Cold War. The violence and competition of the future will mainly come from competition between Western, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations.

Back when I was a student of political science, I found his divisions to be curious and unecessary. Now that I've lived for over two years in another "civilization," I find his divisions to be not only odd, but actually destructive. Civilizations do not have clear-cut borders, there are divisions within civilizations, and culture is more changeable than he imagines.

To be fair, Huntington does have a point when he says that culture matters. Culture is important, and must be taken into account to an extent. However, Huntington seems to think that culture is both immutable and overpowers all other concerns. Japan in particular, I think, offers a nice refutation of Huntington's views.

A bit over one hundred fifty years ago, the spot at which I'm now sitting was a rural patch in a closed, feudal state. The U.S. and Europe had factories, industry, democracy, liberal economic systems, railroads and steam engines in the 1860s. Japan didn't. Japan had rice fields, swords, and a system of medieval patronage wherein the Shogunate hoped to keep the social order frozen in time. Had Samuel Huntington been around then, he would have written off Japan with the same sort of dismissal that he gave to Africa and Latin America.

Then, that whole culture was scrapped. The Meiji Restoration is really, really mind blowing when you think about it. The whole medieval system was scrapped, the entire country was industrialized, and the whole culture was overhauled. Of course, there were members of the samurai class who resisted, but the modernizers carried the day. The modernizers of the Meiji Restoration didn't want Japan to be a backwater, didn't want it to be controlled the way China was being controlled, and wanted to create a globally competitive nation. And they did, much to the peril of China and Korea. As awful as some of the things that Imperial Japan did, it is worth emphasizing that modernizers within Japanese society determined that economic prosperity, national security, and global competitiveness were more important than conservative notions of cultural identity.

This all happened again at the end of WWII. This time, the emperor system revealed itself to be an inefficient, dangerous, and unsuccessful model in the twentieth century. From what I've read, it seems that the American forces were extremely surprised with how little resistance and hostility they encountered when they came in and began the process of democratizing Japan. The reason for this was that modernizers within the society saw clearly that the prevailing cultural system had failed. Cultural systems, like economic systems, have to be accountable to their populations. They have to retain legitimacy, otherwise you get things like the Meiji Restoration and postwar Japan. Culture is not the unchangeable and implacable roadblock to global accord that Huntington imagines. It is something that can be altered, destroyed, upgraded and improved by determined liberals.

There will always be conservatives like Huntington who cling to antiquated notions of culture and declare them to be a fundamental truth. But, the fact of the matter is that Western society now is radically different from Western society even fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Now, gay people can be happily married in countries like Canada and Spain. China is no longer really communist. Here in Japan, the generation gap is gaping. Huntington's notions do not stand up to the dynamism of the world today, where economic and technological trends chip away at old notions.

Some years ago, I read an interview with Marjane Satrapi in Salon. At the end of the interview she said something to the reporter that I thought nicely summed up their interaction and conversation. Speaking of the Iranian regime and the Bush administration she said that "The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same."

Satrapi's comment, while a little on the pithy side, accurately illustrates how liberal-minded, modern-minded and internationally people can relate to each other, especially when governments do not foster a mood of international cooperation or accord. Her insights are especially interesting given that she's from Iran.

Anyway, I'm glad I got Huntington out of the way. There's only so much of his doomsaying and xenophobia I could take. I'm reading Thomas Friedman now, and he's sort of obnoxious in the other direction, what with incessantly declaring how flat the world is and all. But, he's a nice antidote to Huntington's backward-looking cultural myopia.

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