Friday, August 17, 2007

Amy Chua: World on Fire

Author: Amy Chua.
Title: World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.
Publication: New York: Anchor, 2003, 2004 (with Afterword). ISBN 0-385-72186-2, 346 pages, indexed, paper.

The author is a law professor (apparently “liberal”) at Yale and recently she spoke on the McLaughlin Group. Her thesis, starting with the observation that the United States is overdoing it in trying to export democracy and capitalism at the same time to the third world (especially the Middle East) as if it were like doing an upload on a computer server, bears comparison with Robert Merry’s similar book, reviewed here June 6. But her observations seem more refined. She is particularly concerned that there is intrinsic tension between free markets and democracy, which can be resolved in an advanced country where the economic and political control is effectively spread around with programs like affirmative action, aggressive non-discrimination, minority participation, and some redistribution of wealth. This is largely the case in modern western states, more so in Europe than the United States. But in other parts of the world, ethnic or religious minorities often control the economy (sometimes the political apparatus) and create explosive resentments among the native underclass.

The pattern in quite varied around the world. Ethnic Chinese control several economies in Southeast Asia, even though China itself is emerging (reluctantly) from Communism and does not have a western market economy as we perceive it. In some cases, there are odd effects. Singapore is a prosperous city-state “ruled” effectively by Chinese (after managed into place by Britain). It has strict social, pro-family and pro-birth social mores that are sometimes cited as an example to support conservative notions of family values and seems free of normal corruption; yet some of the social policy could be related to a desire to remain the ethic group in power. She quotes Singapore's president Lee Kuan Yew as saying that Eastern cultural values regard family identity more important than personal individuality.

Latin America is interesting because of the various societies set up by the Spaniards and Portuguese, with “color consciousness” that bears comparison to American experience with race. Likewise, Africa has many examples of colonialism and apartheid (South Africa). The Middle East, with the Israel problem, makes an interesting comparison. She supplies an Afterword in the paperback edition that was written some time shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, when it was only beginning to become apparent how difficult it would be for the United States to implement its neo-conservative dream.

When you think of these global social programs as a whole, you come away with the notion that “fairness” is an important moral value, especially group fairness. Indigenous populations resent the economic and political control of “aliens” or foreigners, especially when they take the wealth for themselves. It’s easy for fundamentalist Muslims to blame the lifestyles of the West for “exploiting” Arabia for oil, and that gets to be elaborated into religious gripes about “infidels” occupying their Holy lands. Now, that really doesn’t do a lot of good, to blame the West for wrongs done 800 years ago – when the moral focus ought to be on how individuals behave today. (From a moral point of view, that is one of the things that do not make sense in all of the videotapes coming from Al Qaeda). It’s interesting that discussions of personal morality in the west today often assume individual sovereignty and the keeping of commitments that one has voluntarily entered into (like marriage), and avoidance of rampantly self-destructive behaviors. That theme comes across in the Dr. Phil show, for example. But the ability to share burdens at an individual level is certainly a moral issue, that is more often dealt with by religious faiths (including Islamic law) than it is in modern western political systems. That may change.

The Palestinian problem seems like a confluence of group and individual justice. Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza (and to some extend the original territory of Israel) involved taking away land from Palestinians by force and consigning them to second-class citizenship, comparable to second-class citizenship in many areas of the world (by race historically in the US). To some extent, Israel, justified by religious destiny and a historical claim to land, committed wrongdoing to native populations similar in concept (though maybe not degree -- Chua writes carefully about The Holocaust) to what the Germans and other groups did to them. This has led to a sense of personal shame (due to expropriation from an occupying power that itself claims to be aggrieved and predestined) among Palestinians that leads to the violence (and fatwa) that we see today. Shame assigned by others is a most unacceptable emotion.

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