- - Tuesday, April 17, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

POLITICAL TRIBES: GROUP INSTINCT AND THE FATE OF NATIONS

By Amy Chua

Penguin Press, $28, 293 pages

There are many things the liberal establishment can’t come to terms with. Reality is one. Amy Chua — the best-selling author most famous for her “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — is another. It’s not that Ms. Chua is a conservative. She isn’t. And it certainly isn’t because she is a white, male chauvinist Trump supporter. She’s an Asian-American, a woman , a law professor at Yale, and anything but a fan of The Donald.

What bothers the liberal establishment about Ms. Chua is that she tells the truth as she sees it, not as dictated by political correctness, and is capable of looking beyond the blinkered confines of identity politics. She also recognizes that the source of America’s incredible — and virtually unique — success story is that we are a nation defined, albeit imperfectly, by a shared set of values rather than a common race, creed or place of origin.

Writing in The New York Times, reviewer Jennifer Szalai went so far as to dismiss Ms. Chua’s latest book as “stuck in a quagmire of her own making” for taking on aspects of political correctness and identity politics currently embraced by the American left. What really drives her critics crazy is the fact that Amy Chua exposes the “tribal,” regressive nature of so many of today’s self-styled “Progressives.”

In “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations,” Ms. Chua first draws on some of the lessons to be learned from past world history and then suggests how those lessons can be practically applied today. From the beginning of human history, social development has been a process of accretion. Two solitary humans unite to produce offspring. Marital-parental bonds lead to the development of family. Family ties expand to the clan level which then further expands to the tribal level. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes in many primitive — and some modern, dysfunctional — societies.

Even today, most long-established nation-states are primarily tribal in origin and self-image. And even within their own borders the divisive pulls of rival tribes and clans can still be felt: The Basque separatist movement in Spain, north-south tensions in Italy, Fleming-Walloon conflict in Belgium and the continuing Scots-English and Protestant-Catholic divides in the (less and less) United Kingdom are only a few current examples.

All of which illustrates the point Amy Chua makes in her opening paragraph: “Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.”

Most of civilization’s greatest triumphs have occurred when tribalism took the next step to a higher, shared sense of rules and values. In the Roman Empire at its height, African, Asian, Italian, Gallic, Germanic and Hispanic (to name only a few “tribal” ethnic groupings) shared a common sense of identity based on Roman law, Roman order and Roman citizenship. Sharing a common language, Latin, also helped; even that prickly old contrarian, the Apostle Paul, would proudly invoke his rights declaring, “Civis Romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”).

Human nature cannot be erased and rebuilt from scratch. Tribalism is an integral part of our DNA. But tribalism doesn’t have to be a dead-end. Indeed, successive waves of “tribal” immigrants from Scotland, Wales, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic lands, Latin America, Africa and Asia, have successfully joined a bigger, American “mega-tribe” (Ms. Chua calls it a “super-group”) because they were able to leave the worst of tribal rivalries behind them in strife-torn “old countries.”

It was all summed up by former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who was of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry. Marching in a Ukrainian Day Parade in Manhattan, he turned to the non-Jewish leader of the parade and said, “Just think. In the old country you might be chasing me with a gun. Here, we’re marching together in the same parade. Ain’t America great.”

Ms. Chua concludes: “Today’s purveyors of political tribalism, on both the left and right, may think they are defending American values, but in fact they are playing with poison.” Narrowing the definition of “American” by race, ethnicity, sexual attitudes, or parochial regional and economic considerations are all serious threats to our social cohesion. “But it will also cease to be America if enough of us come to believe that our country and our ideals are a fraud.”

Unfortunately, that is just what our young people are being taught in too many classrooms and on big and little screens everywhere.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.


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