It is twenty years since Samuel Huntington’s essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ was first published in Foreign Affairs. On Monday night I took part in a discussion on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves about the article (and the resulting book) which turned oddly nasty.
I have always been a qualified admirer of Huntington’s most famous work (‘qualified’ because like most people who have read the book I admire its range and grasp while disagreeing with certain of its conclusions). But broadly admire it or not, it appears to be a difficult work to discuss. This is largely because it suffers the double-bind of being misunderstood by people who have not read it. Nine times out of ten when people refer to Huntington they suggest that Huntington thought it inevitable that civilizations would clash or, more absurdly, that he actively urged civilisations to do so. Such people have not properly read what they are trying to talk about.
But there is another reason why some people get enraged by Huntington’s thesis, which is that it is clear-headed and reveals certain truths some people would rather not consider. Nothing more disturbs a mind muddled by impoverished ideology than a dash of clear thinking. Such thinking is, after all, potentially lethal to them. If it were to catch on it might end their careers.
I found myself reflecting on this after Monday night’s programme. For after a thoughtful contribution from Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, I found myself in a studio discussion with a person who appeared so viscerally enraged by Huntington’s thesis that she seemed stripped of all manners and reason. Her name was Maria Misra and she was billed as a lecturer and fellow in modern history at Keble College Oxford. All I can say is that the standard of history fellowships at Keble College has declined steeply of late.