[This book review was published in the Fall/Winter issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 336-344.]
Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Penguin Press, 2018
This is a highly significant book, but for a reason the author almost certainly doesn’t have in mind. For Americans whose ancestors have for several generations populated the United States, it has seemed natural to think of “America” as an established thing, a nation whose existence could be taken for granted as “a given” that inspired loyalty and was “home.” Not many years ago, it was a society that was overwhelmingly white and European in origin, with a culture that matched. True, there were variations of all sorts within the society, including pockets of barely-assimilated ethnicities; and true, the descendants of former slaves were significantly present, though marginalized; but the abundant fact for many millions of people was that there was “an America.”
That sense of oneness has for many decades been subject to erosion for more reasons than we could possibly recount in this review. Just one of the many is that several generations of young people have been taught in their schools that their country has a hateful past. Another, of course, is that since the change in immigration law in 1965 tens of millions of newcomers of non-European origin have come into the country, changing its demographic mix. Because the erosion has been so obvious, many people have come to realize that at some time a “tipping point” would be reached at which a “civilizational paradigm shift” (which seems a fitting description) has occurred to take away the “old America” and substitute something quite different in its place. There are many signs that this substitution, long in process, has taken effect. They range from such little things as the popularity of tattoos, nose rings and “man buns” to larger, symbolic things such as the reviling of historic names and monuments.
Amy Chua may not have thought about it in these terms, but (to Americans who care) Political Tribes is most significant because it is yet another milestone marking the passing of the tipping point. A long-time member of the law faculties at Duke University and Yale, and the author of five very successful books, she is the daughter of Chinese parents who lived several years in the Philippines before emigrating to the United States. Her intelligence and specialized knowledge of comparative tribal cultures around the world shine through this book, making it as informative as it is readable. With reference to the tipping point in American identity, readers will notice that to her “white America” was just another tribe. The old America has no special existential quality to her, and its passing creates in her no sense of tragedy. As the child of immigrants, she writes from a perspective that quite naturally sees the world without the old America at its center. The newcomers bring with them many qualities, good and bad, but almost inevitably each brings a perspective born out of the person’s own heritage and experience.
In this context, “being an American” means something very different from what it has in the past. Chua reflects this when she says that “what it means to be American is not the preserve of any particular racial, ethnic, or religious subgroup.” In this, we see that whites, no longer the great majority (and in just a few years to be in the minority), are now just a “subgroup.” Chua sees American history as “a long tradition of white tribalism.”
When as a social scientist who has studied comparative tribal cultures she sees whites’ identity as that of just another tribe, she brings to bear the relativism that is inherent in such a study. This neutrality by its very nature has a reductionist aspect that ascribes no special meaning to what is described. But, of course, we know there is more to a tribe than merely categorizing it as such. Each ethnicity invests itself with meaning to those within it. And the American “white tribe” – the America we once knew – saw great meaning in its own identity and role in the world. That was evident in innumerable speeches at Sons of the American Revolution lunches, in the reverence shown the Constitution, in the pride of singing “God Bless America,” and in countless other ways that made up the daily lives of Americans. Going beyond relativism and value neutrality, we are left with quite a serious question: whether the “old America” did not in fact have enormous historic value, not just to its own people but to the world at large. If the answer is that it did, the loss of such a society is something to be mourned, not celebrated as many do today.
The significance of this tipping point is not limited to America. The same existential question is posed for Europe, the demographics of which have been changing rapidly, with the erstwhile existing cultures finding it hard to muster a defense in the face of the multicultural ethos of their elites. “The death of the West” has become the theme of several serious books. As with America, the question arises, “Is Europe – or France, Germany, Italy, et. al., -- worth saving?”
We started this review by pointing to what is most striking about Political Tribes, but of course there is much more to say about the book and its author. A quality that looms large throughout the book is the extent to which Chua has absorbed the ideology of the American PeeWOC elite. (PeeWOC is a fanciful acronym this reviewer has adopted for “People Whose Opinions Count.” This elite is so broad that it will be worthwhile to read the footnote here for an explanation of that breadth.) This intellectual osmosis isn’t surprising for someone who has been in American academia for so many years, especially when she has no attachments to ideas and cultural continuities that would prompt her to stand out against it.
It’s likely that many readers, so accustomed to the daily barrage of today’s conventional ideology that comes to them from countless sources, will hardly notice Chua’s biases, especially since she writes so easily and well. Americans hear it so often that they are conditioned to let it slide by when Chua says such a thing as “American society is shot through with racism.” When she repeats the by-now-clichéd complaint that, unlike blacks, “whites are not passed over by taxi drivers or subjected to constant media images of people [of color] in handcuffs,” she lets the repetition stand without giving thought to why taxi drivers might be afraid to pick up black riders or why police might put handcuffs on somebody. When Chua quotes with favor a statement that many black parents fear that “their children will be gunned down without cause by the police,” there is nothing to show that she has examined that premise critically, and the ideologically-induced selectivity of such a statement, even if it were accurate, is apparent when she ignores the horrendous volume of black-on-black killing. She repeats the frequently made point that white women “clutch their purses and cross the street” when blacks are present, and doesn’t empathize with the women who sense danger. She says that “Muslim Americans feel threatened in today’s United States,” but doesn’t think about why, if that is so, Muslims are pouring into the country. Nor does she balance her comment by noticing the many good things they experience from having come to America from, say, Somalia or Syria. The same, she says, is true of “gay and transgender Americans,” who also “feel threatened,” ignoring the fact that they are so welcomed by the PeeWOC culture that several of the United States’ more prominent universities have done a most remarkable thing: setting up “Departments of Queer Studies.” It’s no surprise that she uses the euphemism “undocumented immigrants” in place of “illegal immigrants,” and that she makes only the most cursory mention of the decades-long invasion across America’s southern border. But enough of that. Her conventionality, her bias, her selective empathy and her disinclination to think critically are evident from these and many other examples.
Before we go on to other things about her book, we should notice that, in common with virtually all the alienated literature, she repeats the abuse of statistics that compares “the percentage of black population that is incarcerated” with the percentage of blacks in the American population. What anyone who is serious about statistics knows, the comparison of the percentage of blacks who are incarcerated (or imprisoned, or whatever) must be not with the black population in general but with the percentage of blacks within the population of people who commit crimes. This abuse of statistics has been pointed out so many times that its continuing reiteration hints at its being more the product of ideological bias than of ignorance. This misuse of statistics is understandably persuasive to most readers, who can hardly be expected to stop and question it.
Where Tribal Politics excels is in the parts that bear directly on Chua’s specialty. Her book World on Fire, which we reviewed in 2005, is a study of ethnic hatred on a worldwide basis, providing encyclopedic information about one of the most explosive aspects of today’s world. She reviewed a number of countries in that earlier book, and when she does the same here, she provides some interesting, often valuable, insights about a more limited list:
About Great Britain, she reveals something counterintuitive that portends trouble: that the second and third generation Muslims “seem to be more religious and more alienated from British society than first-generation immigrants.”
About Afghanistan, she tells us the Pashtuns ruled from the mid-18th century until 1973. With their population spread between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they condemn as illegitimate the Durand Line, drawn by the British defining the border between those two countries. Five years after the assassination of Afghanistan’s president in 1973, pro-Communist Pashtun nationalists executed “more than fifty thousand people” as they sought to equate “Afghan” with “Pashtun.” Chua says they proved so unmanageable that the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prevent an anti-Communist backlash. As everyone knows, this proved a disaster for the Soviets, who withdrew in 1989 after years of fighting the U.S.-armed mujahedin. Years of chaos followed, with the Pashtuns losing much of their place in Afghanistan. In the meantime, the president of Pakistan had “built madrassas throughout the Pashtun regions,” teaching a “virulent fundamentalism” that soon came to be reflected in the Taliban. What followed was a Taliban victory that imposed a severe form of Islamism. It is mistaken, however, to think of the Pashtuns as united among themselves, or of the Pashtuns and the Taliban as one and the same,. Chua points out that the Pashtuns, far from being homogeneous, are (even though almost all Sunni) fragmented into “hundreds of smaller tribes and clans, many with long-standing rivalries and conflicts.” [This reminds us of the situation in general among the many Islamic factions throughout that part of the world, which fight among themselves every bit as much as they struggle against the West.] The Pashtuns’ fragmentation was something the Taliban never succeeded in overcoming, and Chua criticizes the United States for not cultivating support from the “moderate Pashtuns” after the U.S. defeat of the Taliban in 2001. Chua often comments on how ignorant Americans are about the nuances of ethnicity in places like Afghanistan and Vietnam.
About Iraq, she says American leaders in the George W. Bush administration made a serious mistake in thinking the aftermaths of the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II would be good “comparables” for what would follow the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dictatorship. Germany and Japan were each homogeneous, whereas the Sunnis, with only 15 percent of the population, had ruled Iraq for several centuries (which include the long period of Ottoman rule). The other 85 percent, Shia, were bound to want revenge for Hussein’s Baathist regime’s brutal treatment and to want to assert their own prerogative to govern; and this should have made it clear that nation-building through “rapid democratization” would be the disaster that it turned out to be. After the elections in 2005, there were Shia death squads, with Sunni retaliation in kind. The U.S. “troop surge” in 2007 was a success, she says, because the United States finally used it to seek out ethnic contact, making alliances with tribal leaders to form a united front against the more violent elements. The “Sunni Awakening” in Anbar province was a response to Al-Qaeda’s savagery. The war between Sunni and Shia continued with the rise of the Islamic State, an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda. Iran’s power, as an adjacent Shiite state, “is ascendant” now that a Shia government is in power.
About Venezuela, Chua says that, despite a myth of color-blindness, a light-skinned elite has long prevailed. As in most of Latin America, a caste system exists that places whites and near-whites at the top. These were, in effect, a “market-dominant minority” in a society in which the mass of the population was dark-skinned, reflecting the historic importation of nearly 100,000 slaves. The ethnic tensions inherent in dominance by such a minority, so common around the world, was one of Chua’s central points in World on Fire. It was in that context that Hugo Chavez, who came to power in 1998, “harnessed and gave voice to… simmering ethnonationalist resentment.” Chua observes that “Chavez was… a product of democracy – democracy under conditions of inequality….” This is something, she argues, that American leaders misunderstood, thinking him a dictator when his constituents saw him as a champion.
At this point, it would have been well for Chua to think with some depth about the concept of “democracy.” The idea of “spreading democracy” throughout the world is one of the central visions of both American neo-conservatism and “progressivism.” But what they mean by it is “liberal democracy” according to the latest version of PeeWOC preference. They certainly don’t have it in mind that the “great unwashed masses” of the “Arab street” or of Latin America’s or Africa’s indigenous peoples will rule. Even within the United States itself, the cultural divide is such that political victory by a leader of “the deplorables” is felt intolerable. This is a view that Chua herself shares; when she says that the United States is “shot through with racism,” she can’t possibly welcome as “democracy” rule by the near-ubiquitous “racists” she sees. It all suggests that another word is needed. The advantage of keeping the word “democracy” in its present usage, though, is that it disguises that what is meant is rule by the elite.
No doubt the elite that claims the right to rule believes, rightly or wrongly, that it will do so for the better good of the society as a whole. It is precisely on that basis that “democratic centralism” is said to legitimize the rule of the Communist Party in the “People’s Republic of China,” or that Marxism-Leninism could assert the “democratic” nature of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the old Soviet Union. In neither of these cases, and in others like them, is the “democracy” a “liberal democracy.” Thus, we see the word “democracy” is a rhetorical flag that can be waved in almost any circumstance.
But we digress. Chua doesn’t explore any of that. We can only think that if she had, she would have had a better understanding of where the American revulsion to Chavez comes from. Indeed, her thinking would be greatly enhanced if she thought more deeply about a number of things. For example, she sees the war in Vietnam as one in which the U.S. erred in not understanding that Ho Chi Minh was primarily ethnonationalist (i.e., nationalist combined with an ethnic Vietnamese hostility to the “market-dominant minority” that the Chinese had so long been in the country), rather than Communist. In like fashion, she says the pro-Communist take-over in Afghanistan after the assassination of the president in 1978 was only “nominally Communist,” being primarily Pashtun nationalist. This should cause her to think about the conundrum created by the perverse marriage of so many of the world’s anti-colonial nationalist movements with Communism. Certainly it was that marriage that was a major factor in causing the United States, in its long struggle to contain Communism (as arguably the most murderous system history has known), to stand as an enemy to those nationalist movements. Chua does not see the perversity of that connection, blames the United States rather than those who linked their nationalism to Communism, and downplays the “Communist” aspect. This minimizing of Communism is itself indicative of her absorption of the attitudes of the American Left, which has long had condonation as one of its characteristics.
Moreover, it is worth noting that what is remarkable about the Communist-nationalist connection is how much it reflected a profound ignorance in much of the world about the horrors under Stalin and Mao. If that ignorance had not prevailed, ethnonationalists (such as Mandela in South Africa) would have (or at least should have) had nothing to do with Communism. What we are referring to as “ignorance” has sometimes amounted to a blanking-out of reality. We see this today when Mao’s face continues to appear on Chinese currency as if there is no memory of (among other things) his starving to death some thirty million people during The Great Leap Forward and the atrocities committed during his ten-year “Cultural Revolution” that sought to obliterate all vestiges of China’s past. If a doctoral student in psychology is looking for an important dissertation topic, there can be few better than to study the peculiarities of this mental/emotional blackout. (We do not mean, of course, to overlook the role that the suppression of opinion plays in China, where “survivors” have been given no chance to vent their anguish over lost loved ones or their own suffering. We are given the impression no such anguish exists; and if it does not, that in itself is an enormity to be studied.)
We will end this review by mentioning what Chua believes will be ideal for America, which is to be a “super-group,” which she defines as a nation in which “membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a… group-transcending collective identity.” This reminds us of Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech that called for a society in which whites and blacks could be “as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” A question today is whether the disparate ethnic groups, including the white “sub-group,” would be permitted to be “as separate as the fingers.” Does it mean that for Chua whites as well as blacks are to be permitted to have their own fraternities, men as well as women to have their own service clubs, a Christian caterer to be allowed to decline serving at a gay marriage reception, or a Muslim chef to refuse to cook pork? We mention these things to make it apparent that it is not as ideologically simple as her definition of “super-group” would suggest. As with so much, more thought needs to be brought to bear.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. This opinion elite is much broader than any reference to something like “a coastal elite” or “a media elite” might suggest. It is ubiquitous among those who hold “respectable” opinion, imposing, in effect, a blanket over American society. It is to be seen in the main media, most of the entertainment industry, almost all of academia, corporate America, the legal profession – and the millions of “college educated” people who over several decades have absorbed their outlook from the others. Although a salient feature of President Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency has been to challenge it (a challenge that is revolutionary in its intellectual and cultural implications), until recently only local, sporadic and temporary challenges to its hegemony have succeeded. In addition to constituting the dominating governing force in the United States and Europe, this elite consensus towers over much of the world. A case in point is “the Davos culture,” a reference that points to the annual meeting of the world elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
2. See this reviewer’s book review article “Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Ethnic Hatreds and Their Implications for the United States” in the Fall 2005 issue of this Journal, pp. 371-381. It may be found, free of charge, at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 89 (i.e., A89).
3. For details about the internecine conflicts within Islam, see this reviewer’s book review article, “Jihadism and Muslim Immigration: Three Recent Books,” in our Summer 2017 issue, pp. 251-272. This article is available on the web site referred to in Endnote 2 here as Article 123 (i.e., A123).
 This opinion elite is much broader than any reference to something like “a coastal elite” or “a media elite” might suggest. It is ubiquitous among those who hold “respectable” opinion, imposing, in effect, a blanket over American society. It is to be seen in the main media, most of the entertainment industry, almost all of academia, corporate America, the legal profession – and the millions of “college educated” people who over several decades have absorbed their outlook from the others. Although a salient feature of President Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency has been to challenge it (a challenge that is revolutionary in its intellectual and cultural implications), until recently only local, sporadic and temporary challenges to its hegemony have succeeded. In addition to constituting the dominating governing force in the United States and Europe, this elite consensus towers over much of the world. A case in point is “the Davos culture,” a reference that points to the annual meeting of the world elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
 See this reviewer’s book review article “Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Ethnic Hatreds and Their Implications for the United States” in the Fall 2005 issue of this Journal, pp. 371-381. It may be found, free of charge, at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 89 (i.e., A89).
 For details about the internecine conflicts within Islamism, see this reviewer’s book review article, “Jihadism and Muslim Immigration: Three Recent Books,” in our Summer 2017 issue, pp. 251-272. This article is available on the web site referred to in Footnote 2 here as Article 123 (i.e., A123).