Tigers in America

January 22, 2011

A few years ago I noticed a book in the Harvard Coop called World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability The argument of the book is that where there is a prosperous mercantile ethnic minority in a developing country, like the Chinese in Southeast Asia, that minority is well placed to take advantage of today’s globalization; but this very fact aggravates the resentment of the majority of the population, which is at the same time empowered by democratization to act on that resentment, leading to anti-capitalist populism, scapegoating, and at worst genocide. I couldn’t help noticing that the author, a Yale law professor, had a Chinese surname herself; indeed, her parents came from just such a minority situation in the Philippines.

This stayed in the back of my mind somewhere for several years; then the other day I glanced at Joanna Weiss’ op-ed in the Globe and was surprised to see that same name in a rather different, though not unrelated context; moreover, I then found the same subject addressed by David Brooks in the NY Times. It seems Prof. Chua has now become famous as an advocate of Chinese-minority parenting techniques... Well, not advocate exactly; but that’s how it was presented in a Wall Street Journal article, and apparently the idea took off from there. People all over America according to their inclination are either appalled by this tale of parental pressure (not to say bullying), or envious of it. (Brooks of course puts his own quirky spin on the question.)

My own interest is in how this relates to the topic of the earlier book. One thing that makes America different from most of the world is that ethnic boundaries are more porous; we no longer insist as much as we used to on trying to be an absolute melting pot, but we do still put a positive value placed on mingling with neighbors of diverse origins, working together, learning from one another, rather than living in separate enclaves. So people aren’t reacting to Chua’s story as being just about “the Chinese” and how different they are from the rest of us, they are reacting to it also – whether favorably or not – as raising issues relevant to the story of all families. This is an attitude it might be good to export if we could figure out how…

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