June 2002

Clash of Civilizations

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“The West may one day have to fight for its most cherished values, and, indeed, physical survival against extremists from other cultures who despise our country and will embroil us in a civilizational war that is real…” So says Harvard scholar Samuel Phillips Huntington, who is discussed in the article “Looking the World in the Eye,” by Robert Kaplan in the December 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Kaplan says that Huntington’s opinions “about the role of the military in a liberal society have proved to be as prescient as they have been controversial. Huntington has been ridiculed and vilified, but in the decades ahead his view of the world will be the way it really looks.”

“Foreign policy,” Huntington explains, “is not about the relationship among individuals living under the rule of law but about the relationship among states and other groups operating in a largely lawless realm.” His main points are summarized by Kaplan:

  1. The fact that the world is modernizing does not mean it is Westernizing. The impact of urbanization and mass communications coupled with poverty and ethnic divisions, will not lead to people’s everywhere thinking as we do.
  2. Asia is expanding militarily and economically. Islam is exploding demographically. The West may be declining in relative influence.
  3. Culture-consciousness is getting stronger, not weaker, and states or peoples may band together because of cultural similarities rather than because of ideological ones, as in the past.
  4. The Western belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the West into conflict with civilizations–notably Islam and the Chinese–that think differently.
  5. In a multi-polar world based loosely on civilizations rather than ideologies, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity.

Huntington says American security has been mostly the result of sheer luck–the luck of geography–and may one day have to be earned. Liberalism thrives only when security can be taken for granted–and in the future we may not have that luxury. He disdains the “rational choice theory” the reigning fad in political science, which assumes human behavior is predictable but which fails to take account of fear, envy, hatred, self-sacrifice, and other human passions essential to understanding politics. He represents a dying breed: someone who combines liberal ideals with a deeply conservative understanding of history and foreign policy. A lifelong Democrat, he was a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950’s, a foreign-policy advisor to Hubert Humphrey in the 1960’s, and an author of Jimmy Carter’s speeches on human rights in the 1970’s, but he is the founder of Harvard’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, a redoubt of foreign-policy realism financed by conservative philanthropies.

Liberalism, he wrote, is an ideology of individualism, free markets, liberty, and the rule of law. “Classic conservatism,” in contrast, has no particular vision; it is a rationale, “high and necessary,” for ensuring the survival of liberal institutions. It is the “rational defense of being against mind, of order against chaos.” Real conservatism is about conserving what is, rather than crusading abroad for what is not or proposing radical changes at home. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton expounded conservative principles to defend a liberal constitution. “The American political genius,” Huntington wrote, “is manifest not in our ideas but in our institutions.”

The advance of technology culminating in World War II, with Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb, meant that geography was no longer a barrier that protected us. Security at times might have to take precedence over liberal values. “The heart of liberalism is individualism,” Huntington wrote. “It emphasizes the reason and moral dignity of the individual.” But the military man, because of the nature of his job, has to assume irrationality and the permanence of violent conflict in human relations. “The liberal glorifies self-expression” because he takes national security for granted; the military man glorifies “obedience” because he does not take that for granted. Nevertheless a truly liberal military would lack the lethal effectiveness required to defend a liberal society threatened by technologically empowered illiberal adversaries.

Our very greatness, he said, is what makes it difficult for the American liberal mind to deal with the outside world. “American nationalism has been an idealistic nationalism, justified, not by the superiority of the American people over other peoples, but by the assertion of the superiority of American ideals over other ideals.” American foreign policy is judged by the criteria of universal principles. This leads to a pacifism in American liberalism when it comes to defending our hard-core national interests, and an aggressive strain when it comes to defending human rights. Although the professional soldier accepts the reality of never-ending and limited conflict, “the liberal tendency is to absolutize and dichotomize war and peace.” Liberals most readily support a war if they can turn it into a crusade for humanistic ideals. That is why liberals seek to reduce the defense budget even as they periodically demand an adventurous foreign policy. The same intellectuals and opinion-makers who consistently under-appreciated NATO in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the outcome of the Cold War remained in doubt, demanded aggressive NATO involvement in the 1990s, in Bosnia and Kosovo, when the stakes for our national security were much lower, but the assault on liberal principles was vivid and clear-cut.

The only way to preserve a liberal society, opines Huntington, is to define the limits of military control. The way to do that across the uncertain decades and centuries ahead is to keep the military and the advice it offers strictly professional. A soldier should recommend battle only in the case of national interest. If he is to fight for other reasons, including humanitarian ones, the pressure to do so must come from his civilian superiors. Harry Truman was a harbinger of an emerging order, liberal at home but profoundly conservative in foreign affairs, merging a liberal society and a vast new defense establishment.

Huntington believes we should proclaim our values abroad in ways that allow us to take advantage of our adversaries but do not force us to remake societies from within. He has remained skeptical about putting troops on the ground to build Western-style democracy in places with no tradition of it. If he is correct, one might ask, how does he explain the turnabout of Germany and Japan after World War II, when the Allies helped those countries to build democracies where they had had a tradition of dictatorship before?

He outlines a road map to what developing countries face in their attempts to establish stable and responsive governments in an era of globalization: “The most important distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government. The differences between democracy and dictatorship are less than the differences between those countries whose politics embodies consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, [and] stability, and those countries whose politics is deficient in these qualities.”

American history taught us how to limit government, not how to build it from scratch. The Constitution is about controlling authority; throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the formerly communist world the difficulty is to establish authority. The problem, Huntington says, is not to hold elections but to create organizations. In politically advanced states loyalty is to institutions, not to groups.

The United States has trouble understanding revolutionary ferment in the rest of the world because it never experienced a real revolution. Instead it went through a war of independence–and not even one of nations against alien conquerors, but of settlers against the home country. Real revolutions are different–bad–and fortunately rare. Even as the proletariat in Third World slums continues to radicalize, the middle classes become increasingly conservative and more willing to fight for the existing order. When a revolution does occur, continued economic deprivation “may well be essential to its success,” but the idea that food shortages and other hardships caused by economic sanctions will lead to the overthrow of a revolutionary regime like Hussein’s or Castro’s is nonsense. Material sacrifices, although intolerable in a normal situation, are proof of ideological commitment in a revolutionary one.” Revolutionary governments may be undermined by affluence; but they are never overthrown by poverty.” Spanish and Canadian developers now building hotels in Havana may know better than the American government does how to undermine a revolutionary regime…great revolutions have followed periods of reform, not periods of stagnation and repression.

What Huntington calls the American Creed, he believes, is the touchstone of our national identity. Unlike other national creeds ours is universalistic, democratic, egalitarian, and individualistic. “Opposition to power, and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power, are the central themes of American political thought.” Whereas both the right and the left in Europe have traditionally favored a strong state, right-wing and left wing radicals in America have always demanded more “popular control.”

Creedal passion is at the core of America’s greatness. By holding officials and institutions to impossible standards in a way no other country does, the United States has periodically reinvented itself through evolution rather than revolution. Power is now seen as corporate. So the next outburst of creedal passion may be against hegemonic corporate capitalism.

Huntington thinks the great divisions among humankind will be cultural, not ideological or primarily economic. The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. Whereas the West has generated ideologies, the East has generated religions. Religion is now the more menacing force on the international scene. The Cold War was a fleeting event compared with the age-old struggle between the West and Islam. Dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction between Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic [Chinese] assertiveness.

It is pointless, he avers, to expect people who are not at all like us to become significantly more like us; this well-meaning instinct only causes harm. In the incipient war being led by the United States, the utmost caution is required to keep the focus on the brute fact of terrorism. Osama bin Laden , for his part, clearly hopes to incite civilizational conflict between Islam and the West. The United States must prevent this from happening, chiefly by assembling a coalition against terrorism that crosses civilizational lines. Beyond that, the U.S. must, first, draw the nations of the West more tightly together, and, second, try to understand more realistically how the world looks through the eyes of other people. The world is a dangerous place, in which large numbers of people resent our wealth, power, and culture, and vigorously oppose our efforts to persuade or coerce them to accept our values of human rights, democracy, and capitalism. America must learn to distinguish among our true friends who will be with us and we with them through thick and thin; opportunistic allies with whom we have some but not all interests in common; strategic partner-competitors with whom we have a mixed relationship; antagonists who are rivals but with whom negotiation is possible; and unrelenting enemies who will try to destroy us unless we destroy them first.

“Critics say that America is a lie,” says Huntington, “because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”

Corporate Control of America

Have you ever met an artificial person? No, I’m not talking about robots or androids. This is not the stuff of science fiction. It’s strictly business. Chances are you’ve worked for an artificial person. You may even have been told it was a ‘corporation.’ You may have heard of the explosive growth of corporations, the global reach of the transnational corporations. Corporations are our friends. They give us entertainment, jobs, junk food. Corporations are the vehicles of capitalism, the free market, of freedom itself–right? Wrong.

What happened? In the beginning corporations were very useful, a means of managing risk and ensuring continuity and capitalization. The negative features of corporations were limited. In fact, they were created and operated under greater constraints:

  • Charters were granted for a limited time.
  • Corporations were explicitly chartered for the purpose of serving the public interest – profit for shareholders was the means to that end.
  • They could engage only in activities necessary to fulfill their chartered purpose.
  • Corporations were terminated if they exceeded their authority or if they caused public harm.
  • Owners and managers were responsible for criminal acts they committed on the job. Corporations could not make any political contributions, nor spend money to influence legislation.
  • Corporations could not purchase or own stock in other corporations, nor own any property other than that necessary to fulfill their chartered purpose.

The corporations of today straddle the world. They walk the halls of Congress and your state legislature. They move money from account to account, currency to currency, country to country, to escape regulation and taxation. They dictate environmental laws and foreign policy. They redistribute wealth unfairly.

Why is this permitted? Well, partly because corporations are such generous campaign contributors (directly or through PACs), and well, in the United States of America all natural persons are supposed to have inalienable rights. These rights are recognized, for instance, in the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. Corporations are considered persons, created by the state. And this leads us to the concept of corporate personhood.

Corporate personhood is the idea (a legal fiction, currently with force of law) that corporations have constitutional rights just like real, natural, human persons. The doctrine derives from a 1886 lawsuit, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. This decision was augmented by many rulings since, which have greatly expanded corporate rights.

While corporations certainly served a useful purpose in the first century of our country, the increasing power aggregated to the corporations began to endanger our democracy. The bizarre status of these organizations allowed them to compete successfully with many other interests. In the last fifty years, corporations have not only triumphed against organized labor, but against government itself.

The tendency in recent decades toward deregulation, acquisitions and mergers has often resulted in a consolidation of market position that often borders on monopoly. Naturally, under such conditions, the “free and open competition” that is necessary to a healthy and functioning capitalist economy does not occur. The lack of regulation has, unfortunately, permitted horrendous abuses (as in the Enron crisis) in the form of ‘paper companies’ with no other purpose than to hide taxable income and manipulate pricing.

As Arianna Huffington notes, “In the last two years, more than 400 public companies–including Enron, Global Crossing and Kmart–have declared bankruptcy. Two million Americans have lost their jobs. Four trillion dollars in market value has been lost on Wall Street.” This sounds as if the corporate-based economy has become unstable.

Corporations increasingly dictate American foreign policy goals and values. The U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense have repeatedly stated that our foreign and military policy must protect U.S. “commercial interests.” The prominence of the Middle Eastern oil reserves in our nation’s recent history reveals corporate influence to a frightening extent. It is significant that many key members of the current administration, including both the President and Vice President, have come from the oil industry. Campaign finance contributions from corporations have reached record levels. Individual taxes for the middle class have gone up while taxes on the wealthy and corporations have gone down. Why do the few artificial persons have so much more representation than the real people?

The answer is not to eliminate corporations but to reverse judicial trends that have granted these entities such tremendous power. Corporations must be transparent to investors and regulators. They must be reformed and held accountable. They must reveal their activities relevant to the formation of legislation and policy.

And, most important of all, American citizens and consumers must insist that we are more real than any product or brand or marketing campaign; that this democratic republic is not merely a corporate welfare state, but is about us and for us: for “We the People.”

–Richard Garrard

HoU Recognized by Catholic Nun

One of the results of Humanists of Utah support of the Prison Literacy project was an invitation to provide information at a recent presentation by Helen Prejean to the University of Utah School of Social Work. Prejean, a Catholic nun, author of Dead Men Walking, and opponent of capital punishment, paused at the end of her talk to express gratitude to the Humanists of Utah for their contribution to the prison literacy program. “Thank God for the humanists,” she said, then: “Oops.”

One True Thing

~Book Review~

For some time now I have enjoyed reading Anna Quindlen’s syndicated column on the newspaper’s editorial page. Sometime last year I discovered that she has published a few novels. One True Thing (Dell Publishing, 1995) tells the story of a successful young lady, a family crisis, and the subsequent fallout. Ellen Gulden started her writing career in high school when she won a statewide essay contest for her piece defending euthanasia. After college she had an excellent first job as a staff writer with a popular magazine based in New York City and seemed to be well on her way to a successful career and life.

A call came from her father that changed everything. He demanded that she quit her job, come home, and take care of her mother who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. While growing up she hardly even knew her mother, preferring instead the company of her father, an English professor.. She was more than a little insulted by the demand, but ended up being her mother’s closest companion for the elder Gulden’s last six months of life.

The autopsy revealed an overdose of the prescribed pain medications–who had administered them? Ellen knew that she had not. She had seen her father spoon feeding her mother’s last meal of rice pudding but did not say anything about it to anyone, not even at the grand jury investigation into her mother’s death where Ellen was the prime suspect.

Like Quindlen’s other novels, One True Thing does not fit easily into a well defined category. The ending is challenging, surprising, and thought provoking. There are no heroes in her work, only people trying to live with themselves within human society.

–Wayne Wilson