Saturday, January 10, 2009

Swapan Dasgupta ,There's a clash, don't deny it

Swapan Dasgupta
There's a clash, don't deny it
4 Jan 2009, 0000 hrs IST, SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Before the "public intellectual" became fashionable, academia nurtured a deep abhorrence of anything "popular". Writing to a friend in 1950, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, for example, apologised for hibernating in Oxford "writing a book of infinite pedantic exactitude on a character of infinite dullness; but I must rehabilitate myself with the learned world after writing a bestseller."

The influence on the wider public discourse by the likes of Edward Said, Henry Kissinger, and even Amartya Sen, and the glamour surrounding their interventions, may have eroded the Senior Common Room's faith in the recondite but it hasn't destroyed it altogether. From the publication of his celebrated (some would say, notorious) "Clash of Civilizations" in 1993 till his death on Christmas Eve, Samuel Huntington was often taunted by the charge that he was willfully playing to the galleries, abandoning scholarship for polemics, if not prejudice.

These low blows were couched in a lethal combination of envy, anger and incomprehension. Huntington was neither a soothsayer nor a prophet. He was just a Harvard don trying to make sense of the post-Cold War world. In suggesting that the contemporary world could be better understood within the framework of conflicting civilizations, Huntington was actually trying to deflate the triumphalist assumptions prevailing in the West. In his view, the spread of American "soft" power wouldn't automatically be accompanied by the spread of liberal democracy.

"Somewhere in the Middle East", he wrote presciently in 1993, "half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner." At that time, few people had even heard of Osama bin Laden.

After 9/11, this passage was elevated to the realms of prophecy which it was not. Huntington had just assembled disparate pieces of a puzzle and arrived at the conclusion that the Cold War had been replaced by a tussle which had the potential of turning into a big conflict.

His observations struck an immediate chord in the wider world because it corresponded to what many people instinctively felt but lacked the intellectual tools to put into a coherent framework. Huntington became a celebrity because he articulated a fear that dare not speak its name. He wasn't advocating a global clash; he was merely pointing to its growing imminence. In denouncing him as the evil Satan, his critics were shooting the messenger.

It has become customary for politicians, international bodies and the inter-faith industry to respond to every terrorist outrage and gunfire in West Asia with the assertion that there is no "clash of civilizations". What they actually mean is that there must not be a clash of civilizations — a noble proclamation of good intent rather than an acknowledgement of reality.

It was this willful denial that probably triggered Huntington's final and more prescriptive book 'Who are we?' In his study of the American ethos, he argued that the American Creed wasn't merely built on the US Constitution and a social ethos where opportunity and individualism reigned supreme. To Huntington, it was bolstered by a national culture built on Christianity, the English language and the Anglo-Protestant culture.

Predictably, Huntington was viciously attacked for being an American Raj Thackeray. Certainly, he was guilty of ignoring the cultures of non-European immigrants. But Huntington's logic was different. In his view America was what it was because of its distinct intellectual inheritance. Take that away and you are still left with a US but a very different and fractured US. Such a country with a "denationalized elite" at the helm was by definition incapable of confronting the two immediate threats: militant Islam and Chinese nationalism. For the US to defend itself, Huntington said, it must first realize its national character. He could well have been speaking about Britain, and even India —infected by the plague of national ambivalence.

In intellectual and policy circles it is obligatory and fashionable to rubbish the Huntington thesis as alarmist and divisive. Yet, the epitaph of the man debunked for anticipating the barbarians at the gate will surely read: "In your mind you know he was right."

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