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.