Samuel Huntington died a pariah among America's intellectual elite. It's because he was normalby E K / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
Samuel Huntington passed away on Christmas Eve. He is assured a place in the pantheon of modern “big idea” thinkers, alongside his student Francis Fukuyama. But few in this group were as controversial, or as consistently unpopular among their peers. Huntington was accused of everything from militarism to nativism. Noam Chomsky attacked him in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the bombing of Vietnam, and later described the Clash of Civilizations (1996)—Huntington’s most famous book—as a tool for the American elite to “control people.” He was denied membership of America’s prestigious National Academy of Sciences twice.
Why did he raise such hackles? Certainly, he was politically difficult to pin down. A lifelong Democrat, who worked for the ultra-liberal presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and voted for John Kerry in 2004, he was also a consistent conservative who backed the Vietnam war. His brief military career left an indelible mark, nowhere more evident than in his first book, The Soldier and the State (1957), which extols the ethos of the elite West Point military academy. At West Point, he wrote, “collective will supplants individual whim”—a latter-day Sparta in the midst of a civilian Babylon. With this book, his destiny to rile liberal colleagues was well underway; one reviewer portrayed him as a third-rate Mussolini.
Both Wasp and Episcopalian, he spent nearly half a century at Harvard and is descended from several generations of Harvard men. But his nationalism was political, not ethnic, valuing institutions like the military and the constitution rather than a timeless landscape or heroic ancestors. In The Promise of Disharmony (1981), he writes of American identity as an idea. America lacked class conflict, so had no need for the mystical folk nationalism of Europe. Wasps and immigrants alike, he argued, were eager to throw off their past and forge a liberal nation. Not a word did he write romanticising puritans or pioneers.
Huntington was instinctively a conservative because he valued an ordered society, but he also championed conservatism as a necessary instrument to defend liberal institutions against communism. In many of his books he attacked idealistic liberals for holding such institutions to impossible, utopian standards that undermined their effectiveness in the world.
Right up to the fall of communism, Huntington’s thinking bore the impress of cold war neoconservatism. He believed that non-western culture…