Saturday, April 30, 2011

Who made them powerful? (WOF)

Chua starts her discussion on indigenously African, market-dominant ethnicities with an in-depth look at the Kikuyu, the largest and wealthiest indigenous "tribe" in Kenya. There's some vagueness from Chua about when exactly the Kikuyu became an economically dominant force in Kenya. She notes - "Before colonization, Kikuyu territory stretched from Nairobi to the slopes of Mount Kenya" implying they had some influential power (not necessarily economic, however) prior to colonization (Chua, 105). She soon after adds, however, "as early as the 1920s, while the country was still under British rule, the Kikuyu emerged as a disproportionately urban, 'capitalist' elite among Kenya's indigenous tribes" (Chua, 105). The unclear wording ("emerged") manages to both implicate colonial rule for introducing capitalist inequalities into a pristine pre-colonial Africa (Chua shies away from overt references to "noble savages") but avoids directly blaming colonial authorities and the Kikuyu themselves for the economic inequalities.

As she moves the discussion forward into the "post"-colonial era, Chua begins overtly blaming government policies, however, showing that she will blame African politicians for inegalitarian economic policies, but not colonial governments. She specifically blames Kenya's first African president, Jomo Kenyatta, for having "adopted ethnically biased economic policies blatantly favoring the Kikuyu" most notably the "transfer to the Kikuyu large tracts of the fertile, cash-crop-producing land formerly controlled by whites to the exclusion of other groups" (Chua 105 ; Chua, 105-106). Here we have the example of a continuation of colonial period inequality continuing beyond the dismantling of the colonial state, by changing hands into a dominant economic group. Chua discusses the facts of colonial inequalities enforced by Europeans dryly, noting contested histories about which indigenous groups were most persecuted, but with minimal attention to the exact means of oppression. Her references to colonial inequalities are only understood as explanations of the origins of post-colonial inequalities. She emphasizes the failures of African-controlled states in a way she does not emphasize European-controlled ones.

In short, her discussion on the origins of indigenously African ethnicities which dominate markets largely ignores pre-colonial inequalities (which is a painful mistake given the centuries of inequality between Hutu and Tutsi, to name a better known example), perpetuates ideas that there is a colonial origin to all major facets of African society (which centers the discussion on European actors), but holds a double standard between colonial and post-colonial governments that to some extent trivializes the unfair practices of colonial administrations while harshly analyzing the inequalities administrated by indigenous African groups (which is just an overt apologetic for colonialism). She repeats nearly every major narrative about Africa that many Africans see as neo-colonial and destructive - that they had no agency or history before colonization, that African history is many about colonial activity and indigenous responses, and complaints that "post"-colonial governance is failing and needs to be regulated by outside sources.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The generic colonialism and the generic African (WOF)

Chua begins her fourth chapter, "The 'Ibo of Cameroon': Market-Dominant Minorities in Africa," far from Cameroon, with brief allusion to the generic colonialism. As Chua describes-
"The problem [of communal economic inequality] is starkest in southern Africa. In country after country, a handful of whites engorged themselves on natural resources and human labor, creating enclaves of spectacular wealth and modernization, surrounded by mounting, justifiable hatred among the indigenous black majority" (Chua, 95).
It's good that Chua openly condemns the past colonial administrations in southern Africa, but she does so in a manner that's generic - equating the experiences of all "locals" with a single type of oppression. She quickly moves into examples, thankfully, to move us out of a broad and unspecific idea of "Africa". Unfortunately, in the particulars, Chua's recurrent emphasis on empowered groups. Her first case study, Angola, tracks the experiences of the Portuguese colonists - quoting an entire page from Ryszard Kapuściński's famous account of the last Portuguese huddling in an airport, preparing to leave Angola, now that it was no longer theirs. Chua helpfully adds, after the quote, the reassurance that "Most of the Portuguese go out safely" only as an afterthought also saying that the Angolans quickly saw their nation "disintegrate into a civil war of unspeakable brutality" (Chua, 96). From this description, Chua briefly touches on Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, where she merely distinguishes that the white enclaves remained intact - with the same supposedly unfortunately conflict between the colonized and the colonizers waiting to happen.

In a new section, Chua goes into greater detail about the remaining enclaves of white colonists (or their descendants) scattered throughout southern Africa, primarily through talking about a particular Boer family she personally knows. Through this she examines the very important distinction between the Afrikaners and English whites, and even briefly mentions the somewhat enfranchised Asian and "Colored" (mixed race) minorities. A perhaps unintentional message is that the groups comparatively high within the South African racial hierarchy are diverse, defined by internal conflicts, and otherwise complex characters. The clear omission of indigenous (or less indigenous) blacks, however, seems to place them outside of such a category - they aren't market-dominant and (coincidentally?) Chua doesn't analyze them as potentially having loyalties to a different group than their "race" as constructed by outsiders. She's enabling the colonial definition of the "native".

Chua eventually progresses into closer looks at Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Namibia as well, but again, the "black" population is treated as uniform, homogeneous, and otherwise without individuality, compared to white enclaves that are contrasted with each other regularly and repeatedly defined by minute differences in original European nation and relationship with outside nations (namely the UK and US). The only example of any such comparison is a brief comment on the Herero, a tribe that the Germans nearly exterminated in putting down anti-colonial revolutions during the aptly named Herero War. Chua simply notes that, during colonial exploitation in Namibia, "Germans, who starting in the late 1890s turned the dozen or so major ethnic groups constituting black Namibia into forced labor - almost annihilating the particularly rebellious Herero tribe" (Chua, 100). The only inclusion of differentiation among what the Europeans decided were "black" Africans is in the context of a response to colonial actors - there's no sense of localized experience in Chua's initial analysis without a stronger emphasis on the distinctions between the white colonizers and the black populace. For now, Chua places the only distinguishing between black Africans in a context that obscures that with the distinguishing between colonial agents and colonial subjects.

Next week, we'll move onto Chua's section on African intermediaries - the only distinct group among black Africans she discusses in depth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hegemony (WOF)

Chua's chapter on Russia and its (sometimes Jewish) oligarchs is perhaps her most convoluted yet. Beyond her initial point that class and ethnicity interact and sometimes become indistinguishable for certain actors, she seems determined to characterize individuals differently, depending on their race and class. We saw this written large in her previous chapter on Latin America - where white elites were largely excused from their classist and racist behavior and the poor, predominantly ex-slaves of African descent and highly marginalized indigenous peoples, became a faceless mass which Chua chided for challenging (quite calmly in most examples) ethnic and class bigotry.

That simplistic division doesn't work as well for Chua in the case of Russia, it seems. When a historically alienated ethnic group - Jews - become the elite over a white population, Chua seems more willing to explain their behavior and appearance in terms of their ethnicity, and other wise reduce them to that. Because of that, she contrasted the gentile Russian oligarch's furniture with those of his Jewish counterparts - and called the Jews tacky. As the chapter progresses, she moves from typifying the Jewish experience into discussion of the individual oligarchs, but continues to cast Jews in a negative light. She unquestioningly quotes a description of one of the businessmen, which calls him "the apotheosis of sleaziness" and "Slight and balding, with lovingly manicured hands and a fondness for larding his conversation with Latin phrases" (Chua, 87). The common antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as corrupt (sleazy), unattractive (slight, balding), unmanly (manicured hands), and soft intellectuals (fondness for Latin phrases) apparently never occurred to her as a reason to disregard that source.

In spite of this, Chua seems unable to view the oligarchs as dangerous individuals. Although willing to cast Jews as an ethnicity in a poor light, she views the oligarchs as having rightfully won a monopolistic control over Russian industry. She writes "They may have been ruthless, but they were plainly smart, unsurpassed entrepreneurs who built their empires from scratch" (90). She seems to excuse or at least tolerate the violation of consumers' trust (and in some cases Chua notes, murders necessary to avoid government regulation or taxation), viewing that as an unfortunate, but acceptable means to the end of wealth.

Likewise, concerns from the poor (gentile and Jewish alike) that approach the oligarchs as ruthless elites rather than ruthless Jews are completely lacking in Chua's analysis - a fact she doesn't seem to notice, as she doesn't comment on it. Instead, Chua focuses on the rise of neo-Nazis and other antisemitic groups using the oligarchs as a rhetorical point. She thus paints the Russian people of being incapable of separating the fact that the oligarchs are Jewish from the fact that the oligarchs are ruining many Russians lives. One has to wonder, however, if her failure to frame the argument in such a way suggests that even she can't explain the hatred of the oligarchs without thinking of them as Jews.

The result is intriguing. Attacking class inequalities is treated as synonymous with overt racism, and therefore unacceptable. More subtle racism, such as thinking of Jews in highly stereotyped ways, however, apparently flies under the radar, and escapes notice. The desire, as it seems, is to prevent Russians (or any people) from attacking the class structure in exchange for limiting the excesses of racism. This seems to be a brilliant hegemonic narrative - that we can solve classism or racism, but not both.

(Next week, we start chapter 4, "The 'Ibo of Cameroon'").

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Matthew Yglesias makes an interesting point about how technological improvements change the specifics of market pressures for jobs. This is specifically pushing towards certain types of service jobs which can neither be automated or "off-shored". What's worryingly lacking from his analysis is a good look at how current aspects of state policies actively undermine large numbers of people for those type of jobs. With declining funding of vocational education as part of many nations' anti-recession "fixes" a lot of potential service-providers won't be taught the necessary skills to thrive in this economy. Likewise, with the economic problems having given nationalistic groups a political edge and already prevalent ethnic biases in service jobs, it won't be surprising to see people of color, women, and other marginalized groups as failing to proportionately take part in this new economy.

According to the Economist, multiple critics of the anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been killed.

Apparently, Republicans are determining tax policies from biblical parables. Unsurprisingly, they conclude that the Bible agrees with what they already believed. What might that suggest about their use of the Bible?

Jonah Goldberg, of course, wrote something pretty clearly internally inconsistent. First he states that high crime rates are driving the black middle class away from the District of Columbia. Then he says that dropping crime rates are pulling white professionals in. And then he hilariously misunderstands how 1950s racism worked.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Ruthlessness of Jews (WOF)

Between the historical analysis of Jews throughout Eastern Europe and an examination of the actual "oligarchs" in question, Chua has a brief section titled "The Rise of the Oligarchs" which emphasizes how some Jews prospered during later Soviet shortages and eventually leveraged black market positions into membership among the post-Communist economic elite. She gets into the details with one anecdote from a Ukrainian Jew:
My uncle, for example, had one of those underground firms. He manufactured shoes on his own. Later he sold the shoes either at the weekend flea market or through an 'off-the-books' arrangement with a state-owned shoe store. What my uncle did was considered illegal. Yet everyone liked him and depended on him. There would have been no shoes on the shelves without people like my uncle (Chua, 83).
Conspicuously missing from this account (and from Chua's analysis of this account) is the role of black markets in exploiting consumers by demanding high prices for basic necessities (say, shoes) and establishing a bribery-based economy. Those impacts are far-reaching, with the former draining average consumers funds and the latter establishing an inefficient and unresponsive economic climate. This is one of the few cases were Chua curiously doesn't present Jews as (always) profiteers from economic instability. As soon as Chua takes over narration a more negative tone seems to return, as Chua explains that one of the Jewish "oligarchs"
started a ticket scalping agency while a student in the economically stagnant early eighties. Friedman [the "oligarch"] paid Moscow university students to wait in line to buy theater tickets, which could then be bartered on the black market. Although ticket scalping existed long before Friedman came on the scene, he was the first to organize it into a well-disciplined business, employing 150 scholars - on full salary if they waited overnight, or half salary if they queued up in the early morning - and 'managers' from every university department. Friedman, as a kind of controlling shareholder, would meet once a week with his managers to review their business plans (Chua, 84)
While clearly imply a coercive relationship with young employees during a time of economic hardship, the negativity is muted, strangely. This seems to play odds with Chua's politics. Her writing repeatedly suggests a thinking that Jews can't do anything but be oddly successful, but even she can't rationalize the excesses of the economic elite in post-communist Russia. She seems enamored with the idea of the black market - something raw but contained, where the Jews (and others) could reach their full potential without having it spill over into the larger society.

With that, she laments over the intrusiveness and corruption that has become a part of working for the new elite, one of which she notes "installed surveillance cameras in every office to monitor his new employees [...] one third of them weren't working hard enough, so he fired them" (Chua, 87). Where in Latin America inequalities were treated as either historical or passive (and above all, social rather than economic), in her analysis of Russia she writes of Jews that do monstrous things, but still seems enthralled by their capacity to do such things.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


It's time for people to start paying attention to the methodologies behind the polls they cite, or the implications of arguments they make, because failing to do so is going to get people killed. The interim government in Egypt is making demands about the new constitution, Libya is on the verge of more violence, and the government of China has deleted all Chinese blogs that mention the word "jasmine" (referencing the various revolutions in the Islamic world). This isn't just a phenomenon distant from its American and European critics - now with calls for live ammunition to be used on the Wisconsin protesters. Being sloppy about who deserves ("Western" or UN or American or whatever) support and who doesn't is going to get people killed - and arguably already has, in the form of massive arms deals with various dictators.

There actually are people making insane, disturbing claims about these recent events. Fred Clark on Slacktivist has already done lengthy and complex responses to John MacArthur's statements in this interview, but his basic argument bares repeating here. He states-
I just think the upshot of all of this is more instability, more chaos, you can’t make a transition to democracy this way; it’s impossible. After all, who said democracy’s the best form of government? No matter what the form of government is, the Bible doesn’t advocate anything but a theocracy.
That is literally the reasoning behind many of these American and European critics of the various protests in the Middle East and elsewhere as of late. They see the Islamic world as incapable of producing anything other than an at least partially theocratic government system - which either threatens them (among the more libertarian critics) or threatens their competing theocratic systems (as with MacArthur). The inevitable conclusion of this line of thought is that secular government (even if dictatorial) is ordained as a back-up when an ideal (ie: not Islamic) theocracy is the only alternative:
I’m not saying Moammar Gadhafi is the best leader, I’m not saying that Mubarak is a great, benevolent and just leader, not when he’s got $70 billion in his own pockets at the expense of people. But what I am saying is that whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.
This is the best of all possible worlds, so they say. God has blessed the Muslim world with brutal dictatorship, so they say. Naturally, this argument has to admit that it doesn't care about what life is like under such circumstances, with MacArthur explaining, "I don’t think religious freedom is even an issue in the advance of the church. If you look at China, I don’t know what the numbers are, tens of millions of believers in China when it was forbidden." He not only supports dictatorships but openly acknowledges that this requires caring less about the quality of life for... well... everyone. Or rather, as I'm sure he thinks about it, it matters more what type of life you lead with relation to the next life than what type of life you lead with relation to the present. MacArthur goes beyond that though and explains that he even prefers some persecution, because he sees it as a purifying force:
Look at Japan which was open and free and you’ll search forever in any city in Japan to find one Christian. So democracy, freedom of religion or persecution, if you had to pick your poison I think you might want to pick persecution because you get a purer church.
Note the subtle allusion there - you pick your poison, choosing between persecution (of some in determinate group of people, if not everyone) and freedom of religion. Freedom of religion isn't just compared unfavorably to persecution - it's seen as something bad and without the benefit of creating zealous would-be theocracy supporters.

Beyond these ideological problems, there's been misused statistics to back-up many of these claims. Some of this is deliberate, but in some cases the fault lies with flawed analysis or explanation within supposedly impartial polls themselves.

Take the example of this series of Pew Research polls, which contains this lovely graph:

a chart

Can you spot the problems? There's an assumption that what varies between these countries is merely people, not the forms that Islam has taken in their life, let alone their political culture. Egypt and Pakistan are distant countries, but they're united by (until recently) both having an openly American-backed secular dictatorship. In those conditions, political reforms in the name of Islam are quite attractive - they're responsive to local needs, legitimize themselves with appeals to justice, and are often more democratic than the secular status quo (even if they are radically less democratic than other secular options). This contrasts with places where the secular status quo is more democratic (namely Turkey) or Islamic social movements have had distinct negative impacts on the way of life (namely Lebanon, where Islamist attacks resulting in the recent Israeli occupation). It's telling that these surveys never asked these various Muslims why they have the opinions about political Islam that they do.

But beyond those blatant flaws, there's clear methodological flaws that went into the creation of these figures. As the article explains (if you follow the asterisk!):

an explanation

I suppose that might word, for those that see Islam as playing a large role (if that's bad, then it's because Islam is playing a negative role - whereas if that's good, then it's because it's doing good things). But, I don't follow the train of thought when it comes to analyzing those that see Islam as playing a small role. If Islam is playing a small role (supposedly), and that's a bad thing, how can you rule out that it playing a role at all is what respondents have a problem with? Why assume that problem with that is that Islam is playing an inadequate role? All this emphasis on the metaphorical size of Islam in certain places seems to just obscure what various Muslims see Islam as even doing.

In the end, this entire section of these polls seems framed around not actually asking the Islamic world what they want, and then inferring from what little questions were asked very broad determinations. That's irresponsible. What's more, cavalier representation like that is what's getting people killed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Innate Jewishness (WOF)

One of the most disgusting aspects of racism is how it strips its targets of agency - making them into animals, automatons, or some other mindless subhuman. Amy Chua dances uncomfortably close to that type of argument during this weeks installment of World on Fire.

This becomes apparent when she moves past a brief analysis of Jewish history into direct study of the situation in Russia using a conversation with a New York financial analyst and Jewish Russian emigrée, Sonia. Chua recounts, "But wasn't it strange, we persisted, that so many of the oligarchs should be Jewish? 'You know Jews!' Sonia laughed. 'They gravitate towards business!'" (Chua, 83). A Jewish predilection is treated as something almost biological in the conversation and throughout this section. Sonia previously explained, in contrast to her later statement, "'These oligarchs - they are 95 percent Russian and only 5 percent Jewish. They are fully assimilated, products of the Russian environment [...]'" (Chua, 83). It doesn't matter, goes this claim that Chua repeats, what degree of socialization is shared between the Jewish population and the gentile Russians - they're still driven towards business at unequal levels. Their existence as Jews somehow overrides everything else, rendering them nothing but a stereotype of a Jewish financier.

Subtler variations on this appeared throughout the proceeding section on the history of Jews (focusing almost exclusively on European Jews). It begins by noting "Jews do not appear to have been particularly economically successful during antiquity - but that's about the last time in their history that they weren't, at least when left alone to pursue their livelihoods" (Chua, 79). The effect of this is that all economic successes of Jews are cast as due to their Jewishness, while all failures are treated as the result of restrictions placed by other actors. The effect is strange, since it reduces Jews to a narrow stereotype but also excuses any economically hostile behavior on the part of the "Jewish oligarchs" since their behavior is only part of their nature.

Behind all of this is a strange lack of curiosity as to why Jews became economically successful but only in certain times and places. As Chua notes,
During the Middle Ages, despite recurrent anti-Jewish restrictions and persecutions, Jews prospered visibly and disproportionately as merchants and middlemen and eventually as international traders, particularly between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands (Chua, 79).
She does not go on to even remotely explore why Jews were well suited, or at least better suited than most Christians or Muslims, for trade. I'm not an expert on this, but I would theorize that the social networks created by the diaspora would be useful, not to mention that capacity to live as a clear ethnic minority. The lack of even a cursory analysis, however, makes the Jews into an innate force - destined for economic dominance if unfettered by restrictions. Instead of fully addressing that issue, Chua goes on to examine how the less restrictive environments of Eastern Europe allowed Jews to briefly become quite economically successful, with the notable exception of czarist Russia. On that outlier, Chua concludes,
[...] restricted to the Pale [areas of permitted Jewish settlement], subjected to economic discrimination, and victimized by recurrent anti-Jewish plundering and violence, most Russian Jews at the turn of the twentieth century lived in cruel poverty (Chua, 81).
Likewise, in the more recent Soviet era, Chua similarly states, "[...] no one (outside the Politburo) got billionaire-rich in the former Soviet Union, and Jews were no exception" (Chua, 82). In both cases, the economic power of the Jewish population is purely related by Chua to restrictions or liberties placed on the Jews by the gentile governments, making the Jewish experience essentially an expression of gentile tolerance or hostility.

If you accept this argument, its hard not to fall into the trap Chua has set for herself. She mentions, at the end of the historical analysis,
During the 1990s, seven cutthroat entrepreneurs, six of them Jewish, came to control the overwhelming part of Russia's newly privatized economy [...] they became billionaires by playing the game more ruthlessly and effectively than anybody else during Russia's free-for-all transition to capitalism (Chua, 82).
If you accept that Jews are innately ruthless, then you accept that they must be constrained. Chua's established another self-defeating argument on faulty premises - namely that Jews have one nature: brutality.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stereotypes (WOF)

Chua's introduction to this section on Russian Jews plays to a fair number of stereotypes about Jews. Undoubtedly, Chua would defend this as not projecting false qualities onto her subjects, but as honest description of what they're like. The first problem with this is the question of why some of these descriptions are precisely necessary. She decides to include seemingly unconnected details that (apparently) point out the pronounced Jewishness:
The seventh oligarch - the only "full-blooded ethnic Russian" among them - is Vladmir Potanin. ("While the other oligarchs were still decorating their offices with leopard skins and mirrors, Putanin was buying graciously battered English antiques," writes Freeland.) The six Jewish businessmen most frequently called oligarchs are: Roman Abramovich, Pyotr Aven, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Friedman, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Chua, 78).
Why is that middle sentence necessary? Does their choice in furniture somehow reflect on their Jewishness, validating her claims even?

She then proceeds to even describe her Jewish husband in equally over-used terms, writing, "Not all Jews, of course, react like Jerry. When I first mentioned to my husband, who is Jewish, that six out of seven of Russia's wealthiest tycoons are Jewish, he raised an eyebrow. 'Just six?' he asked calmly. 'So who's the seventh guy?'" (Chua, 78). While she's clearly giving detail and diversity in her description of the Jewish community, she automatically treats them as Jews, before mere humans. She describes even her husband in this terms, saying that he's a Jewish counterexample to another Jewish man, before saying he's just a counterexample to the man. She marks his Jewish identity before his humanity in some ways, permitting herself to say these things in such stereotyping ways, even though she loves this man.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Post Script

Least any one get the wrong idea from my last post, Muslims aren't somehow fundamentally different from Christians. As a recent group of attacks in Indonesia, on three separate churches and a small group of "heretical" Muslims of the Ahmadiya sect, shows, Muslims throughout the world can indeed be motivated towards collective violence and all of the awful things many "Westerners" seem to think they're inherently inclined towards. This, however, doesn't somehow invalidate the democratic and pluralistic and egalitarian goals put forth during the Egyptian Revolution - which literally occurred on the other side of the world from these reprehensible attacks. This idea of collective guilt is repulsive, that somehow Muslims (like many other dis-empowered groups) somehow all belong to an exclusive club and are linked to the actions of all the others.

Likewise, many voices from the "West" are hypocritical in denouncing Muslims for things they haven't done or accusing them of some sort of incompatibility with the "West." If you want to go to a nice, big protest-party somewhere in the United States to show you stand with the Egyptian Revolution, check up on this page, which has a list of upcoming events of such a nature.

The Clash of Civilizations

I recently had a discussion about the "Clash of Civilizations" so the issues it raises have been jumping around in my head over the past few days, and recent news certainly hasn't helped. For those who don't know, the "Clash of Civilizations" is a theory, popularized by Samuel Huntington, that basically argues that there are several major groups of people (the civilizations) founded on various values and conceptions of reality (namely religious identities) that are fundamentally incompatible with each other. His basic premise takes religious identities and then credits them with various ideological and political outcomes in areas where those identities predominate - Protestantism and (European) Catholicism apparently solely produced capitalism, while Orthodox Christianity paved the way for Stalinism, Oriental Orthodox Ethiopians established their own poverty, and Muslims are prone to violence and mindless orthodoxy.

Immediately, some problems become clear - a lot of his divisions are more strongly defined by his perceptions about ethnicity and regionalism than religion, in spite of his claims that his theory relies on religious identity and ideology. He lumps the whole of Latin America together (with the curious exceptions of Haiti, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guyana), in spite of it's overwhelmingly Catholic (and otherwise Christian) presence, and likewise treats sub-Saharan Africa (obviously subtracting Islamic North Africa and pre-Colonial Christians in Ethiopia) as some how fundamentally different from the Catholic-Protestant "West" even though there's no clear religious distinction to be drawn. More confusingly, Papua New Guinea is included with the West, while these other colonial era Christian converts are mysteriously not.

(It's also worth pointing out that his categorization of Eritrea as "Muslim" and Ethiopia as "independent" reflects that he had to explain their various conflicts and casts doubt on his use of statistics, as both have a slim plurality of Oriental Orthodox Christians. In other words, he's blatantly manipulating his categorizations to explain events.)

There are other problems, but the main driving goal of this argument seems to be a categorization of various groups within "Christendom" (that is, the Latin American, "Western," Orthodox, African, Ethiopian and Haitian civilizations) and a contrast between those groups and the Islamic world (which, tellingly is given none of the loving attention to internal schisms and muddled ethnic and religious identities that the Christian world gets). This argument is clearly ripe for demagoguery - from any angle. It's basic premise has been used by various Islamists to rationalizing violence against Christians and Hindus according to Benazir Bhutto, as much as it plays a role in promoting "Islamophobia" globally. It's constructed according to false premises, with an aim to promote conflict.

At no point has this ever been as clear to me than in the past weeks. Today, a revolution reached fruition in Egypt - Mubarak resigned. Regardless of what you've heard about this revolution, there's solid evidence that it's open to female participation in ways that blatantly contradict most Islamist demands on sex roles and it's overtly religiously pluralistic. It's a demand to reform Egypt, which hopes to restructure the country into a democracy, and with some sort of economic justice. It's a movement that violates, over and over again, what the "Clash of Civilizations" and other "just-so" explanations tell us about the entire Islamic world.

Meanwhile, the "Western" world, the civilization that is allegedly founded either on democracy, pluralism, and equality, or founded on principles that make those necessary and natural conclusions, has been rocked by a serious of responses to this revolution in Egypt and similar news regarding Muslims. In the United States, Glenn Beck denied the authentically democratic and pluralist nature of the Egyptian revolution, and argued that it was part of a global scheme, involving a rebuilt caliphate (who on earth gets to be the Caliph then?). In short, because these protests are occurring in the Muslim world, they are incapable of being actually democratic. They must be socialist (which Beck tends to use to mean authoritarian), or Islamist, or some other ideology (if not several) that are presented as alien to the "West." Why? Because these protests are in Egypt, in an Arab and Muslim country, a place supposedly not merely ideologically different but fundamentally and irreparably so. Muslims cannot produce democracy, because they are not the "West".

In the midst of this Egyptian Revolution, various European figures made alarming statements. British Prime Minister David Cameron declared state multiculturalism a failure, and while his tacit supporters are correct that he was not directly accusing any particular group of various misdeeds (including kidnapping) his suggestion is clearly aimed at British Muslims. Even as anti-immigrant groups held a protest in the same city, at the same time as his talks, he clearly was emphasizing the "shadiness" and "untrustworthy" nature of Muslims. The Economist perfectly describes his point, based on the same idiotic terms as the "Clash of Civilizations" argument, "Mr Cameron thinks multiculturalism has drifted from a tolerance of other cultures towards a tolerance of other value systems, some of them hostile to Britain." Islamic beliefs, by nature, are on some level incompatible if not hostile to "Western" states, is the claim he is making.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has made similar statements. What exactly she meant is somewhat confusing - is she describing the existing policies as failing (since, as she mentions, they're based on a polite fiction that immigrants will leave eventually) or is she suggesting that the very concept of multiculturalism is failing? She seems to be trying to have it both ways, since in her speech she immediately explains that some degree of openness is necessary, for trade. She doesn't apparently see human rights, however, as a workable argument like commerce. Yet she decided to give this speech in spite of the fact that alarming numbers of Germans want to restrict the practice of Islam (in addition to other opinions about targeting religious minorities). The logic seems to be similar to Cameron's or Beck's: Islam is somehow out of place in Germany, where other ideologies and religions prevail, or by some means must be made to prevail.

Whether you're English, American, or German, you need to be prepared to explain (if you think this way) why you think this way. How does this revolution, grounded in concepts that the "West" has laid exclusive claim to for centuries, somehow not what it is?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Acceptable Targets (WOF)

Looking back, Chua's argument concerning Latin Americans was muddled and prone to several problems. She would write descriptions of the victimization of some groups only to mid-sentence suggest that an entirely different dynamic was going on with no introduction-
[T]he uneducated, disease-ridden, desperately poor but numerically vast Indian- or African-blooded majorities of Latin America experience little or no economic benefit from privatization and global markets while finding themselves suddenly filled with contradictory new materialistic and consumerist desires (Chua, 75).
This entirely new element to the situation - feelings of manipulation by the market and to some extent even psychological conditioning by it - wasn't previously even hinted at. It wasn't explored in detail like the violent themes Chua perceived in various populists. But at least it was mentioned, just this once.

This is also a great example of how Chua hedges the causes of communal poverty. She repeatedly writes of privatization and cruel treatment often without mentioning who is privatizing Latin American infrastructure or treating various ethnic groups with cruelty. She refers to the privileged actors as corrupt, but rarely accuses them of specific crimes (especially contemporaries).

In spite of all these problems, this chapter roughly seems to strike a workable, if biased, balance. The following chapter, "The Seventh Oligarch," on the other hand, begins with a paragraph describing Russian privatization, which contains the sentence:
Instead of dispersing ownership and creating functioning markets, these reforms had allowed a small group of greedy industrialists and bankers to plunder Russia, turning themselves overnight into the billionaire-owners of Russia's crown jewels while the country spiraled into chaos and lawlessness (Chua, 77).
A little bit further down the page, Chua discusses these tycoons with a colleague who is preparing a report on them:
Something about the ruthless, looting, self-dealing kleptocrats-turned-oligarchs described in his article had struck me, and I wanted to run it by him. It seemed to me, I said to Jerry, that most of the key players in the privatization and eventual economic takeover of Russia were Jewish. Was it possible?

"Oh, no" Jerry replied instantly, with a frown. "I don't think so."

"Are you sure?" I pressed him. "If you look at their names-"

"You can't tell anything from names," Jerry snapped impatiently, clearly not wanted to discuss the topic any further. [...] As it turns out, six-out-of-seven of Russia's wealthiest and (at least until recently) powerful oligarchs are Jewish [...] Yet Jerry, who was there in Russia, himself Jewish, and moreover writing an article meant to be provocative, wasn't willing to touch the Jewish question (Chua, 77-78).
It seems like gentiles across the South American continent who lock entire communities in poverty are merely corrupt, while a small group of Russian Jews are not only "oligarchs" but also "greedy," "ruthless," and "kleptocrats" for doing essentially the same thing. The sudden shift in tone is remarkable and disturbing, especially considering the veiled implication that other Jews, even those like her colleague who wrote an expose on the immoral opportunism, are somehow contributing to this.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Comparing Latin America (WOF)

We've now reached the page-long conclusion of Chua's analysis of centuries of Latin American history. It begins -
"Obviously, Latin America differs from Southeast Asia in countless respects. Because of extensive miscegenation, ethnic and racial lines in this region are not nearly as starkly drawn, and Latin America has been able to avoid the extreme ethnic animus and violence seen in Southeast Asia" (Chua, 75).
Already we've run into familiar issues - Chua's inconsistency with known facts, Chua's inconsistency within her own analysis, and Chua's seeming self-absorption.

To argue that Latin America has been devoid of ethnic animus and violence (presumably in recent history) is demonstratively false. Governments have sponsored or tolerated genocidal campaigns against various indigenous groups, most notably in Brazil and Peru, frequently motivated by oil exploration or seizing desirable land. Before these more recent incidents, as I brought up in the last post, anti-indigenous violence went hand-in-hand with Cold War anti-communist massacres.

To argue that Latin America has been devoid of ethnic animus and violence contradicts much of Chua's statements on Latin American history. She has admitted that the creation of 'Latin America' as we know it began with conquests, gunpoint conversions, enslavement, and other hallmarks of the violent discovery of the Americas. She recalled the strict rules of desirable marriage among the European-blooded gentry and the various resentments of mistreatment by those below or beneath that socio-economic class.

To argue that Latin America has been devoid of ethnic animus and violence compared to Southeast Asia seems to refer preferentially to Chua's own experiences. Chua and other members of her elite and ethnically Chinese family have been attacked due to their ethnicity and class in the Philippines, which she seems to obliquely refer to here. That violence is real to her, unforgettably so, in a way that anti-Maya death squads somehow are not. The attacks she endured are tangible and extreme, in her view, unlike centuries of ethnic cleansing and economic debasement in Latin America. I think we're seeing (once again) an inability to feel empathy with certain groups. Chua doesn't need to think her experiences are invalid, but she does need to acknowledge minimally that others have suffered as well.

But, ignoring these issues, we've concluded the chapter on Latin America. Now we get to start next week on Russia.

Monday, January 31, 2011

And still more on Egypt

Coverage is continuing much to the dismay of the Egyptian government:
In the second day of defiance of a military curfew, more than 150,000 protesters packed into Tahrir Square Sunday to call on President Hosni Mubarak to step down. The mood was celebratory and victorious. For most, it was not a question of if, but when, Mubarak would leave.

Military tanks have been stationed at entrance points around the square with soldiers forming barricades across streets and alleyways. In another departure from ordinary Cairo life, people quickly formed orderly queues to get through the army checkpoints. Soldiers frisked people and checked their identification cards. One soldier said they were making sure no one with police or state security credentials could enter.

Reports are widespread that many of the looters in Cairo are, in fact, remnants of the police and state security forces that were forced into a full retreat during Friday’s mass street revolt. In addition, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners were released from prisons in Fayyoum and Tora. Many believe it’s all part of an organized campaign by the regime to create lawlessness in the city in a last gasp attempt to maintain its grip on power. The headline of Al-Masry Al-Youm today blared: "Conspiracy by Interior Ministry to Foment Chaos."

More here.


You might have lost track of some important events over the past few months that were barely covered on televised media:

December 9, 2010 - Washington Congressman receives death threats.
January 20, 2011 - Aryan Nations attempts to bomb MLK parade in Spokane.
January 25, 2011 - Trial begins for Northern Idaho militiamen who plotted to blow up local infrastructure.
January 27, 2011 - Rush Limbaugh critic receives death threats.
January 28, 2011 - Arizonan neo-Nazi's trial for an attempted bombing begins

These are no longer exceptional incidents. This has become background noise.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

More on Egypt

Anyone in the world who wants to protest American sales of tear gas to Mubarak's regime in Egypt, can sign this petition.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt today, where tomorrow?

The seemingly populist revolution in Tunisia appears to have touched a nerve in Egypt, where it's brought out an entirely different political culture than most Americans see depicted. "Western" perception of Egypt seems rooted in the Six Days War and the Nasr Presidency - with Egypt as a nation trapped in a religiously-imbued nationalist fury, typified by extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood. The existence of several notable Egyptians within contemporary international islamist organizations hasn't helped this.

But as some have pointed out, the basis of this populist uprising, at least in Egypt, is avowedly secular and what little involvement there has been by organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood has come after decades of negotiations which have largely resulted in them abandoning violent tactics. Likewise, others have suggested that recent anti-Islamist events have played an instrumental role in creating a secularized Egyptian identity. In all, I think we can be emphatic that this is not an Islamist event, at least not currently.

You'll have to weigh your conscience on this, but I signed this petition urging the US to at least get nominally involved against the government. I think there's valid concern that the US actually getting involved might damage the credibility of protesters (like in Iran), but I'm not convinced that it's quite the same situation - Iran is well known for perceiving itself as highly unique and highly victimized by American interests, in ways that I don't think Egypt can compare. Still, a gamble.

(EDIT: Live coverage from Egypt, here)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Forgotten Guatemala (WOF)

Something that's been bugging me since we dove into the analysis of Chua's section on Latin America is how focused it has been on only some examples - namely Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru - in spite of her explanation that Bolivia and Peru are only two of the four Latin American countries with a majority indigenous population (what degree of indigenous ancestry that constitutes was unmentioned, just like Haiti and Brazil for being primarily non-white as well). More conspicuous than the lacking analysis of Ecuador is the omission of Guatemala - this is a state removed from the presidential campaigns in the harsh valleys of the Andes or the favelas of Brazil. It's an example in a completely different part of Latin America, which should be included and analyzed if Chua's ostensibly universal observations are in fact universal.

For reasons unrelated to this project, I started reading a collection of ethnographies, Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation which included a piece by Debra H. Rodman entitled Forgotten Guatemala which explored Guatemalans reactions to decades of massacres, civil war, and violence. Strikingly, the analysis of the conflict calls into question the supremacy of Chua's observations about the racial and economic hierarchy in Latin America. As Rodman describes it, during the nineteenth century, the Guatemalan hero Raphael Carreva "[a] Ladino [a person of mixed ancestry] from the Eastern Highlands, [...] led a conservative counter-revolution that was crucial to Guatemala's nation-building and that secured Ladino power from the white elites of Guatemala City" (Hinton, 196*). In other words, Chua is not describing a new phenomenon of various Latinos of color contesting white dominance, at least in the case of Guatemala. Instead, Ladinos, those with highly intermixed racial ancestries, have long dominated Guatemalan society. As Rodman explains, military recruitment during the Civil War followed general "policies, which included the recruitment of elite Ladinos as military officers" (Hinton, 194). In some ways, Ladinos disprove Chua's assertion that Whites constitute the market-dominant elite throughout the whole of Latin America.

In others, however, they challenge the very idea of a simple dichotomy between an elite, "market-dominant" minority (Whites, Ladinos) and a ethnically-dissimilar and impoverished majority (Indios, Mulattos, etc). In short, non-elite Ladinos exist and form an integral part of the social system. During the same periods of willing recruitment of privileged Ladinos into officer positions, Rodman catalogues "the coerced conscription of indigenous and poor Ladinos as foot soldiers" (Hinton, 194). The decades of violence in Guatemala reflect various dynamics - elite Ladino paranoia regarding potential lower class Ladino revolutionaries, anti-Maya sentiments, and at times fusions of the two. Chua's point rests on the assumption that ethnic groups throughout the world (including Latin America, and therefore Guatemala) frequently if not inherently constitute economic classes. The in-fighting within the Ladino community in Guatemala emphatically contradicts any belief that a fused economic and ethnic identity is more common, more natural, or more likely.

In light of this, you have to wonder why Chua's largely skipped over Guatemala.

(*All citations are to Forgotten Guatemala as reproduced in Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nuances (WOF)

Before delving directly into a more theoretical discussion of the class and ethnic dynamics at work in both Southeast Asia and Latin America, Chua takes one last brief look at Brazil. She writes-
This [Brazilian rap] movement is openly 'un-Brazilian' in its relentless attacks on the country's racial inequality [...] Almost overnight, the hot group Racionais - which recently won a number of prestigious Brazilian MTV awards - has popularized expressions like '4P' 'poder para o povo preto' ('power for the black people') and 'preto tipo a' - literally 'class A black' but referring to blacks who are proud and fight for their rights. (Chua, 74)
Chua almost seems to suggest that criticism of racial inequality is fundamentally traitorous, although the scare quotes around the term 'un-Brazilian' lend her an air of secondhand information, that she's merely referencing how others view them. Yet, a paragraph later she again seems to imply that it's strange that a group promoting racial equality would view 'class A blacks' as those who believe that they're humans with a right to be proud. She nearly implies that it's unusual for any one to think of the best blacks are those with pride, almost as if blacks should be ashamed, of some mysterious something. Again, it's unclear who Chua is suggesting is surprised by or unaware of these developments. Does she mean that she thinks it's surprising? Or Brazilians? Which Brazilians?

Chua later notes that "A recent poll revealed that a startling 93 percent of those surveyed in Rio de Janeiro now believe that racism exists in Brazil" (Chua, 75). Why is this startling, given, as Chua herself says,
In songs like 'The Periphery Continues Bleeding,' 'Just Another Wake,' and 'Surviving in Hell,' rappers aggressively expose social injustice against blacks, emphasizing that only 2 percent of Brazil's university students are black, that three out of four people killed by the police are black, and that every four hours a black man dies violently in São Paulo. (Chua, 74)
And yet, a paragraph later, she claims that "the reality so far is that racial consciousness remains surprisingly muted in Brazil" (Chua, 75). It seems as though Chua is attempting something nuanced, but has only produced something contradictory. Part of that complexity, which Chua didn't address, was class. As she argues, "the myth of Brazilian democracy [is] still broadly defended by many Brazilians spanning different social class" (Chua, 75). Yet all of the dissenting voices claiming that a racial hierarchy pervasively controls their lives in Brazil, at least that Chua quotes, are either favela-dwelling poor or 'black' individuals born into the lower class. All of the individuals mentioned by Chua asserting that the myth, even if fractured, remains true, alternatively had some hallmark of higher class status. She mentions a graduate student (after citing how few black Brazilians are present in higher education) who argued that the popularity of these same hiphop artists with white university students suggests a more open and democratic society with regards to race. There was also the case of a dark-skinned upper class woman who refused to identify as black, largely because of her class status.

Ultimately, Chua seems very ready to push for defining this disagreement over what Brazil is and what it means to be Brazilian into racial terms, when the reality seems more nuanced. High class status clearly plays a large role, just like how race is de-emphasized in importance in upper class circles in many countries. Yet, even Chua seems to admit that racial status in Brazil often influences economic standing. This disagreement about racial hierarchy relates to placement within that hierarchy, but also seems largely mediated through class status. Honestly, Chua seems to hurry through this brief section, trying to get to the more strictly theoretical discussion, skimping on these nuances.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

All at once (WOF)

These past three weeks I've written about three separate problems with Amy Chua's analysis of Latin America - her personal entanglement in the conflicts, her uneven attention and detail to various groups, and her ambiguity about how present these dynamics actually are. Before we move on, I want to hammer in how interconnected these issues really are.

She identifies as coming from a wealthy ethnic minority, and has a lot of difficulty looking beyond that. Because of this her writing pushes their comparatively poor majorities into something defined primarily in opposition to those market-dominant minorities. They become a shapeless, nameless mass. In this instance, the indigenous population, the imported slaves of African descent, and the various interracial groups constitute a supposed homogeneous ethnic population defined by their either impurely European or non-white ancestry. How different indigenous groups or non-white immigrants (most notably the African-indigenous slaves) regard hardly enters the description.

This narrow viewpoint then makes it difficult for her to think of the conflicts she does analyze in terms of class, making it much more preferable to talk about ethnicity. She can't look beyond her own viewpoint, so the Marxist and New Left Latin Americans who don't seem to consider ethnicity nearly as important as class, or other political groups that don't seem to buy (either at all or as rigidly) the equation that Amy Chua does (between higher class and more "white" ancestry). She will acknowledge that her points are actively contested by many of the people she's writing about, but she won't respond and assert her view with evidence.

In short, she hasn't written an adequately detached report which has influenced her characterization of different groups, to a degree that she doesn't seem to even register their opinions or the facts when contrary to her own. Nowhere in her book is this as clear as at this point, where she transitions from background history of Latin America to contemporary analysis. Her first great example of this emerging social dynamic is Alejandro Toledo:
Peru's Amerindian Alejandro Toledo, who swept to landslide victory in the 2001 presidential elections, offers the best of examples [of a majoritarian populist politician]. 'You're one of us - win for us!' shouted thousands of wrinkled Amerindian women in bowler hats, weeping as Toledo campaigned through the streets in a truck emblazoned with the ancient Inca symbol of the sun. Reversing five hundred years of ethnic degradation, Toledo - who many insist resembles Pachacutic, the Incas' greatest ruler - highlighted his indigenous origins, wearing Indian garb, calling himself el cholo, and appealing explicitly to Peru's dark-skinned majority 'who look like I do'. [...] Alejandro Toledo's approval ratings have plummeted to 32 percent, as it has become increasingly clear that his pro-market policies will not immediately improve the lives of Peru's impoverished majority. (72-73)
Chua describes Toledo and his supporters as being "Amerindian" a term that's both (largely) out of date and highly unspecific. Chua does give us a light description of the cultures supposedly in conflict - Inca-identifying indigenous groups as symbolized by the sun symbol and the comparison to Pachacutic, but she skimps on the really important information. Where are these rallies, even one of these rallies, being held? The whole of Ecuador serves as backdrop for generic indigenous cultural rebellion, with no villages, no individuals, no quotes from these weary indigenous supporters.

Unlike the wealthy and predominately white Bolivians and Uruguayans mentioned, sometimes very briefly, by Chua, these supporters are given absolutely no identifying features that don't relate to their ethnicity - their bowler hats, their political allegiance. The only one unconnected to that, their wrinkles, seems to imply class status as much as age. The others were given hair colors (the blond millionaire from Uruguay) or professions (the lawyer from Bolivia) or even names.

This lack of detail seems to suggest some distance between Chua and these subjects. Unlike the economic elites she personally interacted with, she appears to have not actually been at these rallies, or have attended but with little interaction. There's no attributed quotes or biographical details, just brief and impersonal description.

This potent mixture of ignorance and confusion seems fertile ground for nebulous conclusions. On page 72, Chua treats Toledo as the epitome of the trend she sees developing in Latin America (and throughout the world) but a mere page later, on 73, she mentions him as a counterexample, without comment on how her argument still stands. She admits that in spite of his populist rhetoric with regards to ethnicity, she catered to the economic elite, against his base's economic interests. There seem to be multiple problems with the raw description Chua uses, but furthermore her use of the description to develop an argument frankly doesn't convincingly work.