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.