Friday, July 17, 2009

Where certainty ends and zealotry begins (page 10)

Amy Chua isn't just writing about a process that can occur. She's, allegedly, talking about something inevitable:
Introducing democracy in these circumstances does not tranform voters into open-minded cocitizens in a national community...
Wait, I thought the point of your book was the combination of laissez-faire capitalism and democracy radicalizing and created ethnic tensions, not drawing from them? Maybe I'm picking at something that's not here, but it seems like Chua is writing from personal experience, the situation of the Phillipines, where lack of regulation and the rise of a Chinese economic elite proceeded later democratization. Getting back to the main point:
Introducing democracy in these circumstances does not tranform voters into open-minded cocitizens in a national community. Rather, the competition for votes fosters the emergence of demagogues who scapegoat the resented minority and foment active ethnonationalist movements demanding that the country's wealth and identity be reclaimed by the "true owners of the nation". (10)
Look at that language - "fosters" not "can foster". Not only is this strangely absolute (and if there's one absolute that holds firm it's that absolutes rarely stand the test of time), but she seems to be making herself bizzarely vulnerable. A single counterexample can destroy her entire statement here, and thereby damage the credibility of the rest of her thesis-meets-book. One, sole, singular example of, Catholics (the rich minority) and Protestants (the not-so-rich majority) in the Netherlands over the past few centuries not killing each other or much of anything on par with Chua's predictions. Before she or any one else complains, she uses other primarily religious shifts as examples several times - the Catholic-Protestant splits in Ireland and the Balkans most memorably and pertinent to this issue.

A few sentences later, however, she's backtracted some:
When free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash. (10)
Ok, so it's only 99.9% of the time. That's even harder to prove, since the existance of examples or counter-examples means nothing. Now we need ratios. Why didn't Amy Chua look into this, instead of using backdoors like "almost invariable result", or better yet, not have gone down the road of absolute certainty in the first place?

Meanwhile, back in her slightly more calmly worded paragraph:
When free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash. This backlash typically takes one of three forms. The first is a backlash against markets, targeting the market-dominated minority's wealth. (10)
Hold up a second, isn't that the preferable response? Isn't that what should happen? Or are you suggesting that disproportionate levels of wealth should be encouraged? She goes on to give us the first in depth example since her autobiographical one concerning the Phillipines:
Zimbabwe today is a vivid illustration of the first kind of backlash-- an ethnically targeted anti-market backlash. For several years now President Robert Mugabe has encouraged the violent seizure of 10 million acres of white-owned commercial farmland. As one Zimbabwean explained, "The land belongs to us. The foreigners should not own and here. There is no black Zimbabwean who owns land in England. Why should any European own land here?" Mugabe himself was more explicit: "Strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy!" Most of the country's white "foreigners" are third-generation Zimbabweans. Just 1 percent of the population, they have for generations controlled 70 percent of the country's best land, largely in the form of highly productive three-thousand-acre tobacco and sugar farms. (10-11)
(Lest any one get the wrong idea, I don't support Mugabe. But I don't agree with the position presented here either - welcome to a non-Manichean worldview!)

Frankly, Mrs. Chua, I don't give a damn. The transformation of most of the third world's agricultural fields into commodity plantations (virtually always with either non-edible products or not terribly useful foodstuffs like tea, sugar, coffee, and the like) was the basis of colonialism. This is eighth grade world history, honestly. I'm sure with a degree from Harvard you could grasp at this much better than I -- but what I'm trying to say here is that those plantations (and thereby their owners) were not only symbolic of the brutal colonial regime, but of the continuation of the economic conditions which typified that regime. I know you bring up Latin America collectively as an example later on, so let's get this out of the way, so I don't have to define this when we delve into it: Land redistribution isn't inherently bad. Just say it over and over. Some slacktivist might help make it make sense.

Fundamentally, I don't think Chua sees the disconnect. 1% of the population controlling 70% of the land isn't democracy. And given that they've controlled it over generations, that's also not a free market it any sane definition of it. That's an enormous amount of power undemocratically (and for that matter against the principles of the free market) stolen, yes nearly a century ago, but still stolen. Worse yet, the small group that stole that source of enormous wealth and used it to create a racially-based supremacy over the majority for much of that past century. Now that the majority has turned on that small, violently despotic minority, the rest of the world has withdrawn anything that could be perceived as tacit support, out of misplaced loyalty with that small upper class.

Mugabe is thug and a fool, but ultimately his success comes from over a century of brutal misrule by foreign powers and their descendents - who let Zimbabwe tear itself apart rather than accept that their reign was undemocratic, unprincipled and unfair.

This is the second time Chua has failed to adequately explain the very situation she has decided to write a book about.

(You get to find out the other two "forms of backlash against market-dominant minorities" are tomorrow.)

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