Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Contraindications (WOF)

As previously hinted at, Amy Chua doesn’t deny that Latin Americans have historically intermingled across racial and ethnic boundaries to an unusual extent. In fact, she mentions one Bolivian who stated “everyone [in Bolivia] is mestizo, everyone has some Indian blood” (71). Her first real case study of the market-dominant minority that she brings up has such serious holes in it, that she can’t help but quote people claiming that the very dynamics she sees are unfounded, impossible, and dependent on a different social reality than the one in Latin America.

Even Chua herself draws conclusions contradicting her bold claims, like:

Political, even populist movements have been organized around class, almost never ethnic, lines. And because in election after election, despite coup after coup, political and economic power always remained in the same light-skinned, ‘illustrious-blooded’ hands, ‘apathy and fatalism’ among the indigenous populations spread and deepened (72).

Chua can reasonably analyze contradictory evidence, and especially if she wants to make claims about global facts, she needs to do so. Yet, she makes these statements without explaining how her arguments stand in spite of these antithetical testimonies about reality. Initially, the various colonists had superior weaponry to compensate for their smaller numbers. They had better technology for organizing conquests and mass enslavement. Soon, however, they had shifted to using social institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, as an agent of control. Now, however, class seems to be their only remaining weapon against the indigenous populations, who have revolutionized the Church and redressed technological inequalities. The endless question is how, how have these large majorities of indigenous, mulatto, mestizo, or otherwise non-white ethnic groups failed to threaten these colonial or neo-colonial powers until now?

Instead of looking into that, she attempts to claim her arguments are predictive, hinting at a shift only beginning now. She blames the decline of class-centered Marxist thinking with the end of the Cold War (failing to predict the surge of the New Left in Latin America a few years later) and the new information age media (and increasingly access to televised broadcasts) for reducing class consciousness. In its place, an ethnic consciousness has arisen, according to Chua. She says-

Latin America’s poor masses are being ethnicized, increasingly through radio, television, and most recently the Web. They are being reminded […] that they are Aymaras, pardos, Indians, cholos, whatever identity best mobilizes great numbers of frustrated, long degraded, dark-skinned masses (72).

Aside from the weird equivalency given to indigenous identities, whatever indigenous identities, (that came up last week) there’s an admission there that even the social groups in conflict are defined by ethnicity, their clashing is defined by class. This may be Chua’s point, but she doesn’t really address why anyone should care about a shift that seems mainly rhetorical.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fully human (WOF)

One of the first things you learn about humanity is that we’re not equal. Or, rather, that we’re not treated like we’re equal. The supposedly more desirable positions in the hierarchy are called many things – expressions of privilege, dominance, power – but they’re all fundamentally inegalitarian and undemocratic. This inequality forms a social system (again that goes by many names, hegemony, kyriarchy, patriarchy) which infects almost every corner of life, even the smallest most meaningless minutia.

There’s a variety of ways people get sorted into acceptable or unacceptable camps, more than I can really list, but it’s important to remember that these constructed categories of “good people” and “bad” are forced definitions. They’re not reality, but a social system that has contorted our perceptions, and ultimately even ourselves. That’s one of the most essential parts of these seemingly ubiquitous systems, they majorly impact perceptions. They determine which groups of people are perceived as having individualities, having identities, having a claim to humanity.

Many discussions fall victim to this thinking, inside and outside of academia. This is visible in evangelical discussions about how evangelicals won’t be raptured because they have the unifying trait of being saved, but that those left behind are a single, cohesive category – those outside, beneath, below them. Chua, unfortunately, seems to have similar difficulties fully characterizing one group (at least in this chapter), and surprise, it’s the poor!

Having argued that class categories are excellent predictors for ethnic categories, Chua seems to then spend a great amount of time in this Latin American section detailing the complexities of which specific ethnicities get included in the larger, almost racial category of “white”. She stresses that even in colonial times the colonial forces had various ethnic old world origins:

That the Spaniards were supposed to be ‘pure-blooded’ is, to say the least, ironic. Among the numerous groups that, by the Middle Ages, had inhabited and commingled with each other on Iberian soil were Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Arabs, Berbers, and Gypsies (58).

Furthermore, there’s family history’s influence on how securely “white” a particular lineage was considered. In effect, within a few centuries of colonization, pure-blood Spaniards were distinguished based on whether they had been born to white Latin Americans or white Europeans:

And throughout Latin America, landowners preferred their daughters to marry penniless peninsulares (arrivals from new Spain) rather than wealthy criollos (American-born Spaniards). The fact of being born in the Old World was supposedly good proof of being ‘pure white’ (59).

As Chua describes it, later immigrants from various locations (not just Spain) profited from their lack of Native American ancestry, and managed to install themselves securely within the “white” category. She uses the example of Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico:

Needless to say, Slim has no Amerindian ancestors. As elsewhere in the world, the Lebanese community in Mexico is very tight: Slim’s late wife was also Christian Lebanese, and, reportedly, most members of Slim’s extended family have married other Christian Lebanese; virtually all are extremely wealthy (63).

In short, Chua describes in detail the intricate facets of several white communities in Latin America, providing specific immigration histories and detailed genealogical descriptions. She gives them specific, historical identities. She makes them people. Her writing on the various other racial categories in Latin America could not be more different – they are an amorphous, non-descript mass. She describes perceived white intellectual and cultural superiority in opposition to various, briefly undefined others:

In Mexico, mixed-blooded mestizos were for years prohibited from owning land or joining the army or clergy. In Peru, even intellectuals believed that ‘the Indian is not now, nor can he ever be, anything but a machine.’ […] In Argentina, a popular writer wrote in 1903 that mestizos and mulattos were both ‘impure, atavistically anti-Christian; they are like the two heads of a fabulous hydra that surrounds, constricts and strangles with its giant spiral a beautiful, pale virgin, Spanish America’ (58-59).

Intermediary categories like mestizo and mulatto are equated with pure-blood Native Americans, to say nothing about how an entire category of (unwilling) immigrants – slaves of African origin and their descendents, mulatto and “negro” alike – are outside of the category of ‘white’ while quite clearly not indigenous inhabitants to the region. It’s perfectly reasonable to define them as a broad social category of those that survived white rule rather than lived under it, but that doesn’t warrant writing virtually nothing of their internal identities. The few cases where Chua does this always reflect another facet of white dominance, rather than actual issues of identity negotiated between these two groups. She writes-

Not surprisingly, according to Mexican writer Enrique Krauze, Indian women desire to have children with mestizos – ‘not to betray their race but out of a desire to spare their progeny a bleak future’ (59-60).

Essentially the only time that relations between two non-white groups are discussed, it naturally relates in total to the white hegemony. In this book, there’s little description of what these groups think or how they see things, and the little we see overwhelmingly concerns the white hegemony, white categorization. Her writing denies them a self.

At the bare minimum, she outlines three separate groupings (mestizo, mulatto, and indigenous) but seldom draws the kind of sharp distinctions between them that she described within the white community. Instead, as per her previous quoting of Krauze, she highlights how these groups converged, even as she stresses the diversity within the “white” community. Even more damning, in my opinion, is how Chua extremely rarely mentions any indigenous group by name:

Mexico’s roughly 9 to 10 million indigenous peoples, about one-tenth of the population, have the highest rates of illiteracy and disease in the country. In the states of Chiapas, just thirty-five years ago, Amerindians were forbidden to walk on sidewalks or look lighter-skinned Mexicans in the eye (59).

Or, more blatantly,

The psychological effects of the Spanish Conquest were crushing and lasting. ‘The death of the sun – the strangulation of the Inca,’ writes sociologist Magnus Mörner, was a ‘profound shock, reinforced later on by the beheading of Tupac Amaru.’ Contemporary indigenous dances still reflect the profound ‘Trauma of Conquest’ (64).

The few specifics are quotation, and introduced without context. The effect that this has on this section is incredible. It’s as if indigenous peoples were before European contact unbelievably monolithic, and to a large extent remain so, according to Chua. They don’t have specific identities, competing languages and ideological conceptions of reality. There aren’t Quechua-speaking Incas and Aymara-speaking Carangas who have battled and negotiated and co-operated and conflicted for centuries (and to some extent, continue to do so). There’s only a drab, generic, grey mass of indigenous peoples who exist below the colonial government, beyond the social category of white. She seems to buy into this narrative that they’re unknowable, anti-Christian, shadows of humans defined merely by what they aren’t – white.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Personal Boundaries (WOF)

When we last heard from Amy Chua (so long ago, so long ago), she had just jumped headfirst into description of the socio-economic hierarchy that dominates in most of Latin America. This was a sudden turn from previous emphasis of more commonplace examples of ethnic conflict – the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland – and Chua’s personal experiences as a member of the “market minority” in the Philippines.

Chua pretty quickly establishes Bolivia as the focus of this section, as the last couple pages of analysis showed. She abruptly pulls away from Bolivia after a scant five and half pages of analysis, replacing it with more general description of Latin America. Reasonably, the section on Bolivia sets up a transition to broader statements, explaining “Bolivia is one of only four countries – the others are Peru, Guatemala, and Ecuador – in which Amerindians still constitute a majority or near-majority of the population” (56). In the next section, she applies a similar framework elsewhere though. She moves the focus to conflicts between large populations of mestizos (or similar groups of mixed ethnic background) and white Latinos, specifically dealing with dynamics in Mexico.

This starts another movement into the “biting off more than you can chew” territory that Chua seems just unable to avoid. Considering Chua has already equated the basic dynamics at play in the Philippines today, the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s, and Northern Ireland during the Troubles, her adding ethnic-tinged economic conflicts in Bolivia and Mexico at the same time is just a small part of the bigger problem. There’s an element of reductionism here that seems outright dangerous – claiming that ethnic conflict is so predictable seems foolish and hubristic. The price for failing to accurately or even completely describe ethnic conflict, when you’ve made such claims and have been widely accepted as correct, is that warning signs get missed. Preparations, negotiations, and so on begin late. People unnecessarily die, because the conditions were judged as not likely to produce conflict, at least of this nature.

In any case, what honestly seems to motivate Chua’s movement of the focus away from Bolivia and towards Mexico, is her personal experiences. Nearly every social science around has trouble with the issue of working out the proper roles for the scientific observers in the mechanics they analyze, and there’s something to be said for involving yourself in what you study. That said, Chua previously defended ethnic Chinese Filipinos, like herself, not just as people with a right to exist, but with a degree of ambiguity regarding criticism of their behavior towards less fortunate communities. Although she pointedly mentioned her discomfort with accepting the poverty of other ethnic groups, she doesn’t seem to clearly draw the line between ethnic cleansing and economic egalitarianism. After all, that seems to be the whole point of her book – that they’re difficult to untangle, but she seems to accept that, in spite of her reservations, rather than protest it. Instead she seems to condone the behavior, almost as if the book is more a rationalization of her own inaction than an academic or political argument.

Where before Chua largely defended her family, showing how invested she was in her own analysis, Chua now, with the case study of Latin America, doesn’t break out of that personal bubble. Most of her analysis concerns Mexican friends of hers, similar to how her description of Bolivia centered on her connections in the country. She introduces some of the white-dominated plutocracy, beginning with one, Alejandro Duclaud Gonzalez de Castilla, who she met while both worked at the privatized Mexican telephone company, Telmex. This all seems to indicate similar issues of conflict of interest, which Chua seems to confirm. She first presents the allegations of corruption against de Castilla (who she refers to by his first name) as dubious, then normalizes them, calling insider “profiteering” business as usual in the “developing world”. She admits that she and others are “viewing emerging market privatization through a rose-colored lens” but she continues to believe that this project, for which she worked, “was on balance a good thing for the Mexican people” (60). Clearly, she’s the best person to ask about these issues.

Next Time: the Latin American examples reveal yet another problem with Chua’s arguments.