Tuesday, January 06, 2009

RIP - Samuel Huntington

I didn't realize that Prof. Samuel Huntington passed away on Christmas Eve until I read The Economist's recent Lexington column. He died at 81 in his house in Martha's Vineyard (surely a nice place to 'rest').

It was a bit ironic that the news of his death was overshadowed by two international events that are related to his works on conflicts among religions: Christmas and New Year holidays, and the Israel attack on Gaza. The first was an example than on some things, contrary to his thesis, globalization has brought down cultural differences across the world. The holidays were originally Christian's holidays, but now it has been secular holidays, celebrated or enjoyed by most people in the world. The second somehow shows that his thesis might still hold.

Prof. Huntington is both a respected and controversial intellectual of modern days. His name is almost synonymous to the phrase "clash of civilization", a theory he published in the early 1990s, just when many people in the world celebrated the end of cold-war. The theory received mixed responses. It received a lot of praises, as well as criticisms (was he correct in defining civilizations?), or denial (he sounds right, but isn't it too pessimistic?). But even those who disagreed strongly with him must admit the logical clarity of his thesis. He is an intellectual whose arguments always make people to think and rethink. His arguments always had strong building blocks, and his opponents could not avoid being dragged into his logic first before shooting the counter arguments.

People tend to label him "western-chauvinist." This temptation was inevitable. In one article, he wrote that "the west is unique, and the western values are not universal" (hence there can be no such thing as westernization). In his more recent book, his criticism to the Hispanic immigrants earned him "anti-pluralism", even "racist", tag. Such labels are unproductive, for sure. Many people would think that he is a hardcore (neo-) conservartive, while in truth he is a lifelong Democrat.

I admit I can't say much about him or his work. His classes at Harvard have always been oversubscribed (and I had to allocate my credit for other courseworks). The only chance I got to formally learn about him is in this class. But one big question from his works that have always been intriguing for me is '(how) does culture matter?' I touched this issue in a discussion here and here. Of course, he thought that culture matters, and it matters a lot. He once argued that the wave of democratization in the late 20th century "might have more to do with the Second Vatican Council, rather than the spread of free-market ideology."

May you rest in peace, Professor Huntington. Unfortunately, your pessimistic view over the world peace still holds.

Note: in a 2003 article, Ron Inglehart and Pippa Norris wrote:
Samuel Huntington was only partially right. The cultural fault line that divides the West and the Muslim world is not about democracy but sex. [Based on the World Values Survey data], Muslims and their Western counterparts want democracy, yet they are worlds apart when it comes to attitudes toward divorce, abortion, gender equality, and gay rights-which may not bode well for democray's future in the Middle East.

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