A Review by Wajahat Qazi
The United States as a “supergroup” , that is, a group which is not predicated upon a singular ethnic or group identity , with its predilection and penchant for viewing the world in monofocal “rational” terms and view of “progress”- the adoption of democracy and free markets as the antidote to conflict(s) and panacea to other ills and blights – has , in a consistent pattern , failed to see the obvious: the world beyond and even within is organized around “political tribes”. This is the cardinal insight and central , organizing theme of Yale academic , Amy Chua’s eminently readable , lucidly written book, “ Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations”. Be it the Vietnamese fighting the Unites States, with their essential grouse against Chinese imperialism and their ethnonationalist struggle(s) against the United States during the Vietnam war, or the Taliban, with a clear ingress of Pashtun nationalism synthesized with political Islam and its raging(and successful) insurgency against the United States, or the abyss that Iraq plunged into post the Second Gulf War, and even as far as Venezuela in Latin America, where populism blended with anti Americanism, led by the late charismatic Hugo Chavez, came to rule the roost, the United States either elided over the obvious or became “group blind”, in terms of the objectives and reification of its foreign policy.
“Groups, according to Chua, not only shape who we are and what we do. They also distort our perception of objective facts” citing experimental studies of groups. “Groups membership affects judgment through the pressure to conform […] so much so that an individual who is part of a group descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization, “ writes Chua quoting the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon, who invented the term, “crowd psychology”. This, in turn, “spurs a tendency to demonize and dehumanize the outgroup […] and “anaesthetizes the empathy one might otherwise feel”, Chua asserts citing psychologist cum neurologist, Ian Robertson.
The irony, states the Yale professor, is that while “tribal politics” might be the norm elsewhere, the United States is not immune to it. Within the country, there is, according to Chua, a chasm between the tribal identities of the haves and the have nots. This is perhaps best reflected in the election of “ a highly improbable candidate with no political experience to the country’s highest office “ by attacking the establishment and leading what was called a revolution”. Yet again, corresponding to the United States’ elite foreign policy establishment “failure to understand group realities that matter to people abroad, they have been blind to , or dismissive of , the group identities that matter to most ordinary Americans, writes Chua noting that , “ at the core of American tribalism is race”, which is especially portentous and threatening because of profound demographic changes that are searing across the United States and the attendant “fracturing tribalism” puts America as a “supergroup” in jeopardy, according to Chua. The most potent example of this trend is that, “ for the first time in US history, white Americans are about to lose their status as the country’s majority”, asserts the Yale professor. While some whites welcome this “browning” of America, there is a groundswell of reaction to the trend which Chua calls “ Whitelash”, translated into white anxiety and marginalization, which , to an extent, is justified because of the white working class’ exclusion from jobs and education, declining life expectancy and so on. “The result is that working class whites have among the lowest upward mobility rates in the nation, “ writes the lady professor. While the economic anxiety is real, there is also “an intense cultural anxiety” among the whites, according to Chua, which makes them feel threatened.
All this has been exacerbated by both the American Left’s and now Right’s “appropriation” of identity politics, states the lady professor. “ For the Left, Chua states, identity politics is a means to confront rather than obscure the uglier aspects of American history and society”. But, this very approach besides being tendentious, “leads to ever proliferating group identities demanding recognition”, according to Chua. The American Right is not and has not been immune to identity politics (or political tribalism) whose striking feature has been a politics “ that has mobilized around the idea of whites as an endangered , discriminated against group”, writes Chua, who goes on to add that “ in part, this development carries forward a long tradition of white tribalism in America”.
Added up, identity politics and its profusion has also meant that “ while black Americans , Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans and many others are allowed-indeed, encouraged to feel solidarity and take pride in their racial or ethnic identity, white Americans have for the last several decades been told they must never do so [..], but people want to see their tribe as exceptional , as something to be deeply proud of ; that’s what the tribal instinct is all about”, according to Chua. The result is polarization and division of the United States.
All, however, according to the Yale professor, is not gloom and doom. Towards the conclusion , she sees grounds for hope and optimism in the United States where “ there are signs of people trying to cross divides and break out of their political tribes”, adding that when individuals from different groups actually get to know one another as human beings, tremendous progress can be made”. Injecting a note of caution and a plea here, Chua states that mere interaction , especially of the superficial nature, which can actually worsen group differences and division is not enough. What, according to Chua, is needed is “human engagement”. And, that “ remaining a supergroup” would call for people in the United States “ elevating themselves and viewing each other as fellow Americans, and collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with and hold together as one people Americans of all sorts.
Chua’s oeuvre is, at the risk of repetition, an eminently readable and an accessible book. It calls and draws attention to the nature of nationalism, ethnicity and alerts to the pitfalls of ignoring these potent and combustible themes and emotive abstractions, all denoueing and panning out in the United States contemporarily. But, while the book is perhaps beyond critique in terms of form and aesthetics, in some areas and domains, it flounders in the domain of substance and depth(the oeuvre sometimes reads like a counterinsurgency manual). Chua, at times, seems to merely delineate and analyse , than going into the philosophical well springs of the angst and polarization that defines the United States contemporarily. It is well and fine to attribute the ills that plague the country to “tribalism”, “ group instinct” and “identity politics” , but these are manifestations and symptoms of more deeper and profounder philosophical truths. In this sense then, Chua mistakes effect for cause, many a times in her exegesis. Moreover, while the critique on the “fixation on democracy and markets as the panacea to the world’s ills is spot on, Chua neither dwells on nor delineates other “unknown unknowns”. From this perspective, the Yale professor also appears to be fixated by developing arguments and taking a case study approach to merely prove her point. There is also an element of “bad science” that characterizes Chua’s penchant for reducing complexity to mere group dynamics. The reference here is to the experiments conducted that the good author delineates to illustrate her core thematic argument(s). She also does not analyze and narrate how power, polity and society relate to each other in a diverse country like the United States-an omission that can either be a lapse or does not fit in with her predilections. Geopolitics, the complexities of state and state behaviour, within and without and state interests are also ignored. Last, toward the conclusion, after a hardnosed analysis, (corresponding to her predilections and perhaps even biases that could be a legacy of her past works), Chua becomes mushy and sentimental. It is a great and laudable sentiment to root for human interaction , engagement as antidotes to political tribalism and its concomitants, but without policy prescriptions defined by prudence and “realities” of the world, overlaid by an approach whose feature(s) would be “ hard heads and soft hearts”, any other articulation amounts to a pious wish. All this is not to detract from the sharp intellect and academic brilliance of Amy Chua and denigrate her but to put matters into perspective. The book in contention must be read but only as one component and element of a holistic endeavour to understand what has gone wrong in and with the world, especially the United States.
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