Political Tribes by Amy Chua, Bloomsbury, 304pp, £14
Amy Chua, a lawyer and academic at Yale, is perhaps best known for her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about the joys of traditional Chinese parenting. The bestseller popularised the term “tiger mom” and inspired three separate television series. Married to a novelist and fellow academic, Chua could almost epitomise America’s liberal elite, and yet her ability to see both sides of identity conflict makes her an excellent popular narrator of human behaviour.
Her latest book returns to the subject of her earliest, World on Fire, which explored how democracy in much of the world leads to the persecution of “market dominant minorities” such as the Chinese in south-east Asia or, historically, Jews in Europe. Political Tribes views the problem of tribalism in America itself, and the country’s blindness to the issue at home and abroad.
The United States took over from the British as a de facto empire in 1945. Yet Americans were reluctant imperialists, in denial about their new role and strangely incurious about the world. As Chua puts it: “Great Britain’s acute group consciousness during its imperial heyday contrasts jarringly with America’s group blindness today. The British were minutely knowledgeable about, almost obsessed with, the ethnic, religious, tribal and caste differences among their subject populations.”
In contrast, American foreign policy is largely blind to tribalism and ethnic nationalism. For an imperial power, this is rather like a prison warden not knowing which gangs operate on their wing.
This was evident in Vietnam, where much “communist” resistance was motivated by nationalism, especially hostility to the country’s northern neighbour. Indeed, Vietnam’s Chinese minority, just one per cent of the population, controlled 70 to 80 per cent of the country’s commercial wealth, and so a lot of the rhetoric against “capitalists” was thinly veiled ethnic rivalry. Yet the US State Department remained convinced that the Vietnamese communists were in the pocket of Beijing.
This naïvety was even more woefully exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq, highly clannish societies with various tribal (as well as ethnic and religious) divisions, and extremely weak shared institutions. Yet President Bush saw them as potentially fertile grounds for democracy – in 2003 ludicrously comparing Iraq to Japan and Germany.
One has to wonder why an empire that could spend such vast fortunes on weaponry and state-building could not hire someone like Chua who had a little expertise in human behaviour. “In sharply divided societies,” she writes, “democracy often galvanises group conflict, with political movements and parties coalescing around these more primal identities. America has made this mistake over and over again.”
And yet the Americans were at it again in Libya under President Barack Obama, who uttered the platitude: “One thing is clear – the future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people … It will be Libyans who build their new nation.” But as Chua points out, “the Libyan people” hail from some 140 different tribes, and they did not come together to “build their new nation”. Obama would later say: “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected.” One wonders how much these experts were paid.
Yet this new tribalism increasingly affects America, too, a country with an identity supposedly beyond race. “Alone among the major powers, America is what I will call a super-group,” she writes, “one in which membership is open to individuals from all different backgrounds – ethnic, religious, racial, cultural. Even more fundamentally, a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.”
Perhaps … although in reality this is a recent development and, until the mid-1960s, American identity was de facto white and Anglo-conformity was expected. The idea of a post-racial democracy is a bold experiment and, just as white identity politics has been put beyond the moral pale, so the US has become crippled by a new type of tribalism – partisanship – with levels of hostility between Republicans and Democrats now much more extreme than racial animus.
Anyone who’s opened an internet tab will see how vicious these partisan divisions have become. Indeed, a New Yorker piece recently suggested there was a 30 per cent chance of a second civil war within a generation, although that seems like another example of the clickbait media which itself is pushing this conflict.
Chua writes, as always, in an accessible style and with great empathy for all sides. The book could have been longer and more detailed, and the proposed solutions seem fairly weak. But then perhaps there aren’t any and American optimism cannot overcome this engrained aspect of human nature. That, certainly, is what a British imperialist would have told them.
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