Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist who died on Christmas eve, was the epitome of a public intellectual. He was a household name because of his most poorly thought out bit of writing, but rated highly among his peers for books none but a dozen professors had heard of. And he suffered what is the general fate of public intellectuals: the work that brought him fame, The Clash of Civilizations, is regularly denounced for preparing the ground for a cataclysmic struggle between Islam and Christianity. He never intended it to be so and the US government quickly rejected “the Clash” as a piece of policy absurdia.
The Clash of Civilizations was an article Huntington dashed off at the end of the Cold War to try and predict what would replace the Liberal Democracy vs Soviet Communist paradigm. If boiled for a week, the article basically says: “New international problems will arise where there are cultural divisions.”
It was an intriguing idea and, for example, in the civil warring between different types of Iraqis, is arguably true. But Huntington never did enough research to make a sound case. He adlibbed with footnotes, carved up the world into arbitrary cultures (what in the world is Latin American civilisation?) and made faultlines out of molehills. In the end, he could amass evidence against only one civilisation as a migraine source. “Islam has bloody borders,” he infamously wrote.
Reality was more complicated. Bosnia was in the headlines when Huntington first made headlines. But this ‘Clash’ had a Christian America fighting a Christian Serbia on behalf of Muslim Bosnia. Most nations, after getting over the shock of the Soviet collapse, went back to squabbling in the same hard-nosed geopolitical manner they had before the Berlin Wall fell.
If the Huntington thesis survived, it was because of 9/11 and all that came afterwards. Today the most fanatical Huntingtonians are Osama bin Laden, the Arab street and the Bajrang Dal. It remains the best intellectual fit for their own conspiracy theories to explain the decline of the Arab world and legitimise their biases.
Huntington continued to produce books based on interesting concepts for which he had no supporting evidence. Among his last was a claim that Mexican immigrants to the US were endangering the country because they, unlike other immigrants, weren’t integrating fast enough. It was as weak as the Clash, but no crisis helped to propel this thesis into the limelight.
Huntington is mildly well-known in political science circles for seminal works on civil-military relations and the silliness of rapid democratisation (yes, he opposed the US invasion of Iraq). His real fans were the public. As one study found, his name called up 831 media mentions versus 2,038 academic citations. Fellow Harvardian, economist Robert Barro, had only 289 media hits but nearly 3,700 academic citations. This was because Huntington did what public intellectuals are good at doing: coming up with the wrong idea at the right time.