27 March 2018

Amy Chua has a good point to make

Dr Amy L Chua

Well, I may be stepping in it here. No matter – I’m good at stepping in it, and while I’m about it I may as well step boldly.

As my gentle readers may recall, Dr Amy Chua of Yale University is a controversial and polarising figure for several reasons. Starting with her autobiographical Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she raised some hackles and drew some sharp criticism from a number of quarters. Most notable was that from fellow Asian-Americans who thought that Chua was unironically and simplistically championing draconian and tyrannical methods of parenting.

Her subsequent book, The Triple Package, came in for still more criticism, this time for being racist, engaging in stereotyping, sorting immigrant groups into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and holding an arbitrary notion of ‘success’.

I haven’t read either of these two earlier books of hers and thus can pass no well-informed comment, pro or con, on either. (Still, I must admit the breathless denunciations of her work from such ‘woke’-neoliberal corners as Salon and HuffPo do render me slightly sympathetic.) But earlier today I was listening to an interview she was holding on Minnesota Public Radio about the relationships between tribalism, national identity and democracy, in light of her most recent book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. I found it fascinating, and felt it raised a number of timely and important questions. I found Dr Chua’s analysis rather badly oversimplified a couple of things, but the broad strokes of her analysis struck me as surprisingly accurate, and got very deeply at subjects that I’ve been struggling with, on and off, for a very long time on this blog and elsewhere.

In short, based on what I heard from her interview, her understanding is broadly Aristotelian: we are political animals. Our political and group-forming nature is grounded in those groups that are closest to us in the animal sense. In short: we form tribes. On rare occasions – and this happens particularly when empires form – we can form what Dr Chua calls supergroups: strongly cohesive social bonds of civic loyalty which transcend and interpenetrate our tribal loyalties, while still allowing these tribal loyalties to flourish at a subordinate level. She sees this strongly in the American identity particularly. Immigrant groups – Irish, Italians, Chinese, Slovak, Mexican, Hmong, Somali – have historically been able to maintain intense connexions with their historical identities while at the same time being in equal measure intensely patriotic to the overarching identity of ‘American’. She contrasts this sharply with the notion of identity prevalent in nations like France and China, which do not meet the second requirement of being a supergroup. France, she says, has a very strong overarching civic identity, but it maintains this at the expense of the historical identities of its immigrant populations. In order to be French, one must speak French, look French, act French – and that includes no outward public displays of religiosity.

Being a supergroup, Chua argues, has its strengths. It also has a glaring weakness. We are a supergroup that is based on an ideology: that of democracy. In order to maintain our supergroup identity, we place an overweening faith in that ideology, and that leads us to underestimate and misjudge the strength of tribal loyalties elsewhere. She sees this particularly in our foreign policy. As brutal as they were, the British and the French were nonetheless effective colonialists and imperial administrators, precisely because they put ideological convictions to the side and used the attractions of tribal identity to pit disparate groups against each other and thus position themselves as indispensable to the maintenance of civil order. Our imperialism is not marked by such depth of understanding of group loyalties, but instead by a kind of blind faith.

Instead, our blindness to tribal loyalty has led us into making some ridiculously wasteful, cruel and pathetic blunders. Chua argues that American pro-capitalist policy in Vietnam triggered a mass surge of support for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, not because there was any particular love for Marxist-Leninist thought ideologically among the Vietnamese people, but instead because our policies favoured a very small tribal clique – the Hoa 華 – who controlled a vastly disproportionate amount of the industrial wealth and business interests in the country. Our understanding of our involvement in Vietnam as a grand ideological struggle between communism and democracy gimped our strategy in the long run, because we had basically outsourced the œconomic structures under our control to a small, well-connected, urbanised (and resented) ‘market-dominant minority’ in the country. Chua argues further that we misjudged the threat of the ‘domino effect’ occurring, because we had misunderstood the relationship between North Vietnam and China, and assumed them to be ideological partners rather than historical rivals.

She gave a similar diagnosis of Iraq and Libya, coming down firmly against the interventionist line in each case. The ideological posturing of the Bush government, and the blind faith they placed in proceduralism and elections, exacerbated the old ethnic and religious-sectarian resentments in a way which alienated us even from Iraq’s own sæcular democrats. The result was a long, bloody and protracted period of sectarian warfare that undermined decades of painstaking political work by Arab nationalists like Dr Pachachi.

Chua’s diagnosis for our current identity-political struggles and rise of tribalism, as I understood it from the interview, was a reinvigorated civic nationalism. This sounds great to my ears, but her articulation of it left a little bit to be desired. After all, what Chua had described in her section on supergroups was a kind of ideological faith which had underpinned America’s overarching civic identity while allowing subordinate cultural identities to flourish. If her following analysis is any indication, clearly that isn’t going to cut it anymore, by itself.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been struggling with nationalism here – sometimes decrying it, sometimes supporting it, sometimes drawing distinctions. It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve been paying attention to other forms of what Chua would call ‘supergroup’ formation, and why I was a little frustrated with her interview and the narrowness with which she approached the topic of supergroups. We have examples of non-imperial states that have formed Byzantine-style supergroups: my two favourites, obviously, are Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Heck, even Great Britain back in the day was such a supergroup.

One of the great benefits of monarchy is that it provides a basis for civic identity that is neither ideological, nor tribalistic, nor charismatic-dictatorial. This is what formed the basis for British and Yugoslav identities (to start with). Yugoslavism began as a civic-monarchical loyalty to the House of Karađorđe, but morphed after WWII into a shared identity forged around a common experience of œconomic democracy. (In truth, there was a certain degree of continuity between the supporters of Yugoslav monarchy and the Partizans, though die-hard loyalists of each are loath to admit it.) Czechoslovak civic nationalism, on the other hand, found its ideational basis in a left-distributist understanding of bioregionalism, as articulated by its single most influential mind: that of Antonín Švehla.

Ironically, too, Chua might have drawn benefit from a bit more finessed read on China’s own history. There was an effort – successful for a time – to forge a supergroup identity under the Qing monarchy. This was partly owing to the monarchical structure, and partly owing to the gently-critical reformist Confucian ideology that was regaining its lost popularity under the Qing emperors. Likewise, today, it simply won’t do to ignore the supergroup-forming tendency in China, or to write it off (as too many media outlets simplistically do) as so much window-dressing. The dialectic between ethnic Han identity and the state ideology (which is officially multi-ethnic) is real and should be accounted for.

These are minor nitpicks, though, in what was otherwise a remarkably impressive interview. Dr Chua very rightly diagnoses and decries the shift on both right and left to form new tribal identities, and wants to usher us instead back toward a more robust, shared civic awareness. And she’s right to suggest two things that will help do so. The first is to acknowledge our past ideological lacunæ, and adopt a humbler attitude both toward the power of democratic proceduralism and toward the outside world. The second is to acknowledge the corrosive effect of vast and widening œconomic inequality on our civic life. She doesn’t have a single silver bullet to any of these problems, but to her credit, she’s intellectually humble enough not to pretend to. I may have to pick up her book. And if I like it, I may pick up her past ones as well.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post Matthew. China is indeed a multi-ethnic society, but those ethne are not impossibly distinct from each other. that is the vital point. They are all East or Central Asian peoples, they have very long shared histories spent in the same region of the globe, and most of them have their own connection with a specific territory, a part of China which is their own. In other words, the realities of history, culture and land mean there is the potential for Uighur and Manchu to relate to each other tolerably if not always cheerfully.

    Contrast that with the universalist delusions of the USA, a recent and highly artificial construct animated by Calvinist cant and Enlightenment abstractions. This curious farrago has lead the American order to identify itself as a parody of the New Jerusalem; the result has been an escalating chiliasm, a determination to draw every tribe, culture and creed inside America’s borders at the same time as America invades the rest of the world. What natural unity can prevail between all these groups, which contain representatives of all humanity? Absolutely none. The official state cult of ‘freedom’ and its mediation through consumer capitalism can best be seen as a ghastly substitute for cultural unity in the same way that a hefty dose of Oxycontin is an escape from reality. But an oxy hits wears off, and tribal identities are not so easily erased. Indeed, the very repulsiveness of the official religion of progressive hedonism is only apt to encourage alienation from the American state.

    Any attempt to revive civic nationalism in the USA is therefore doomed because there is no longer any grounds for the shared cultural identity which is the necessary basis for a functioning society. All that will be left is raw and unadulterated state coercion. In that respect, the Know-Nothings really had a point. It was not that Anglo-Celtic Protestant culture was superior, but it was at least culturally coherent. The purposeful obliteration of particularity betrays nothing so much as contempt for human nature.