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Too ambitious to prove anything, but does raise interesting points for discussion.
on 30 April 2012
World on Fire scores well as a piece of helpful shock therapy. For anyone assuming American policy toward the developing world is inevitably benign, Amy Chua gives them plenty to think about. She rightly draws attention to the downside of simply trying to export western economic and political systems to the rest of the world. In her summing up she makes the especially valid distinction between attempts to nurture democracy from the bottom up, and the mere mass-installation of ballot boxes at national elections to please western observers. Much of what the author writes appears to be informed and relevant, not least her sections on the societies of Latin America and their complex determination and consciousness of ethnicity. She clearly understands a lot about South-East Asia and its rich minorities, as one might expect of a Filipino of Chinese descent.
The text darts around from place to place and from one issue to another , its central purpose to present a global theory, applicable across the world. It is an over-ambitious project. Some of the generalisations are sweeping. Not the least of these is the author's sub-title `How exporting free-market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability'. Really? Chua's theory is that whilst western business underpins and further promotes the wealth of `market-dominant minorities' such as the Chinese in Malaysia, dark-skinned `whites' in Latin America, Lebanese in West Africa etc., the western encouragement of democracy empowers the majority in those countries and leads to increased hatred and tensions between the two sides.
The author is long on examples, many of which, in fairness, are interesting to the reader. And indeed her knowledge of conditions on the ground in many different parts of the world appears considerable. However one can easily think of important places she says little about, such as India, a country of many different market-dominant minorities. Yet the inter-racial strife in India, certainly that in Kashmir, would seem not to fit into the convenient pattern which Chua lays down.
Most importantly of all, as political science the book is weak on theory and modus as to how the central process of breeding economic hatred between ethnicities progresses out of the combined effects of free-market economics and democracy. Indeed the book lacks a continuing thread of argument. Chua fluctuates between criticism of America and venting her spleen at the world's circumstances, with particular reference to `conspicuous consumption' or the flaunting of ethnic pride on the part of rich minorities, against whom the book is a diatribe. Near the end she complains bitterly, when discussing the South-East Asian Chinese, and asks `What is to be done about ethnic minorities who `don't mix' with the indigenous majorities around them?'. The question may express a lot of personal pent-up frustration that Chua and/or her parents have experienced in making the transition from membership of that Chinese minority to becoming fully assimilated into western society. It also perhaps fails to recognise the acute cultural and religious differences prevailing among south-east Asian peoples.
What would be most helpful of all would be if Amy Chua could take just one example, of one of the regions she mentions, and apply her theory to it in more detail. That might help crystallise her very interesting ideas and bring much needed focus to her argument.