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'Culture' and National Identity

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta

By Samuel P. Huntington
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2004, pp. 428, Rs. 350.00


Should a modern state define its national identity in civic terms or in ethnic and religious terms? A civic definition is based simply upon nationality and adherence to the basic political values on which the state is founded. The latter approach would view national identity in terms of a common race, language, religion or “culture”. The first is an inclusive definition that covers all citizens who accept the fundamental values of the country’s constitution. The second is a majoritarian definition that tends to exclude or, at least, marginalize the role of ethnic, religious or other minorities. Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations, predictably opts for the latter approach.   In this challenging but deeply flawed book, Huntington explores the evolution of America’s national identity and prescribes the direction it should take in future. He argues, “Through the centuries Americans have, in varying degrees, defined the substance of their identity in terms of race, ethnicity, ideology and culture.” In earlier centuries, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has observed, the United States was a “racist nation”, denying equal rights to Red Indians, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Racism suffered a major set-back in the Civil War and was finally laid to rest as a result of the Civil Rights movements in the mid-20th century. With successive waves of immigration from continental Europe and elsewhere ethnicity, too, progressively lost its significance. Race and ethnicity are no longer elements of the national identity in a multi-ethnic and multi-racial United States. It is widely accepted that the defining element of the American identity in the 21st century is the “American Creed”–the civic or political values of democracy, individual freedom, rule of law underlying the Constitution established by the Founding Fathers. All this is unexceptionable (if also unexceptional). This, however, is only the starting point of Huntington’s thesis. Through a series of bold—and, frequently, rash—generalizations, Huntington arrives at some provocative conclusions. He maintains that the “American Creed” itself was the “product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers”, comprising such elements as the English language, Christianity, religious commitment, individualism and work ethic. The centrality of this “culture” is under threat from a number of sources. Continuing immigration from Latin America and the spread of the Spanish language threaten to make the United States a bilingual country with two “cultures”, Anglo-Protestant and Hispanic. The role of ...

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