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.

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