March 19, 2019

Two Books on Discontent

In several American cities with significant Hispanic communities, one may encounter shop window displays of life-sized female skeletons clad in black, white or red robes, usually holding a scythe.

Amy Chua. Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. 304 pp.

These are temples or altars for the devotees of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of Holy Death. This religion came to the US from Mexico and the saintly Lady of Death is thought to protect all outcasts. The number of cultists has grown rapidly and today 10–12 million people pray to the skeletal saint on Facebook, leaving cigars, rum, Barbie dolls and ashtrays at her temples as offerings. The cult of Our Lady of Holy Death is only one example of groups that have emerged in American society which are explored in Amy Chua’s book.

Political Tribes is about tribalism and identity. In the first part the author focuses on US foreign-policy moves with which the country has ignored prevalent group identities in the world. She gives examples from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Venezuela of where the US did not take ethnic or clan differences into account. One interesting example is Vietnam, where the majority of the ownership class was Chinese, but the ethnic undercurrent of the local conflict was not noticed by the Americans, who only saw the clash of two ideologies—communism and capitalism. A more or less similar situation occurred in later conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The author considers the difference between the US identity and that of nation-states as the reason for this because, she says, the population of the United States is made up of a supergroup that indeed consists of several ethnic groups but has a strong sense of unity. This also gives rise to the inability to understand other kinds of social community.

Still, American society is also very fragmented. Chua points out several schisms that run through it—in terms of both the variety of skin colour and the isolation of poor whites. American subcultures, such as the wrestling cult, monster truck shows or the aforementioned gods to drugs and outcasts, are very odd and incomprehensible to the elite. The current fate and political affiliation of whites is particularly noteworthy, because a number of people think it was their vulnerability that brought Donald Trump to power.

Chua believes that America became dominated by so-called identity politics in the sense that a group determines its value or nature only by opposing others. This understanding exists in America among both left and right.

Francis Fukuyama. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 240 pp.

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama is also largely about identity. Unfortunately, the term “identity” has become so overused of late that it almost feels a bit of a cliché. However, the term made its way to international relations via psychology quite recently. Yet the definition became more widely used and several authors began to discuss identity at the same time. Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, is no exception. In Identity, he delves into intellectual history. He highlights the so-called third part of the soul, which he calls thymos and he says is expressed in two forms—the desire to be better than (megalothymia) or equal to (isothymia) others. The emotional desire to be better than or equal to others drives people to a greater degree than the rational wish to become wealthier. Fukuyama uses feminism as an example, claiming that a female lawyer’s wish to become a partner in a large firm is motivated not by higher salary but primarily by the need for validation—the desire to be equal to men. The main question of identity is “who am I?”, which became prevalent with the emergence of nationalism, i.e. with the introduction of industrialisation and people travelling more actively. In the past, you did not have to ask yourself who you were because everything was clearly determined by the borders of your village and community. Globalisation further increased this anxiety and the rise of nationalism has gone hand-in-hand with religious extremism.

Fukuyama introduces the concept of dignity and I believe this helps in understanding the emotionality of everything connected to identity. In addition to other examples, the author recalls a 1990 report by a working group in California on how to boost one’s self-esteem. The emphasis on dignity, however, led modern Western society to a situation in which even the smallest groups began to feel special. Initially, being special was above all the left’s domain, which resulted in the proliferation of increasingly fragmented and smaller isolated identity groups. This was, however, followed by a reaction from the right, which led to right-wing populism, anti-migration views and racism.

Fukuyama and Chua are certainly very different authors. Amy Chua became famous with her first book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she talks about the strict Chinese-American style of parenting. A less well-known fact is that Chua is a professor at Yale Law School. Francis Fukuyama was propelled forward and overshadowed by his 1990s thesis on the end of history and book of the same name. Nowadays, both authors have taken the floor to explain resentment and frustration through the prism of identity politics. It feels as if these are attempts to explain events and phenomena that have already taken place in the real world, such as populism, anti-migration views, Islamism and—an important topic aimed at the American audience—Donald Trump’s rise to power. The attempt to provide these developments with a theoretical basis may seem artificial, but theory is like a map. It may be incomplete, but having no map at all makes it even harder to navigate the landscape.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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