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'").

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