Monday, December 29, 2008

Two Dead Curmudgeons

Samuel Huntington is dead at 81.

Huntington is most famous for his mistrust of multiculturalism. In his "Clash of Civilizations?" essay, monolithic cultural blocs hurtle toward each other and unavoidably result in mass murder. These cultures include Latin American, Islamic, Hindu, Japanese, "African," "Orthodox," "Western," and, vaguest of all, "Sinic," a blanket term for Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian.

Of course, as this obituary in the Times of India points out, the most important thing to grasp about "the Islamic world" is that it is not uniform. Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Turkey cannot be said to share the same culture. No one uses the term "Christendom" anymore for the same reason.

In his book The Third Wave, Huntington attacks Confucian and Islamic heritages, characterizing them as inherently anti-democratic. In "Who Are We?" he uses the baffling term "ampersands" to describe American citizens with backgrounds that aren't completely WASP-ish.

Huntington believed that an empowered developing world could only lead to the disintegration of "American values." His pessimism found its full flower in The Clash of Civilizations? a warning of the imminent dissolution of America due to the Hispanic immigration wave.

In the 21st century, democracy will be pluralistic and inclusive, and will not live or die on the criterion of total national solidarity. America, as well as the unified Europe, will find strength in ideological diversity rather than uniform patriotism. Huntington did not understand this.

Here I pass the mic to the eminent Louis Menand:

...If the world is becoming more porous, more transnational, more tuned to the same economic, social, and informational frequency—if the globe is more global, which means more Americanized—then the need for national cultural homogeneity is lesser, not greater. The stronger societies will be the more cosmopolitan ones.

Perhaps this sounds like sentimental internationalism. Let’s be cynical, then. The people who determine international relations are the political, business, and opinion √©lites, not the populace. It is overwhelmingly in the interest of those √©lites today to adapt to an internationalist environment, and they exert a virtually monopolistic control over information, surveillance, and the means of force. People talk about the Internet as a revolutionary populist medium, but the Internet is essentially a marketing tool. They talk about terrorist groups as representatives of a civilization opposed to the West, but most terrorists are dissidents from the civilization they pretend to be fighting for. What this kind of talk mostly reveals is the nonexistence of any genuine alternative to modernization and Westernization. During the past fifty years, the world has undergone two processes. One is de-Stalinization, and the other is decolonization. The second is proving to be much more complicated than the first, and this is because the stamp of the West is all over the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is now putting its stamp on the West. There are no aboriginal civilizations to return to. You can regret the mess, but it’s too late to put the colors back in their jars.

And why isn’t internationalism, as a number of writers have recently argued, a powerful resource for Americans? The United States doesn’t have an exclusive interest in opposing and containing the forces of intolerance, superstition, and fanaticism; the whole world has an interest in opposing and containing those things. On September 12, 2001, the world was with us. Because of our government’s mad conviction that it was our way of life that was under attack, not the way of life of civilized human beings everywhere, and that only we knew what was best to do about it, we squandered our chance to be with the world. The observation is now so obvious as to be banal. That does not make it less painful.

Harold Pinter is dead at 78.

Where Huntington challenged the consensus of Western multiculturalism from the misguided American right, Pinter attacked Western power from the humorless British left. Imagine Samuel Beckett, but bleaker.

The London playwright turned out modern plays rife with uncomfortable pauses, profanity, and a wide streak of misanthropy. But he became better known for his political positions. Pinter opposed bombing in Serbia in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001. He supported Fidel Castro and Slobodan Milosevic. Pinter was a dedicated anti-American, and when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, critics alleged corruption and narrow-minded Eurocentrism.

More than any other playwright Pinter's work best illustrates Claude Levi-Strauss' complaint about modern theater: that it feels like "witnessing a domestic argument which has nothing to do with me."

Here's an excerpt of Pinter's scintillating verse:

The lights glow.
What will happen next?

Night has fallen.
The rain stops.
What will happen next?


Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armored parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America's God.

In this Al Jazeera interview, it is evident that the gravelly old man had courage. But nowhere does radicalism appear less fun than it does in the work of Harold Pinter.