Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Secular Theodicy: A Review of Day of Empire (Part II)

(Part I)

I hope my readers will forgive my long discourse, but I felt it served a useful purpose; I wished to make it very clear how this theodical history game is played, who benefits from it, and to make sure that I am not accused of being a defender of religious fundamentalism (Haredi or any other brand) or of intolerance. On the flip side I do not want anyone to think that I was simply going after Haredi Jews as my target here is not Haredim but Amy Chua, a Chinese-American Law Professor who teaches at Yale. Chua may not be Haredi but in terms of playing the theodical history game for all of its intellectual dishonesty she is every bit their equal. Not that she is interested in defending divine providence; rather, walking in the Whig tradition, she has adapted the game for the cause of tolerance.

Her book, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall, analyses what Chua likes to refer to as “hyperpowers” and argues that their rise was due to their tolerance, or at least their relative tolerance, and their subsequent downfall was due to the fact that, when faced a crises, they chose to turn away from tolerance. This is comforting in that the people who do the decent, pious and moral thing come out ahead in this sort of narrative. It most overcome the hurdle of all such narratives namely that, as political thinkers such as Glaucon and Machiavelli recognized, misbehavior often does pay off in the political realm. Kicking the Jews out of your country and seizing their property or claiming Church land for yourself is a good way to raise money; money that can be used pay for an army, fight wars, oppress people living in other countries and gain even more power and renown. In effect Chua has set for herself the task of correcting the “misimpression” that one may have gotten from the casual study of history that great powers are created by being “intolerant” and being better at it than anyone else.

To play her game she has, at her disposal, two moveable pieces, tolerance and hyperpowerhood. Which societies count as being tolerant and which ones count as being hyperpowers? These concepts are so wide open that Chua can have them mean whatever she wants them to mean. She goes through the pretense of defining these things. In her introduction, she defines three conditions to be a hyperpower:

Its power clearly surpasses that of all its known contemporaneous rivals; it is not clearly inferior in economic or military strength to any other power on the planet, known to it or not; and it projects its power over so immense an area of the globe and over so immense a population that it breaks the bounds of mere local or even regional preeminence. (xxii)

She defines tolerance as: “letting very different kinds of people live, work, and prosper in your society – even if only for instrumental or strategic reasons.” (xxiii) Not that Chua is actually serious about trying to stick to these parameters. When you can say that the seventeenth century Dutch counts as a hyperpower, but sixteenth century Spain does not then the concept of a hyperpower has no meaning. (more on this later) If we were serious about using her definition of tolerance we would have to admit that Nazi Germany was a tolerant society. They did let many different people live, work and prosper in their society. The Nazi army contained people from dozens of different countries. The Nazis worked with Frenchmen, with Poles, with Hungarians and with Russians, many non-Germans prospered under Nazi rule. The Nazis were even willing, on occasion, to work with Jews. What becomes clear very quickly about Chua is that what matters for any given society is not if you were really “tolerant” or a “hyperpower” but if Chua want to make you out as one of the good guys, if she can use you as part of her morality tale that tolerance is a good thing.

If Chua was a real historian and not writing Whig propaganda for modern liberals she could have easily written a book about the paradox of tolerance and intolerance faced by great powers. Almost all great powers have found themselves ruling over multiple societies and cultures, often even hostile ones. This presents a problem. On the one hand, people are not likely to meekly submit to a power that tries to suppress their culture, ban their religion and physically wipe them out. On the other hand, in order to maintain oneself as a great power, one is going to need create a common society with a common cause. This requires that the various societies and cultures under one's dominion must, in some sense, yield and agree to merge into the general culture. The solution is to try to balance these two requirements. One makes the overt gesture of tolerance while at the same time, usually less overtly, one tries to bring pressure in order to force dissenting groups to knuckle under. One can easily show how different powers such as the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, Spain and the United States have faced this problem of dealing with multiple cultures and have followed this line of reasoning, while practicing different models of tolerance/intolerance. In essence such a book would be an expanded version of Michael Walzer’s On Toleration. This line of argument avoids a number of problems. It makes no absolute claims so it does not have to deny exceptions. This allows for one to be somewhat open ended about what counts as a great power or as a tolerant society. This argument merely tries to describe a given phenomenon; it does not judge whether tolerance is good or bad, it does not try to create some sort of historical law, it makes no predictions as to the future nor does it proscribe any given course of action or ideology. As with all good history, it offers a method of analysis, but affirms no dogmas.

(To be continued …)

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

If Chua was a real historian and not writing Whig propaganda for modern liberals she could have easily written a book about the paradox of tolerance and intolerance faced by great powers.

Well Ms. Chua is not a real historian. Therefore she does enjoy a certain level of freedom to impart biases in her writings. As a lawyer, she is accustomed to relay and expand on only one side of the argument. For history purists, such an approach may not rise above the level of fodder. However bias generates book sales. Many readers do not want to make their own conclusions; they would much rather prefer to read the conclusion (even if it's a faulty one) made by the author. If anything, you get to exposed to a fun exercise in circular reasoning.