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Your Tribe or Mine?

John Wilson Foster

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, by Amy Chua, Bloomsbury, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1408881576

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by JD Vance, Collins, 272 pp, £14.99, ISBN 978-0008220563

These two studies have a special cousinage, which I will disclose later. In the meantime, enough to say that JD Vance’s book is a case-study, before the fact, in Amy Chua’s socio-political reading of the United States and, by means of ambitious generalisations, of the rest of the world, now and always.

The uncertain present though is the immediate trigger for Chua. She sees the United States at a crossroads, demographically, politically and socially, and crossroads by definition enforce division. White Americans are about to become a minority in “their own” country and Trump’s election to the presidency is a reflection of the baffled anxieties and acute resentments that this is generating. Chua knows, of course, that ethnic disturbance has always been a feature of American life; but up to now the tension between binding American patriotism and centrifugal group competitiveness has been held to a reasonable and productive equitability, and the profitably efficient functioning of the country never in doubt. This is changing and the United States is historically ill-equipped to manage, or even understand, the process of cultural, social and political tribalism or dissociation that is accelerating in the nation.

Ironically it has been the apparent domestic success of American democracy and the powerful myth of the melting pot that are the source of this ill-equipment. The democracy shipped abroad has been a monolithic one, the broadest of careless brushstrokes inspired by free-market capitalism and a belief in unfettered individualism. Chua provides four extended case studies in recent American foreign involvement (chiefly military) – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela – to illustrate not only the limitations of American democracy in managing or ruling other societies (and the foolish belief in American society’s exportability) but also the ruinous counter-productivity of imposed democratic rule, the unleashing of anti-democratic factionalism (one might also add corruption) that democracy paradoxically enables. And when she says tribalism, Chua means it: she tells us that Afghanistan’s “national” anthem mentions fourteen ethnic groups.

She contrasts these disastrous American interventions and withdrawals with the ability of forty thousand British soldiers and bureaucrats to govern two hundred million Indians for two centuries, a “success” made possible precisely by British self-education about the factions and “tribes” that might, had there been ignorance instead, have subverted the Raj at an early stage. Chua does not say so, but out of this local study and knowledge during the empire came the European discipline of social anthropology.

Hence America’s frustrated confronting of what is happening inside its own borders. There too, individualism, free-market capitalism and American parliamentary democracy are newly at serious odds with proliferating groups (ethnic, sexual, religious, regional) exercising energetic lobbying power and threatening both the implicit and vaunted unity of the American Dream. The long-term haunting question is whether some of them portend the embryonic ethno-nationalist divisiveness the United States and Europe witnessed, for example, in post-Tito, democratised Yugoslavia. The United States as a “super-group” that claims the fidelity of its distinctive components is in danger of failing.

For Chua it is more than an American problem. Witness her references to France’s struggle to maintain laicité in the (veiled) face of Islam and England’s laissez-faire response as Muslim enclaves develop in the cities and towns, a case of the old imperial wisdom vanished or held to be inappropriate on the home front, the will to govern embarrassed by the discrediting of empire – or simply English and other European societies being overwhelmed by a global force their leaders do not comprehend. Indeed Chua sees professed Enlightenment values and principles – liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free-marketry – not only in the process of being challenged at home by a much older and often inadvertently imported tribalism but actually provoking into activity its tribal enemies. It is a co-dependent dynamic. A gulf is widening between, on the one hand, the metropolitan liberal elites (David Goodhart’s Anywheres, we might remind Chua), who are their own tribe, according to Chua, innocent believers in universalism and not so innocent believers in the global economy, and, on the other hand, the hinterland (Goodhart’s rooted, stationary but increasingly restive Somewheres; the empire at home, as it were). Trump has been the beneficiary of the “empire” striking back, a phenomenon facilitated by the reduction of small town and country white Americans, poor or of modest means, to an aggrieved faction or tribe in “their own” country, in which they used to represent the ruling majority.

If globalism is one provocation to inherent tribal impulses, another is, to use Chua’s own 2003 coinage, “market-dominant minorities”. She recounts the age-old resentment in Vietnam of Chinese commercial dominance (something which to their cost the American occupiers either did not know about or care about), and tells us something I was not aware of: that most of the Vietnamese “boat people” in the first wave of flight were in fact ousted minority Chinese. Today, the three per cent Chinese population of Indonesia controls up to seventy per cent of the private economy; in the Philippines, two per cent controls the corporate, banking, airline, shipping and retail sectors. Are British Columbians aware of this? Since I left Vancouver in 2008, the metropolis has undergone a sea-change brought about by the overnight installation of an economic Chinese elite encouraged by greedy municipal, provincial and federal governments, with the result that private property (the cornerstone of Chinese investment culture) is beyond the financial reach of British Columbians unable to meet the competition from innumerable mainland Chinese billionaires. Whole neighbourhoods have had their social fabric unravelled beyond repair. The government retreat has belatedly started and the backlash begun among those who now are forced to perceive themselves as a comparatively impoverished and increasingly unhoused population in “their own” country. What was missing from the get-go was any Euro-Canadian knowledge of the dynamics of recent Chinese culture (Canadians knew only the old quietist, colourful but static, nationalist Chinese culture that inhabited Chinatown), the old imperial wisdom once again gone missing until a British-born BC geographer, David Ley, recently brought that culture to light in the austere pages of the International Journal of Housing Policy.

But mention of British Columbia is a reminder that even knowledge of Chinese economic intentions would have been inadequate in the face of a force that, oddly, Chua soft-shoes around, lending her study a curious sense of cultural passivity: her book is full of those to whom things are happening or who are ignorant of what they are doing, and is scantily peopled by agents and policymakers. Like most Americans, Chua pays scant attention to the northern neighbour. But it was the father of the current Canadian prime minister who more or less invented the philosophy and policy of multiculturalism forty-odd years ago. He did so because the venerable Canadian “mosaic” (the impression of a complex pattern of – save for the indigenous people – mostly contented ethnic equalities) was under threat of disintegration when secular democracy came to the huge French-speaking, Catholic province of Quebec and unleashed an ethno-nationalism that demanded secession and sovereignty. By creating a self-conscious ethnic plurality across the Canadian vastness (through language and culture acts) Trudeau hoped, by ceding, indeed vigorously encouraging, ethno-cultural autonomies, to appease Quebec nationalism by removing the threat to the Quebecois of a monolithic Anglophone culture with which they had always uneasily shared the continent.

Trudeau’s plan has worked – Quebecois constitutional nationalism is at a standstill – but at the price of the hitherto satisfied Anglophone mosaic of the Rest of Canada. His multiculturalism was imported into New Zealand, Australia and other countries. (Meanwhile, Quebec refused to enact multiculturalism inside its own borders and through being permitted to opt out of the federal immigration programme has controlled the cultural impact of incoming populations – most of them from the old French empire – while embarking on a quiet programme of Douglas Hyde-like cultural de-Anglicisation. In 1993 a Quebec legate told me Quebec would never accept multiculturalism.)

Multiculturalism in the Rest of Canada (and now elsewhere in the West) imposes certain harsh sanctions. Among them are the costs in reputation and damaging political attribution of motive of anyone who attempts to identify ethnicity except in an exclusively positive light. This meant that what quickly became an acute social problem in Vancouver when offshore Chinese money avalanched in could not be identified, and therefore solved, because the ethno-cultural source of the sudden and deep real-estate investments, often by absentee investors, could not be spoken of. A few Vancouver journalists bravely followed Ley in spilling the beans.

The United States does not have a government multicultural programme and policy and relies instead on the rather debased coinage of a unifying American Dream. But unofficially, as in western Europe, multiculturalism, though not quite the state religion it virtually is in Canada (“Diversity is our strength,” Justin Trudeau chants at every opportunity), encourages, indeed sanctions, Chua’s tribalism and the by now firmly ensconced identity politics and political correctness that ensue from it. The process of diversification, dissociation and proliferation that Chua laments is hardly to be wondered at. Even back in 1983 when I became a Canadian citizen, I was told by the Citizenship Commissioner that I was not required to give up anything of my existing culture. Coming from Northern Ireland, I knew she was making a big mistake, that one should be strongly encouraged to hang up one’s holster at the door.

Chua descants on one of the accompaniments of identity politics: the war of cultural appropriation. She gives recent American examples (including the hostility directed at Beyoncé’s traditional Indian bridal outfit) but this is old Canadian hat (long before the Mexican sombreros that drew the ire of those thirsting for offence at the University of East Anglia in 2015). Twenty-five years ago the director of the Canada Council proposed that no literary or artistic project be funded that depicted a culture (read “ethnic group” or “female gender”) of which the applicant was not himself a member. On the heels of a report from its Advisory Committee for Racial Equality in the Arts, the council decided that “cultural appropriation is a serious issue”. To the great credit of the novelist Timothy Findley (“Stop. Now”) and other Canadian artists, including Neil Bissoondath (“I reject the idea of cultural appropriation completely”), the idea was murdered in its cradle before it matured into a fiat. It would have introduced the idea of an apartheid of the creative imagination which itself might have seemed to the government employees of the Canada Council like a logical extension of the policy of multiculturalism. Retaining as property your own gender and ethnic experiences and imaginings, and having them subsidised and protected by the government, might have seemed no different from retaining your own subsidised language and customs while living in Canada. (Female genital mutilation has arisen as something of a problem here.) But as we now know, the transgression of cultural appropriation has recently been put back on the books, as it were, in the United States and Britain, with the incidents above being on the trivial end of the scale.

Chua defines tribes rather crudely as groups with vested interests that compose a political or quasi-political agenda. That agenda has increasingly taken the form of collective grievance, the claim that the group is being wronged, even oppressed and that redress must be total and immediate lest a wave of protest and agitation be brought into play. Multiculturalism has, of course, by rooting itself in the notion that distinctive group identities must be preserved, encouraged not only perpetual collective vigilance but also the formation of groups that did not previously exist, such as the numerous (and activist) genders now officially recognised in Canada and elsewhere.

Tribalism and ethnic diversity is an ancient reality, which nationalism can both encourage and protect against. London, for example, has long been renowned for its ethnic diversity, but it is both the scale and the speed of change that have caught us unawares in London and elsewhere in the West. In Ben Judah’s remarkable This is London: Life and Death in the World City (2016) – a book Chua should have read – that ethnic diversity is displayed in truly intimate detail. But the capital that is now fifty-five per cent non-white British is not the diverse city we thought we knew; it seems in Judah’s depiction more like George Orwell’s Wigan made vast, or even Conrad’s London at the opening of Heart of Darkness somehow fast-forwarded to the twenty-first century. Read Judah and you will never see Soho quite the same way again.

The problem Chua is trying to explain and solve is one of acute recent juxtapositions, of sudden changing power roles among groups, of emerging wide-ranging political ramifications. At the back of it all perhaps is the decline in the dominance of white Western Euro-Americans, who devised and encouraged the very diversification that threatens their power and who are yet the sole villain of the multicultural piece. Douglas Murray has written of a strange and possibly fatal European failure of will in the matter. For Murray to deplore the cultural fall-out from multiculturalism and European immigration policy is a perilous undertaking; as an American whose Chinese parents immigrated from the Philippines, Chua, on the other hand, is licensed to speak in such broad ethnic and racial terms. Multiculturalism has encouraged the rollback from free speech and frank discussion, substituting instead carefully monitored speech in which the identity of the speaker, not the truth-value of what is said, is paramount: candid observation and opinion rarely now stimulate debate but often instead provoke fury and grotesquely exaggerated reaction. Chua’s candour is nevertheless welcome and helpful.

It was a surprise to come upon Chua’s name towards the end of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. That in this rags-to-academic-riches life story Chua is Vance’s law professor at Yale perhaps explains his fulsome endorsement of Political Tribes on the hardback’s front cover  and Chua’s equally fulsome endorsement of that life story before the reader has reached the contents page. And indeed, Vance’s life, before education rescued him, was one of Chua’s cases in point. Hillbilly Elegy is a very good read (if its virtues are overblown that is because of its refreshing candour) and an almost alarming diptych of Kentucky “Somewheres”, mired in their own static culture unless they find the strength to become luckless inhabitants of the post-industrial Rust Belt to the north (Vance’s early life was lived between the Kentucky hills and small-town Ohio – between the frying pan and the fire), who voted for Trump en masse. Oddly, Vance’s intriguing misery memoir loses momentum when it reverses itself and he reaches Yale; a certain self-satisfaction sets in as Chuck Berry’s poor boy, as it were, gets on the line to us from the Promised Land. Yale, of course, is one of Chua’s own tribes and Vance bored me a little with its tribal characteristics, though I realise he is trying to reveal the difficult rites that must be performed before full membership can be gained. It is his hillbilly upbringing, introduced by his initial modesty, that is the real attraction of the book, and the account of his own early travails is fascinating and peopled with family figures larger than life, Mamaw and Papaw among them.

Still, one important piece of the bigger picture he is trying to draw for us is sloppily inserted. His premise, personal and political, is that he identifies with and is a spokesman for the deprived “millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent”. Unfortunately, he displays no interest whatsoever in the origin or dynamics of the Scots-Irish race. One wonders if he even knows the etymology of “hillbilly” – “billy boys”, followers of King Billy, Ulster Protestants who settled in their thousands in the Appalachians but also roved along the frontier, which they took a firm hand in extending. Vance simply means white working-class Americans. His social anthropology is as lax as his professor’s when she uses “tribe” to mean simply a self-asserting group, a possibly insensitive use of the word in the United States, for which multiculturalism gives her license. Since my parents and grandparents grew up in working class Protestant east Belfast, I too am of the Scots-Irish. The traits of the real Scots-Irish – including a gift for being their own worst enemy – came across the Atlantic with them. Their achievement in the early days speaks to their virtues and advantages – their anti-authoritarianism and hard-working self-dependence. However, they were also suspicious, confrontational, self-centred and parochial (despite their wanderlust), begrudging, sceptical and pessimistic. Under normal circumstances, never easy people to help, as perhaps America and Northern Ireland today are proving.

The apparent slightness of Vance’s historical knowledge of the Scots-Irish, and his absorption of them into blue-collar America is, however, telling. The successful Scots-Irish vanished into the mainstream of the successful America they helped create and govern and now their poorer cousins are once again mainstreamed, this time disadvantageously. Either way, they lost the honorific ethnic identity that Catholic Irish-Americans have enjoyed and resolutely maintained, helped by the history of the urban enclaves they formed. Some see the fate of the Scots-Irish back in Northern Ireland as precarious, politically and culturally. If so, it is Chua’s study that might explain some of the dynamics involved in current Northern Irish society. I do not allude to the sectarian component of Sinn Féin or to the IRA as, in Chua’s terms, an ethno-nationalist terror-group, though these are part of the historical background. I allude instead to how – in Chua’s formulation – increasing “democratization” has encouraged ethno-nationalism.

By democratisation I mean the greater, more widespread, voluntary and vocal civic participation in Northern Ireland by Catholics, a greater interest in the laws, customs and value systems of the country. The situation was very different before the mid-1960s when the Catholic populace was a resentful minority with an abstentionist mindset in the face of a sectarian unionism, and one with relatively few educated champions. The 1960s, when young people began to reap the benefit of the 1947 Education Act, saw rudimentary versions of Vance’s own escape via higher education from the mental and physical laager. There is now a consolidated educated and articulate Catholic professional class that was emerging during, and helping to orchestrate, the civil rights movement. To the extent that that movement was a facet of a larger Irish nationalist dissatisfaction, there has been a continuity between now and then, a continuity that for a few decades was like an underground cable and has now resurfaced. Liberal unionists hoped that greater Catholic participation in the life of Northern Ireland meant that Northern Ireland was emerging as one of Chua’s “super-groups” in which the disparate ethnic and cultural components pledge allegiance to the higher entity. For a few years this century this seemed achievable but suddenly the hope has suffered a reversal, triggered but not caused by Brexit.

True, there is in the professional class I refer to the appearance of global urban liberalism. Members attach much importance to “rights” (especially “human rights”) and give the impression of wishing to see all the “tribes” (in Chua’s sense) in Northern Ireland composing an equal mosaic.

Hope, then, for Northern Ireland? Alas it seems not. It is odd to refer to a Catholic professional class when the Catholic church has declined so markedly. In Quebec the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which saw a steep fall in the power of the church and a growth in prosperity, resulted unexpectedly in a new, confident nationalism that alarmed Trudeau, the Quebecois Scots-French Canadian federalist. So we need in Northern Ireland absolutely to distinguish “Catholic” from “nationalist”, especially since there are church-attending Catholics who are not nationalists. (The distinction is hard to enact, alas, since it would be very uncomfortable for a Northern Catholic of any standing to promote membership of the United Kingdom.) The spokespeople of the new Catholic professional class are in fact primarily nationalists and intend to pose an existential threat to Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit. And as they and Sinn Féin turn their sights on the most elementary symptoms of Britishness – loyalist and Orange Order customs and insignia – loyalists in current depiction resemble Vance’s displaced hillbillies in Ohio: both living shrunken post-industrial lives, both reviled and condescended to, both regarded as impediments when they were once vital assets, both becoming detached from the mainstream, islanded in their own putative bigotry. The result is an example of what has been called reverse asymmetry.

In both arenas, loyalism and Northern Ireland itself, the threat is voiced in the smooth language of Chua’s cosmopolitan or Vance’s campus elites, as though what exercises them is the absence of human rights across the board of Northern Ireland’s population. But the recent letter signed by two hundred “leading” (that is, professional, academic and high-achieving) nationalists and addressed to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, couched in the language of The Guardian – a letter reading as though sent from exile and bondage – could adduce only one genuine deprivation suffered by nationalists, and that is the right to live in a united Ireland entirely separated from the United Kingdom. The under-determination of the allegation of rights violation and the fact that seemingly no unionist was asked to sign the letter suggested that underneath the cosmopolitan elitism is the old irredentist nationalism. Because it was the leader of Sinn Féin who was recorded off-camera admitting that the drive for equality would be the Trojan horse for Irish unification, that strategy was assumed to be only that of a familiar, traditional, working-class republicanism.

Chua reminds us that second and third generation, British-educated Muslims in Great Britain seem to be more religious and more alienated from British society than first-generation immigrants. This suggests something like a cultural recessive gene at work, whereby tribalism is a generational as well as geographic phenomenon. But it is certainly a reminder that old strong cultures do not assimilate or wish to assimilate, something that mild, welcoming Canada may be learning through the troubles of Indo-Canadian society in the eastern banlieues of metropolitan Vancouver and the growing cultural autonomy of recent affluent Chinese immigrants (several hundred thousand) in the city’s south, many of them needing to speak no English to lead productive lives and increasingly cut off from their Anglophone neighbours, while heavily immigrant Vancouver itself is increasingly detached from its rural hinterland. A recent internal government report on the subject has signalled alarm. But nothing will be done while the philosophy and policy of multiculturalism are regarded as the solution to the problem they themselves created.

Against the run of play, Chua ends her book with an upbeat epilogue. One has the impression that, unlike Scot-Irish Vance with his inherited pessimism, Chua, riding academically high and “best-selling” (she wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother), does not have the temperament to be depressed by her own findings; she speaks of her “congenital optimism”. (Besides, best-sellers are rarely downers.) She believes that the United States will rediscover an identity adequate to its destiny as the unique super-group, once again uniting all its diverse children. I wonder. Her concluding evidence? The “blockbuster Broadway hit play Hamilton” in which the Founding Fathers are portrayed by black actors. The local equivalent of this very American final flourish would be to claim that TitanicDance, the “hit show” that is really and brazenly LaganRiverdance in cloth caps, is a sign that the united Ireland super-group is likely. If Northern Ireland cannot become a super-group, I cannot see the thirty-two counties becoming one any time soon. But who knows how the Ulster Protestant “Anywheres” could jump if only the loyalists (working-class unionists) can be corralled and reduced to the impotent rump of Vance’s hillbillies? (My own faint hope is that Brexit will reveal the intimacies between Ireland and Britain and offer the glimmerings of an emerging super-group of our two islands.) Northern Ireland, as much as the United States, is at a crossroads, but being Scots-Irish, I do not have Chua’s congenital optimism.


John Wilson Foster is professor emeritus, University of British Columbia. His latest book is Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (New York Review Books, 2017).



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