Political Tribes

by Amy Chua, Bloomsbury, 304pp, £14

Amy Chua, a lawyer and academic at Yale, is perhaps best known for her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about the joys of traditional Chinese parenting. The bestseller popularised the term “tiger mom” and inspired three separate television series. Married to a novelist and fellow academic, Chua could almost epitomise America’s liberal elite, and yet her ability to see both sides of identity conflict makes her an excellent popular narrator of human behaviour.

Her latest book returns to the subject of her earliest, World on Fire, which explored how democracy in much of the world leads to the persecution of “market dominant minorities” such as the Chinese in south-east Asia or, historically, Jews in Europe. Political Tribes views the problem of tribalism in America itself, and the country’s blindness to the issue at home and abroad.

The United States took over from the British as a de facto empire in 1945. Yet Americans were reluctant imperialists, in denial about their new role and strangely incurious about the world. As Chua puts it: “Great Britain’s acute group consciousness during its imperial heyday contrasts jarringly with America’s group blindness today. The British were minutely knowledgeable about, almost obsessed with, the ethnic, religious, tribal and caste differences among their subject populations.”

In contrast, American foreign policy is largely blind to tribalism and ethnic nationalism. For an imperial power, this is rather like a prison warden not knowing which gangs operate on their wing.

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