Political Tribes, by Amy Chua

A frustrating and ultimately disappointing book, with some flashes of insight.

Let’s start with the good things.

Chua’s argument that US foreign policy often operates blind to ethnic tensions in other countries, which leads to horrible mistakes, is spot-on. The chapters looking back at past conflicts through that lens are informative; I never realized there was a racial element in the Vietnam war, for example (most of the wealth of the country was controlled by an ethnic-Chinese minority, before the war). And I didn’t realize how much the Taliban are an ethnic group (majority come from one tribe) rather than purely a religious movement.

She also has some good points to make about how tribalism operates in the US, with each group feeling attacked on a daily basis.

But her prescription for fixing things boils down to “talk to each other,” because she’s also missed some fundamental things in her analysis.

Over and over again, she talks about the “historically homogeneous” countries of Europe and East Asia, contrasting them with the “unique” experience of the United States as “the world’s only supergroup.”

Never mind that no country is, or has ever been, ethnically homogeneous. Never mind that ethnicity itself is, like race, an invented concept, something we pulled out of a hat and pretended was real.

And never mind that the US is not unique in being a society made up of immigrants plus an oppressed aboriginal population.

So she can’t say more than “we should talk to each other,” because she has no sense of how every “ethnic state” was created by violence and death. That Germany (!) was not ripe for post-war democracy through some accident of ethnic purity, but was purged of other groups deliberately by the country’s government and people. That even the concept of being “German” or “French” or “Chinese” is an invented thing, something hammered into people by a government that wanted them to stop being Provençal or Bavarians or Hmong.

And that the United States has never been a peaceful supergroup, but a vehicle for a group of people that call themselves “white” to ethnically cleanse and oppress all others. The “good old days” of “group blindness” she pines for in the final chapters never existed.

So she can’t see ethnicity itself as the problem, because she takes it as a given, a fixed construct. A solution where we break down the concepts of “white” and “black” into their components, or ditch them altogether to adopt identities built around our cities and states, can’t even be conceived in her framework.

Which is too bad, because her book is otherwise well-argued. We need her type of analysis, to be sure, but we also need more awareness of history, of how the divisions we take to be absolute today were invented, and can be remade.