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Brooks vs. Huntington

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Last week, New York Times' David Brooks payed tribute to Samuel Huntington by suggesting that in his great book, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington got it wrong about the powerful effects of "culture". But I think it's Brooks that got it wrong. As a Huntington disciple, and a member of The Culture Change Institute at Tufts University which was founded by Huntington and his protégé, Larry Harrison, I come to Huntington's defense.

Brooks seems to think that it was because "people in Arab nations were living under regimes that ruled by fear." They "shared the conspiracy mongering and the political passivity that these regimes encouraged." He goes on to write that "when the fear lessened and the opportunity for change arose, different aspirations were energized... We've seen them willing to risk their lives for pluralism, openness and democracy." I am afraid Mr. Brooks writes more from hope than fact.

No one yet knows what governments will emerge in the Middle East. Do the people who thronged the square in Cairo or the streets of Libya represent the majority of the people in those countries? Is the fundamentalist cleric in Yemen the most likely successor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh? If the Shiite majority seizes control of Bahrain, is a democracy more likely to emerge than a theocracy? The answers to these questions will become clear only after the dust has settled. And the dust will settle one way or another, because of the continuing strength, or lack thereof, of what Huntington called the Islamic civilization.

Thanks to our new technologies, we have, via satellite in the eighties and nineties, and the internet, for the past twenty years, made other civilizations aware of Western progress, prosperity and values. I'm sure that many of those in the streets now are motivated by scenes of the material success and the seeming openness of the Western world. But, are those who hold power now, the Egyptian generals, Muammar al-Gaddafi and, more importantly, the vast majority of the under-educated, prepared to accede to the demands of the young and educated classes.

The European revolutions of 1848 had much the same goals as Arabs in the streets do now. In German, they were demanding civil liberties and the establishment of a German national state. Those in the streets were the students, the bourgeoisie and the educational elite. They made some progress, governments were toppled, constitutional monarchies were established, and civil liberties were assured. And in Austria, the emperor abdicated in favor of his nephew.

Three years later, the revolution was over. The absolute rights of kings were restored, legislatures were stripped of their power and, in France, and Louis Napoleon's title was changed from president to Emperor Napoleon III -- and all this in countries where only the political culture had changed.

Brooks accuses Huntington of minimizing "the power of universal political values and exaggerat[ing] the influence of distinct cultural values. The revolutions of 1848 clearly prove that "power of universal political values" did not, and I believe will not, outweigh "the influence of distinct cultural values". No one can predict with certainty the kind of governments that will rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Bahrain five years from now, but I'd bet on cultural values winning out over political values in every case.

Brooks concludes that Huntington's "mistakes illustrate useful truths: that all people share certain aspirations and that history is wide open." I know, just from having lived eighty years, that all people do not share certain aspirations. Human beings within every culture have differing aspirations -- just think of labor unions and the Tea Party right now. And as for history, the revolutions of 1848 may show that "history is wide open", but by 1852, the door was shut. I'd wait at least five years before declaring that the Islamic civilization is wide open.