Friday, April 3, 2009

Intolerable tolerance?

Amy Chua's
deft, but troubling Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and How They Fall

Though the title fails to convey it, the argument of Amy Chua's new book, recently published in paperback, is arrestingly simple: Every “hyperpower” – a term she uses to describe globally-dominant civilizations at different points in world history – “was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence.”

Chua is quick to add that words like "pluralistic" and "tolerant" are not quite synonymous with what we might term “multicultural.” Instead, she says, they mean eschewing the often mythical allure of unity and “letting very different kinds of people live, work, and prosper in your society – even if only for instrumental or strategic reasons.” Conquered or minority peoples within an empire do not necessarily enjoy social equality, nor do they necessarily have political rights. But they are not summarily enslaved, destroyed, or forced to change their cultural or religious customs, and may in fact become quite wealthy and even powerful.

Using this standard, Chua identifies the ancient Persian and Roman empires, the medieval Tang Dynasty of China and the sprawling Mongol dominions, and the seventeenth century Dutch and nineteenth British empires as achieving hyperpower status. But her case studies also include Spain, which sacrificed its hyperpower role on the altar of Catholic orthodoxy at the very moment of achieving it. She also pairs the cautionary 20th century tales of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, which literally and figuratively also paid a high price expelling talent –and consuming valuable resources in the process. Along the way, she highlights the contributions of groups like Greeks for the Romans, Christian Janissaries for the Ottomans, the Scots in Great Britain – and the Jews for all these and many more empires – in enhancing the quality of imperial civilization.

The flip side of her argument is that the fall of every hyperpower was accompanied by a rising tide of religious, cultural, political or other intolerance that hastened the end of global supremacy. The Romans, perhaps as a result of Christianity, proved unable to absorb those considered "barbarians." The British, for their part, could see their way to granting political autonomy to Canadians and Australians in the aftermath of the American Revolution, but their racism brutally blinded them to the claims of Indians and Kenyans, who, at least initially, were disposed to become legitimate British citizens. Hyperpower contenders like Mughal India began promisingly under enlightened despots like the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), but their successors insisted on an increasingly stultifying Muslim orthodoxy.

It’s not hard to see at the outset how all this applies to all the current hyperpower, the United States of America. Chua, herself a child of Chinese immigrants by way of the Phillipines, traces the diverse origins of the nation as a British colony, and highlights that diversity as a multifaceted source of U.S. economic and political power, particularly in terms of technological innovation. Conversely, while her tone is mild and her implications often implicit, it’s clear she sees evangelical Christianity, immigration restriction, and aggressive measures taken in the name of national security as often misguided at best. She also makes the subtle but important point that while the United States has shown tremendous powers of absorption and amelioration internally, and it culture is often quite appealing abroad, it is in many ways a closed society in terms of extending its way of life beyond its borders. Nor, she notes, is the U.S. unique in its ability to make one from many: while China may seem like a far more insular state, the Middle Kingdom has in fact come a very long way since 1949 in engendering a genuine sense of Chinese identity that straddles either side of the Yellow River; Shanxi and Fujian are separate provinces, but now part of one country.

Chua writes with grace and even charm, managing to maintain an impressive degree of focus amid a sprawling narrative. Inevitably, this is history at 30,000 feet, and it virtually invites objections, large and small (American slavery clearly does not loom large in her imagination). Sometimes, her distinctions seem arbitrary – it’s not at all clear that the Dutch, whose power was never uncontested, really qualify as a hyperpower, or why, despite her disqualification by way of insularity, the Aztecs do not. It’s hard to dispute that the Inquisition proved to be a self-inflicted wound to the Spanish, but its empire only grew for decades after its imposition in 1492. Nor is it entirely evident that tolerance was an effect, rather than a cause, of other more decisive developments within these powers.

The biggest single problem with the book, though, is that it elides a crucial question: whether the sclerotic intolerance she laments is itself a product of tolerance. A multicultural approach to empire has the great advantage of pragmatism and flexibility, but the “glue” she repeatedly invokes can also be a solvent. As Chua herself notes of the speed to which the Persian Empire crumbled in face of Alexander the Great: elites of that empire “were not traitors, because they had never been patriots.” Nor is it hard to understand how what may have seemed like “benevolence” toward outsiders would be experienced as “disloyalty” toward insiders who made a ruler or empire powerful. It is the characteristic vice of the cosmopolitan – and Chua, a professor of law at Yale, is nothing if not a cosmopolitan – to conflate class interest with enlightenment.

Still, there’s lots to think about here. Few people actually reading this book would favor embracing the retrograde tactics of the Minutemen patrolling the Texas border, though part of the problem in discussions of contemporary immigration is that it’s often caricatured in such terms. But what may finally be most scary about Amy Chua’s book is not who gets shut out, but rather who decides to come in, and that’s not necessarily something that the U.S. government or its citizens can control, either. Would Amy Chua’s parents choose to come as immigrants to the United States of 2009? It may well be in the answer to that question the fate of a civilization lies.