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.

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