Welcome to the United States of Latin America

June 18, 2004

In his new book, Harvard academic Samuel Huntingdon argues that the American way is under threat from Hispanic culture. Walter Ellis speaks to the professor once regarded as a liberal in The Times Higher 's series on controversial views of America.

It is one of the happier functions of being a celebrity don that so long as you hold on to your faculties, your faculties are quite likely to hold on to you. Harvard guru Samuel Huntingdon is, at 77, as active as ever - perhaps more so. He is a man whose time first came in the 1970s, when he was appointed to the National Security Council by President Jimmy Carter. But it has kept on coming since.

His catalogue of prestige appointments is too dense to list here. But in between teaching government and political science at Harvard and Columbia universities, he found time to serve on the Presidential Task Force on International Development and the Commission on United States-Latin American Relations. He has worked on defence studies, arms control and the reduction of government secrecy. He spent a year at All Souls, Oxford, and was for a time senior research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In 1970, as the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, he founded and edited the influential quarterly journal Foreign Policy .

But that wasn't enough. In 1996, he gained fresh celebrity with his controversial book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order , which many believe predicted the mess the US is in today as it gropes to confront and contain Islamic extremism and looks ahead in trepidation to the rise of India and China. This summer, he is again entering deeply contentious territory with the publication of Who Are We? - The Challenge to America's National Identity , in which he takes on the powerful Hispanic lobby in the US, arguing that the Republic he has served all his life could end up two nations, one Anglo-Protestant in ethos, the other Latino, with its roots primarily in Mexico.

There is a natural vitality about Huntingdon. As he says goodbye to a keen young doctoral candidate who obviously relishes the time he has spent in Huntingdon's company, he grabs a cookie, checks on his schedule and bids me sit down. His office is in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue, the grand boulevard linking Cambridge to Boston. There is no hint of ivory towers or Ivy League; instead there is the sense of an ideas factory, with Huntingdon himself as a kind of intellectual chief executive.

Getting straight to his latest theme, the dangers to America of an overwhelming level of Hispanic immigration, he points out that a century ago, intellectuals, including his predecessors at Harvard, were wary of uncontrolled immigration, as were business leaders, who feared that new arrivals, unable to speak English and knowing nothing of modern production methods, would be a drain on the economy.

"But the problem was addressed and dealt with. People like to say that the US is a nation of immigrants. This is only half true. There has to be a recipient society, whose values are those that the new populations absorb and modify. America was created, by and large, by British Protestant settlers.

"I saw some statistical analysis recently that showed that the US population in 1990 was 49 per cent the result of the population of 1790 and 51 per cent the result of later immigration. Those who came after absorbed the Anglo-Protestant culture whether they were actually Anglo-Protestant or not. Would America be the same country it is today if in the 17th and 18th centuries it had been settled by French, Portuguese or Spanish migrants.

The answer is no. It would be Quebec, or Brazil, or Mexico."

Huntingdon's thesis, positing that contemporary Latino immigrants do not en masse wish to buy into the existing US, but intend setting up their own parallel language and culture, is necessarily doom-laden. It has certainly hit a nerve. When he wrote the cover story for the spring issue of Foreign Policy, under the headline, "Jose, can you see? - How Hispanic immigrants threaten America's identity, values and way of life", he was surprised by the critical response.

Typical was Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza (National Race Council), a leading Hispanic organisation, who argued that Huntingdon mistook Latinos' belief in a bilingual state for a desire for Spanish dominance. "Where Huntingdon sees a threat to his Anglo-Protestant ideal, we see families whose energy and eagerness to become American revitalise our nation and its most sacred institutions, much as the Irish, Italians and other immigrant groups did before us. Today's immigrants, their children and grandchildren, believe in America. Why can't Samuel Huntingdon?"

Several critics accused Huntingdon of outright racism.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, co-director of Harvard's Immigration Projects group, wrote that the most striking feature of Huntingdon's "xenophobic" essay was its irrelevance. "Soon our two largest and most powerful states, California and Texas, will have Latino majorities. Those who really worry about harmony and unity in American culture should be promoting the only real alternative: ending discrimination, effectively educating immigrants and embracing their dream of entering into the mainstream."

Interestingly, Fouad Ajami, director of the Middle East Studies Programme at Washington's Johns Hopkins University, recalled the "prescience" of Huntingdon's previous global warning, of a clash of civilisations - a thesis he (Ajami) had at first rejected but has since come to embrace. "Now Sam plays it again, this time with the American idea itself in the balance.

This time I cast my lot with him."

Finally, Pat Buchanan, the veteran old-style conservative and one-time presidential candidate, weighed in with his view that the US was being "swamped by a flood of foreigners - especially from Mexico - many of whom do not wish to learn the English language or become part of the (American) family, do not wish to assimilate or give up their Mexican identity or culture, do not love and are not loyal to this country, and believe we robbed their nation of the lands that they intend to reoccupy and recover."

Buchanan concluded: "Welcome to the Alamo, professor."

To kick up such a fuss requires a reputation of substance. What is odd, perhaps, is that Huntingdon was previously seen as a liberal, advising Jimmy Carter and assisting in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

But he has moved inexorably towards the culturally protectionist right, seeing the US as a vital force for good in the world that needs to be cherished, not transformed.

He is certainly in no mood to be labelled a racist. "The last refuge of those unable to make reasoned arguments based on factsI" he says, "is slander and name-calling."

Huntingdon is not afraid to take criticism. But it seems to dismay him that those who disagree with him see him as a malevolent influence, rather than as someone seeking truth and remedy in public affairs.

In terms of education policy, he sees no particular need for universities such as Harvard to do more to admit Hispanics or blacks, arguing that Harvard's admissions programme has been "needs blind" for years. This is despite the university president's recent announcement of more help for poor scholars to break down its perception as an elite college for well-heeled whites.

Huntingdon says the numbers of students from ethnic minorities is roughly comparable to their numbers in the general population. What needs fixing, he maintains, is not Harvard's admissions programme, but the "lousy public education" offered to most Hispanics and blacks.

And then my hour is up. The professor has a meeting, then he's off to the staff club. As he enters his late 70s, it is clear that slowing up is to him a foreign concept to which he is instinctively opposed. This should come as no surprise. Opposition to foreign concepts might even be said to define his thinking in the new century.

Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity by Samuel P. Huntington is published by Simon & Schuster.

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