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.