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The Masquerade of Identity Politics, Part One

I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a review of author Amy Chua’s newest book released in February of this year. For those not familiar with her work, Chua is a Professor of Law at Yale University and a fairly prolific writer. Her area of expertise lies in ethnic conflict, globalization, and the law. In 2011, she made the list of The Times’ most influential people, and the same year Foreign Policy named her to their list of Global Thinkers.

If you consider adding to your library with her works, don’t be put off by that hated word, globalization. Chua is a fan of the process; however, the reoccurring themes in her latest writings are well meant and aimed at solutions for the United States, laying the case for an understanding of how and when we became so polarized. She has a keen understanding and view of the worst cultural plague of the 21st Century, “Identity Politics.”

While several of Chau’s earlier works can be described as studies of International Affairs, her fourth book, written in 2014 with her husband Jed Rebenfeld, a constitutional and First Amendment Attorney, is perhaps the most controversial to date, and what first moved me to hit the download tab from Amazon to my Kindle.

In that book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, the couple document in detail their theory on the influence of stereotypes and expectations on ethic and cultural groups in our county. These differences, they theorize, provide the drive to succeed in this country.

Dubbed by some as racist, mostly by those who admit they had not read it, I found the actual book far from it but was also not convinced by the theory that both an innate feeling of superiority, coupled with a strong belief that one is discriminated against, is a recipe for success. I mention it, however, because clearly it provided a bridge to Chua’s newest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which in my opinion has a great deal of merit and should be required reading for both sides of the political aisle.

In this, her fifth book, Chua puts forth the case that tribalism is inherent in human nature and sets the stage for how our present epidemic of identify politics, ridiculous but also dangerous, will affect our country.

In Jonathan Rauch’s Washington Post [1] book review, he quoted directly from Chua using perhaps her most profound thoughts in her book. I doubt I can find a better passage so, in Chua’s own words, here it is in a nutshell:

“A shift in tone, rhetoric, and logic has moved identity politics away from inclusion — which had always been the left’s watchword — toward exclusion and division.

“ ‘For today’s Left,’ Chua observes, ‘group blindness is the ultimate sin, because it masks the reality of group hierarchies and oppression in America.’

“Moreover, tribalism is a dynamic force, not a static one. It exacerbates itself by making every group feel endangered by the others, inducing all to circle their wagons still more tightly.

” ‘Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant,’ Chua writes. ‘The Left believes that right-wing tribalism — bigotry, racism — is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism — identity politics, political correctness — is tearing the country apart. They are both right.’ I wish I could disagree.”

Of note, the book is upfront dispelling the chicken and the egg question of who transgressed first. So conservatives who are a fan of identifying the bully who started the fight in the school yard and like to make the case for just who fell off the deep end first will like this narrative.

Chua points out that in response to the constant barrage of blame, discrimination, and finger pointing now contained in the new radicalized message from what purports to be the left, other groups like some white Americans and Christians respond to this radicalized mantra by banding together in their own tribes. The line from A to B to Donald Trump is not so mysterious after all, and whether an accident or on purpose, Trump has come to a clear understanding of how tribalism works. It is also not a mystery that these reactions in response to actions swung the conservative door just wide enough for the Alt Right to place a foot inside.

The problem is as trite and simple as the old saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” but the result from both sides is a serious divergence from the ideal and the principles that the country was founded upon. The author reminds us that our very identity, which has been unique among nations as we strove to rise above tribal politics, was based (however imperfectly at times) on the strength of diversity in a country where everyone could be American.

Today with identity politics, this concept and even the word “diversity” can engender a small riot. Of course, not all readers and reviewers bought into the book, but whether you agree with her 100 percent or not, Chua sets us up to have the conversation about how to get past this new norm whose hallmark is a collective perception of persecution.

The work is also a two-pronged approach. Blind political partisanship at home is not the only major problem facing our country. Addressing how blind political hubris and an inability or unwillingness to take into account tribalism in other countries like Vietnam and Iraq has made, she says, for miserable foreign policy. She points out that the United States’ broad view of itself as the champion of the Free World doing battle against evil entities ideologically has masked the ability to see the tribal culture of other nations, to our great disadvantage. She uses Vietnam as a prime example where we failed to recognize the rich ruling class there after the departure of the French, namely the Chinese, the tribe/group most hated by the Vietnamese. It is worth the read for her take on the foreign policy account alone.

Readers I believe, hoped for a brighter light at the end of the tunnel, and some book reviewers seemed to be left without understanding how we will remedy this problem. Not so this writer, who got it immediately when Chua described relationships which developed in her classroom students in spite of major political and cultural differences. A familiar theme in my own writing is what happens when people become real to each other in various community situations. I use it constantly to explain the difference in local and national politics.

Not a month after reading Amy Chua’s book, events took place in my own world locally which is not regularly subject to the outward public expression of identity politics. This motivated me to open the discussion as well as collect my own data on the subject. In parts two, three, and four, I’ll share those findings.