6.5.18

STRIKING THAT BALANCE.

My extended hiatus from social media has been refreshing, instructive, and I did get some serious reading done.  There's likely enough stuff going on to provide plenty of content for the next month or so.  We'll start with Book Review No. 9, getting back to an area of work I have neglected since mid-February, featuring Amy Chua's Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.  Her thesis is straightforward, laid out in the first paragraph.  "[T]he tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong.  It is also an instinct to exclude."  Or, as we would have it, "being receptive to mutually beneficial interactions with people who are in some way different also confers evolutionary advantages, and strategies that are safe for new adopters can be more robust than strategies that exclude all but old adopters"

What's bothering Professor Chua is that those tribal instincts have been present in places such as Vietnam and Iraq, where United States interventions turned out badly, and they might be emerging in the United States itself, where she characterizes the United States as a "super-group."  In her scheme, "a super-group is a distinctive kind of group: one in which membership is open to individuals from all different backgrounds ... .  Even more fundamentally, a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their sub-group identities.  On the contrary, it allows those subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity."

It is a shame that Professor Chua does not rely on social scientific work in constructing her argument: it sounds much like, yet differs subtly from, a long-standing view of the United States as fundamentally an ideological nation in which people enjoy a great deal of individual autonomy provided they adhere to the general principles of equality before the law written into the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  Or, again, as we would have it, "give these kids an America to buy into, and an America that buys into these kids, and we'll be OK."

Unfortunately, what she sees happening in the United States is a variation on the tribal politics she has previously studied elsewhere, in which a "market-dominant minority" (her term: it overlaps but is not identical with Thomas Sowell's "middleman minority") appears to be rigging the system or dominating commerce to its own benefit and to the disadvantage of others less fortunate.  Think overseas Chinese in Malaysia or Indian merchants in Uganda and now consider Chinese merchants in Vietnam, something that might have been on her mind for years, or Venezuelans of primarily Castilian origins.

Her argument suggests that a market-dominant minority might be defined by shared aesthetics, rather than shared religion (the Sunni running Iraq) or ancestry (overseas Chinese, Jews) and that might be what's happening in the United States.  Page 6: "America's elites today, especially progressive ones, often don't realize how judgmental they are.  They disdain tacky [c.q.] things, and, not coincidentally, those tacky things -- fake tans, big hair, pro wrestling, chrome bull testicles hanging from the back of a big truck -- are usually associated with lower-income Americans."

In typical United States fashion, though, membership in the Credentialed Elite is open to anyone who buys into the right ideas and rocks the right status markers -- Ivy degrees, wine cellars, hybrid cars, soccer -- although, she argues, that membership is being harder to earn.  Once more, as we would have it, "accidental hegemony and of social development being somewhat messier than any one policymaker or committee of policymakers could control."  Now mix a tussle among Normals and cosmopolitans with a changing demographic in which the old ethnic spoils system of the big cities breaks down, and conditions in the United States could get very bad, very quickly.  Or not, as she concludes with a number of anecdotes, from her own experience at Yale and from conversations with others, in which people make efforts to work with each other despite the differences that ought render their methodologies incommensurable or their differences irreconcilable.

The endnotes to Political Tribe might reward careful study.  Professor Chua is evidently one of Yale Law's public intellectuals: for all her writing over the years about tribal interaction, her academic website makes no reference to technical writing.  She has, however, consulted and made reference to technical work in social psychology and politics, and there might be opportunities for further research in engaging the controversies she leaves open.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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