ROGER BERKOWITZ: Welcome. I'm Roger Berkowitz. It's a pleasure to be here.
I'm sure many of you know of Amy Chua. She's the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor at Yale Law School. She has written many books: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I'm sure many of you know, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, she wrote with her husband, then this book, which came out about a year and a half ago, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It's a fascinating book, and I know many of you have already told me that you've read it and listened to podcasts on it, so you're coming back for more, which shows how powerful it is and how much people want to hear her.
Then, my colleague Walter Russell Mead—who it has been an absolute pleasure and honor teaching with at Bard for many years—we have co-run a number of programs together from a series in New York on blogging and the new public intellectual. We do a book reading group down at his apartment in DC. Once a month, I go down for that, which is a real pleasure. He's the James R. Clarke Chace Professor at Bard and has a weekly column in The Wall Street Journal. He's a scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, and he has written many books including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.
This is an exciting opportunity to bring two of the most—we could say "great"—provocative and I think independent and free thinkers writing today in the United States, together for a conversation. Even though Amy has written a book about the importance of tribes, I think we can say her writing is anti-tribal. It's free, it's independent, it's thoughtful, and in many ways very much in the spirit of Hannah Arendt, the person who gave the name to the center that I founded and run, and that's what I love.
I always say to people, "Who do you read? Who do you recommend?" If I read someone and I can predict what they're going to say, I won't read them anymore. That's my standard for who I want to read, and Amy and Walter both meet that standard in spades.
I want to start the conversation today by saying that when we sent the first emails out about this event I got some pushback. A very well-known anthropologist, who has been a member of the Center and been a speaker at our events before, wrote me, very angry that we would have Amy at the Center. I was shocked in some ways.
I said, "What's the problem?"
He said, "How can you have an event talking about tribes?"
I thought, What's the issue?
It turned out he just thinks "tribes" is a bad word. He's an anthropologist. Maybe it's from a different thing.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD [off-mic]: People groups.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: People groups. He said, "You should talk about local groups or parochial groups."
I said, "That doesn't do it for me." You can use "nativist," but I think that's more derogatory than "tribal."
We had an interesting conversation about it, and I talked to my daughter about it, who is a first-year high school student. She was asked to write a paper about who she was. These are the kinds of things she hates.
She's like, "I know they want me to say I'm Jewish, but I don't want to say that."
I said, "Well, what about saying you're American?"
She's like, "I don't feel American. I don't know what that is." That's something we can talk about. It's that generation.
I said, "Okay, you could write about the fact that you are a cosmopolitan, that you are sort of a Jew and sort of American, and you've traveled to 13 countries at the age of 14."
She's like, "What is that?" and we had a long talk about it.
The truth is, I went back and thought about it. We have at Bard a thing where you have to write a senior project, a thesis at the end of your senior year. In the last six years, over 50 percent of those senior projects I've advised are about the question of belonging, or home, or homelessness. The students are desperately searching for who they are.
What I really love about the book and its beginning is it starts right there. The opening lines are: "Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups." Amy, I guess I want to start by saying, what do you mean by that, that humans are tribal and we need to belong to groups?
AMY CHUA: Great. First of all, thank you so much for that introduction, to both of you for inviting me, and to all of you for coming today.
I don't know if Walter remembers, but he actually, I think, invited me to my first speaking event as an academic ever. I think it was in the 1990s. So, thank you.
Really actually, Roger, I mean that biologically. There are a bunch of studies in this book. Like our fellow primates, human beings need to belong to groups. Think how few hermits there are. It's extremely rare. Once we connect with a group—and I'll come back to that—we tend to want to cling to it and to defend it and to see it as better in every way. Just think about sports. I'd be interested in those kids.
In fact, this is an interesting study that I describe. This starts at an extremely young age, not infancy, but they did this big study that I write about where children between the ages of four and eight were randomly assigned to either the red group or the blue group, hardly such a controversial line. Then they were given T-shirts of the corresponding color, so half of them are wearing red T-shirts, the other half are wearing blue T-shirts. These kids were then shown computer-edited images of a whole bunch of other kids, half of whom were wearing red T-shirts and the other half of whom were wearing blue T-shirts. They were then asked for their opinion about these kids.
The results were stunning. Even though these young subjects—again, just between four and eight—knew absolutely nothing about the children in the computer screens, they consistently said that they liked the children wearing their color better, wanted to allocate more resources to them, and—perhaps most disturbingly—displayed strong unconscious bias. That is, when they were told stories about these kids they displayed systematic memory distortion, tending to remember all the good things about the kids wearing their color, and all the bad things about the kids wearing the other color.
So, humans aren't just a little tribal, they're very tribal. This is such a flimsy line, who cares? It's interesting. I don't know about Bard, do you have teams? In high school you have like the gray team or the blue team, if you think of sports rivalries. What happens there is that once you identify with a group, our identities become oddly bound up with it. The effect is almost like a drug. There are all these new studies that show the brain lighting up—some of it's kind of scary—when we "stick it to the other side," when we see the out-group members suffering or failing.
Back to your question. What was so interesting about your daughter—and there is something new about this generation, I know what you're talking about. When you mentioned cosmopolitans—this is actually a group that I talk about because that's what most of my friends at Yale Law School would consider themselves—anti-tribal. They're individualists, they're people who believe in getting rid of even nations as borders, human beings. What I say there—and this is particularly from the point of view I think of President Trump's base—in a way, liberal cosmopolitans are themselves one of the most exclusive tribes. It's actually very hard to get into.
We have very, very few working-class students at Yale Law School. We have very many racial and ethnic minorities, but very, very few actually poor people, people from below the poverty line. We had one guy from Appalachia who felt so excluded because an incredibly left-wing, lovely professor, liberal cosmopolitan, who—just as an introductory icebreaker in the first class—said, "What's your favorite country that you've ever visited?" This kid had never been on a plane, had only taken a bus from his town, and he just felt like he was a stranger in this, for him, very cohesive tribe. They spoke the same language, dressed the same way.
This is a tribe. People who live in Manhattan and would attend this kind of function have a lot in common. Maybe I'll end there.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: If I remember the statistic from your book, it's that in one recent Yale Law School class, one student was from under the poverty line, which is an extraordinary—if we had any other minority group where Yale Law School only had one student of them, we would be up in arms. Yet, the fact that only one white poor student was at Yale Law School didn't cause a stir. That I think does show the fundamental tribal line in this country right now—and not only in this country—between cosmopolitans and everyone else.
Before we get more specific, just to push this idea of tribalism, you said "human," you said "biological," maybe more "cognitive psychological." Actually, I think that's an important distinction between biological and psychological—and I'd like to know if you resist it—because our evolutionary psychological instincts to be a member of a group maybe can't be overcome, but which group we're a member of, and how we define those groups, and how exclusive or un-exclusive those groups are, can be wildly and importantly massaged and changed. What part do you think is hardwired and what part is more flexible? Maybe that's what I want to ask.
AMY CHUA: It's interesting. If you study baboons and all these other primates, they travel in tribes, and you can see the reasons why. You can easily imagine why evolutionarily this made sense.
But at the end of the book, I actually survey a bunch of really optimistic studies, and you're right. They do show that it's very hard to tell people to stop being tribal. It would be like telling people to stop liking their favorite sports team by just liking all athletes in general as a new group, a universal group.
It's very interesting. Studies do show that if you can pull people out of their tribes and have them interact on a human basis, real human interaction, it's incredible what progress can be made. It's actually very, very positive.
I want to make very clear that it's not just exposure. There are a whole bunch of studies recently by Ryan Enos at Harvard that show, actually, just exposure to more diversity can easily lead to just more hatred and more division, so it's very specifically about interacting one-on-one.
The most obvious example is actually the integration of the U.S. military in the 1950s. When they proposed this—I think it was President Truman—everybody was against it. The troops were against it, the leadership was against it, the population was against it. But after they did it, they first tested for the effectiveness, and they found that the integrated troops were as, or more, effective than the racially segregated troops.
But the really interesting part is when they started interviewing all these people. This is back in the time—it wasn't just black and white, Mexican Americans had not met Scandinavian Americans, had not met Italian Americans.
This continued into the Vietnam War. Lots of terrible things happened during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but one positive thing is that these people all said the same thing, which is—you're in a foreign country, you're terrified for your life—when you're depending on the person next to you to save your life, you don't care what kind of accent they have or the color of their skin. People of all different religious backgrounds and ethnicities actually came to really know one another. It was a pretty short period.
The statistics also about same-sex marriage, I think are very interesting. Very rapid—I'm going to get the numbers wrong, but I'm going to say something like eight years ago, 65 percent of the population in this country was against, and now I think it's like 11 percent. A lot of that is what I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, that once you started realizing that the people we're talking about are not these abstract people in the other tribe, but "Oh, my gosh! It's my son, it's my neighbor, it's my employee, it's my cousin." Once you put a human face to it, then it was completely different, and the norms changed very quickly, so there was a group reshuffling there.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: One of the basic points is, if you read Dostoevsky, you know that if you meet someone and you bump into them in the street and you get to know them a little bit, you can actually have great resentment for them. Dostoevsky's a wonderful novelist of the power of resentment.
So actually, the idea that if you just meet other people, and you go on exchanges, or people come, you're going to suddenly get rid of prejudices doesn't work—I think that's what you're saying—but if you sit down and talk to people and engage with them and suffer with them in the Army or in an institution, that's when these prejudices begin—
AMY CHUA: One of my favorites, just very quickly. There is a lot of good news, too. After I published this book—Roger's right. One of the things I experienced writing a book about political tribalism was I became the victim of political tribalism. Nobody was happy. I was always being accused of "both sides-ism" or something.
I also, on the positive side, learned about all of these amazing institutions. One of my favorites is this thing called Make America Dinner Again. It's a group out in Berkeley. After the presidential election, two young women I think from the Bay Area broke down in tears. They couldn't believe what had happened in the election. They were depressed for weeks. Afterward, they crawled out of bed and they realized—you know what?—that they had never actually spoken to anybody who voted for Trump. So, they decided to create these dinner parties, bringing people from the opposite side, and talking over dinner.
It's not magical. It's not like people persuade—but it's civil. You start to see people not as enemies but just people that you can at least enjoy arguing with.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: The living room conversations we do at Bard, we have dorm room conversations, which are exactly along these lines.
Walter, you've just come back—as you always have—from many different countries. A lot of this book is about foreign policy. You're the one who first brought this book to my attention—I want to thank Walter for that. How do you come to the importance of this idea of thinking about tribes in politics and foreign policy?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: In some ways, I think one of the really formative intellectual experiences of my life was in 1990. Lewis Lapham sent me on a six-month road trip in Europe. The original idea of this road trip was that it was 50 years after the Blitzkrieg, so I did things like I went to Dunkirk 50 years after—fantastic.
Then, as communist governments began to fall or began to yield across Eastern Europe, suddenly it took on a very different complexion. I spent most of the time actually driving through these Eastern European, Central European countries—some just newly communist, some still communist—and then around the Black Sea into what was still the Soviet Union, and spent a month driving. You couldn't have done this a year before and, because of all the civil wars, you couldn't have done it a year after, it was just this window of time.
What I encountered as I drove through, was meeting all of these people who were getting ready to slaughter their neighbors. As I was in Croatia, some of the fighting had just begun in Yugoslavia, you literally had to listen to the morning news for the traffic reports—"And there are snipers on Highway 17"—to plan your route to avoid the incipient civil war.
I remember one night I was in Pristina, the capital of what is now the Republic of Kosovo, then a province in Yugoslavia. I was doing one thing I like to do when I travel—get together with a group of young people and hear what they're thinking. This was a group that was a mix of Serbs and Albanians. I was asking them about the ethnic stuff, and they said, "Oh, yeah, you know, our grandparents, that's something for the old people. Our generation doesn't really believe in that stuff." Of course, within a year they're slaughtering each other.
In Georgia, in Tbilisi, I was at a fabulous party with a bunch of Georgian intellectuals, and artists, and poets. It was great conversation, much good Georgian wine was consumed, even some brandy. Late at night, this Georgian poet, who is also a scholar of medieval culture, opens his desk drawer and shows me this somewhat large and clumsy—but very illegal—handgun.
I say, "Well, what's that for?"
He says, "For the Abkhazian mense."
The experience of watching an assumed cosmopolitan, post-historical unity disappear in place after place was, for me, a rather strong one. I have to say, what I learned on that trip has helped me to this day understand a lot of what's going on, not only in that part of the world, but in other parts.
Identity is one of these things: You can't live with it, and you can't live without it. I think of my friend George Soros's father who wrote an autobiography in Esperanto— that's maybe the cosmopolitan North Pole right there.
Then I think of my grandfather, who was a good Democrat from South Carolina, who voted for Franklin Roosevelt happily four times, but was really happy to live long enough to vote for George Wallace in the Democratic primaries in the 1960s. I asked him about that, and he said, "I'm voting for me."
I said, "What do you mean?"
Roosevelt and Wallace from his point of view were presidential candidates who cared about people like him, not dirt-poor Southern whites, but we're not talking about rich Southern whites, either—working on the railroad, very simple life—and it was a question of "us" and "them" for him. In his mind, Franklin D. Roosevelt—not Eleanor—and George Wallace were allies of his tribe.
I guess I've seen from an early age how different things look to different people and how thin cosmopolitanism can be, which I thought in your book, there was that sense of it.
But on foreign policy stuff, too, in your book you talk about the Americans in Vietnam who did not understand that about 1 percent of the country was ethnically Chinese—who had migrated to Vietnam, I guess often in the French era—and had done very well but were deeply hated both by the communist and the non-communist Vietnamese. In our sort of tribal blindness as a country, we didn't realize that when we encouraged capitalist development that would in theory go for everyone, huge amounts of this went right toward the most unpopular group in the country.
I was just in Myanmar—Burma—a few weeks ago, listening to people talk about the Rohingya issue in Burma. I realized again there that the problem—it's a very deep and complicated problem—but the root of it is that under British rule, the British encouraged lots of foreigners to move into Burma, and there was a division of labor. Brahmin Hindus were the sort of clerks and functionaries of the civil service, Gujaratis and others were encouraged to be the merchants, and the Burmese were at the bottom of the labor market and were excluded from everything.
The resentment against this in-migration of what then becomes an economic elite—there was never a day when the Burmese people in any political way ratified or approved of this migration—has created a political culture in which it's impossible for a democratic politician—you can't get elected to office if you fight this. It's just a reality.
AMY CHUA: And they're a majority.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Yes, but they're also 68 percent or 64 percent—a threatened majority is a very critical group.
I'm not trying to defend the Rohingya, but it's also interesting that the Palestinian bitterness about Jewish migration has similar roots. The Palestinians never accepted, never voted for, never ratified the admission of Zionists into Palestine. This was done by the imperial power, the British, without consultation.
So, the sense that they are not just a hostile tribe—the other tribe—but that they were illegally and wrongfully implanted on you, has such power over such people's imaginations. I just found these tribal issues that Amy's book talks about are things that resonate in all kinds of complicated and unexpected ways around the world, but that help you, it's a lens. It doesn't always tell you what to do because sometimes there isn't very much you can do, but at least you can understand, and I find that very helpful.
AMY CHUA: One very interesting point that Walter reminds me of is that the British before us—I talk about how "group blind" the United States has been. I have hypotheses for why that is. That is, when we go into Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam, we are incredibly ignorant about the group identities that matter most to the people we're trying to help.
The British were very different. I went through all these colonial documents. In India, it's exactly as you say. They were very calculating about it. They knew all about the different castes, and they pitted them against each other.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: They had a sense of what each one was good for.
AMY CHUA: Right, right, stereotypes, but also some truth in some ways. Anyway, that was striking.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: But it created, as you know, messes.
AMY CHUA: Time bombs, yes.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I was in Fiji, and the big issue in Fiji is relations between Indians who came in under the British Raj, again without the local people ever accepting them or willing them. But now they've lived there for 100 years and more, and local people who felt that their land has been invaded, their culture challenged—and how powerful around the world is the drive to reverse what are seen as these acts of imperially assisted tribal aggression?
I don't advocate returning the Indians in Fiji to India and so on and so forth, but you can't realistically think about the politics of these regions without understanding just what strong stuff you're dealing with and how careful you have to be with these subjects.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: There are two parts to the book, in many ways. Part of the book is about the United States of America, which you call the "supergroup." Maybe just give a quick definition of a supergroup so we have it in the room.
AMY CHUA: It's a very simple definition. I make the claim that we may be the only one in the whole world.
To be a supergroup, you have to satisfy two requirements, a country or society. The first is you have to have a very strong, overarching national identity, like "American" or "Chinese."
The second requirement to be a supergroup is that your membership has to be open to people of all backgrounds and that subgroup identities have to be allowed to flourish. For example, at our best—this is also in danger in America—this is a country where you can be proudly Libyan American, or Korean American, or Irish American, or Anything American, and intensely patriotic at the same time.
If you start going through other countries, for example, China. China is not a supergroup because it satisfies the first requirement—obviously a hugely powerful national identity—but it's an ethnic nation. It's Han Chinese-defined, and subgroup identities like the Tibetans, and the Uyghurs, and all those minorities, are not freely allowed to flourish.
Even a country like France, that is so similar to us in so many ways—they have a constitution, Western democracy, multicultural—is not a supergroup, either. It also has a very strong overarching identity, the "French" identity, but because of this concept of laïcité—very strong forces demanding assimilation—religious minorities, Muslim minorities, are not allowed. I'm sure you've heard of the burkini ban and the headscarf—very different than the United States. Those subgroup identities are not allowed to flourish, and a lot of people think that's what has led to so much resentment in these Northern African communities.
I don't remember if it was Sarkozy or which president actually said, "If you want to live in France, you have to eat like a French person, talk like a French person, and dress like a French person." France, in that sense, doesn't satisfy the second requirement. [Editor's note: It was Sarkozy.]
Just to give one more example, Great Britain is very interesting. The country is Great Britain. It's the exact opposite of France. A lot of people say this, including the prime minister—there's not a really cohesive, broad, "British" umbrella identity anymore, first of all because you have such strong tribal identities at the level of Scotland, Ireland, the Welsh, and they identify strongly with those impulses. Also, because Britishness is very much associated with English, because that's the largest portion of the population, so of course the Scots aren't going to like that.
Most importantly, if you're going to go with this British identity, so much of that is wrapped up in empire. In polite society today, nobody can be openly proud of empire, so the content of that identity is problematic.
In terms of the new migrants—whether it's from the Middle East or Southeast Asia or South Asia —it's kind of multiculturalism, more enclaves and much less of an overall identity. Prime ministers have actually talked about that.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: Walter, I wonder what you make of this, the idea that the United States is the only supergroup country in the world.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I might throw in Australia.
AMY CHUA: I thought you were going to say Canada, and I was going to have a good answer for you. I don't think Canada is.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Canada's more multicultural.
AMY CHUA: Yes. I don't think it has a—
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: But I think Australia has a bit more in it—and New Zealand in a different way because of that very interesting Maori-Haole compact. New Zealand is constituted a little differently. But the fact that these are anglophone, colonial enterprises sort of proves the—
You could argue in its way that Israel has become a tribe of some tribes—Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemeni, and so on—and that was a people who were not seen by many people, including themselves, as having anything in common or much in common 100 years ago—a secular, Viennese Jew, and a very traditional Yemeni Jew—but somehow now that's a new identity.
On the American thing, if we take the supergroup as you've defined it, we have not been a supergroup for very long. On the other hand, there were ways in which we were headed that way, I think from much earlier. I think we've always been a "tribe of tribes."
You think about the early American colonies—I don't know how many of you are familiar with the book Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. We discussed that in our book group. You know it. He talks about how the original settlers of a lot of the American colonies came from different parts of the United Kingdom, and that the regional cultures and attitudes that you find in those cultures persist.
One example would be the Jacksonian Appalachian folk culture, which comes basically from today's Northern Ireland and the borderlands between England and Scotland. That was where you had a very tribal society, feuds, and hundreds of years of warfare. In many ways, you can see the imprint on that on a state like West Virginia and so on today.
But America from the beginning was never a unitary identity, so you had South Carolinians who thought they were more South Carolinian than they were American. Some still do, I must say. Then you have New Yorkers, who thought they had nothing in common with Virginia or Massachusetts, but were American.
Right there in the Constitutional Convention, there is pluralism. I think it's somewhat related to the religious pluralism. One of the most important events in American history is that the English Reformation failed, in the sense that no single religious denomination dominated. In Sweden, they had all been Catholic, and they all became Lutheran. In Italy, they all stayed Catholic after some backing-and-forthing.
In England you had some Catholics, you had the Anglicans, but then you had the Presbyterians and the Methodists, and by about 1700 they had all realized that they were just going to have to live together, but that you could be English Methodists, English Anglican, even English Catholic, though that made some people uncomfortable. And the American colonies, even more so, then as religions proliferate. So, we had this denominational model of these different rooms in the American mansion, and you have a private space where you all believe that the Presbyterians are the only ones with the true religion, and everybody else is probably going to hell in a hand basket, and that's what you do in church. But then you come out of the church, and if the Methodist church is on fire, you help to put it out, and you associate politically. Again, a political party can't be successful if it only has Presbyterians voting for it. It has to reach out to these other groups.
I think as new ethnic groups came in, people sort of adopted that denominational model of unity in diversity, or diversity in unity, again gradually and painfully. The Irish were too much, at one point, for people to accept.
I see a trajectory, which generally makes me feel a bit more optimistic that our openness to pluralism isn't something that has recent, shallow roots. This is not like a piece of Great Society legislation that somebody like Trump can simply overturn. It doesn't mean we're not in trouble or that bad things can't happen, but there's something in the American soul that believes, at its core, that diversity is not incompatible with unity.
AMY CHUA: I so agree with Walter, but because I teach at a law school my focus is not so much the soul, as the Constitution. I teach on a very liberal college campus and—I'm sure you experience this, too—I think there's a real threat to our Constitution, actually from both sides of the political spectrum.
Many, many really smart young people now think that the Constitution is just irredeemably stained by the sins of its authors, it's another document by white male rapists.
AMY CHUA: That's interesting, yes.
There is threat on the right, too. I have a statistic. I don't know what percentage of Trump voters think that it would be fine for President Trump to postpone the 2020 elections if they can't determine the proper citizenship group of people or something. If this happened, it would really be the end of our constitutional democracy.
But everything that Walter said has a legal basis for it. One of the lines in my book is that we were—and always have been—an exceptionally diverse country. It's easy to now think, Oh, it's always just white males, but even from the very beginning, Colonial America, it wasn't just the people from different parts of England. There were Swedes and Germans and Greeks and Danes. It was huge, and within one or two generations, they would assimilate.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Except for the Pennsylvania Dutch.
AMY CHUA: But I also say we were also exceptionally racist. Compared to every other major power, we alone had institutionalized slavery within our borders.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: And helped to build the group feeling because you've got to have the out-people to build the in-people.
AMY CHUA: So, it's true also what people say, that this country was founded on white supremacy. I don't like the way that's phrased. I think the principles in our Constitution are not—
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: It's a little anachronistic.
AMY CHUA: Yes. But anyway, we have no establishment clause. We have no established church, and freedom of religion.
You're absolutely right. It was not until after the Fourteenth Amendment that we had the concept of birthright citizenship—which again President Trump has been talking about getting rid of. But that's something that makes us extremely unique among nations, the fact that anybody born on this soil—whether you're from Libya or Mexico—is a U.S. citizen. France just moved away from it. I think New Zealand moved away from it. No East Asian country has it. It's really quite unusual.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: We're going to open for questions soon, but I want to ask you a legal question because you brought up the law. To what extent is the supergroup idea related to the federalist history of the United States?
For Hannah Arendt, first of all, the United States in her mind was the first non-nation-state because it didn't have a nation behind it. It was a conglomeration as we've been talking about.
AMY CHUA: And she meant "nation" like an ethnic nation.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: She took nation-state very seriously, where there was a state with a majority nation. She said those nation-states were dangerous and fated to fail because there were always going to be minority peoples in them, and there was actually no way to deal with them. You either had to assimilate them, expel them, or kill them in a nation-state.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I thought you said there was no way to deal with them.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: Exactly. She dealt with that in her lifetime.
She also thought that the great genius of the American Constitution was in the end its federalist principle, the dispersion of power and the lack of one sovereignty, which fit with the idea of lack of one nation, and the idea that there would be multiple power sources and power bases in states but also in town halls, and communities, and non-profits, a Toquevillean reading.
I'm wondering if there's a constitutional/federal dispersion of power argument within your supergroup idea or if that's not something you think of.
AMY CHUA: I think it is, but I think I'm not—it's funny. My husband's here. He's a constitutional law professor, and this is kind of his specialty.
Yes. I think for sure—it's really tricky right now with our changing demographics. So many of my friends now are against the Electoral College. We have such an interesting way in which power was divided up, both the way the Congress is set up, and there's a lot in the Constitution that is to resist the majority.
I think I'm not going to directly answer your question, but the link to foreign policy is—I spend a lot of time with students trashing various parts of the Constitution, and especially right now when the it looks like one branch is going to be so "anti" what everybody believes in. A lot of my colleagues are saying that we need to just forget that branch.
What I was going to say is—as somebody like Walter, who has been a comparativist—I have been studying foreign countries for actually 25 years, and I think Americans forget how precious our Constitution is. Many of the countries I study—in Africa, Latin America—have had 14, 15, 30, 60 constitutions. For me, I don't think it's necessarily conservative but it's a gift to have this kind of stability.
I don't always have a good answer. Again, I'm not the common law expert about the Electoral College exactly, but I do think we should be very wary because I've seen—when the constitution becomes as easy to legislate out as another law, then you're really losing something there.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think there's a very good example when you think of, say, under Tito, he imposed an order on Yugoslavia, and those peoples all lived together from 1945 to 1990. When that controlling authority was removed and they were in a kind of "state of nature," they reverted to tribalism. It becomes much more vicious and brutal than before, and horrible things take place. You can't put the egg back together.
In some ways, I think our Constitution and the ideas around the Constitution serve to limit actually group/tribal fears and intertribal—we feel there is an order in which we have confidence that's bounding things. If that is lost, I think what you'll see is an intensification of tribal elements.
No one hated slavery more than Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and they both saw the Constitution as our hope ultimately to deal with this. That's something I generally try to stress with my students, but as you know, sometimes it's an uphill fight.
QUESTION: I'm a fan of both of yours. I especially like your earlier book, The World on Fire. Some of the things you say about the whole world are very pertinent to what's happening in America today.
Basically, what you say about the whole world—and you have many examples—if the majority is not getting its fair share, they will rise up and overthrow everything. This has happened all over the world—in Latin America. The army is one example of how Latin America is an equalizing force.
People don't care about the constitutional, liberal niceties; they care about what's in it for them. Free market democracy is very fragile—it's an anomaly in human history.
If this inequality that we experience today continues, how can we survive when the majority feels it's getting screwed? The two Roosevelts reacted to this by enacting great reforms, but I don't know that this is going to happen here, and I'm very worried about our Constitution. I'd like to hear your viewpoints.
AMY CHUA: I'll quickly go first. Thank you for your nice words. It's a little story about this book, Political Tribes. When I started writing it four or five years ago, it was just going to be a foreign policy book.
The reason I stressed majorities, one thing I've been writing about for 20 years is this phenomenon that Walter referred to of market-dominant minorities, something that I said America didn't have to deal with—a situation where 3 percent of the population is this hated outsider minority that controls like 70 percent of the economy.
In Indonesia—you may not know this—the Chinese there are not Indonesians, but they are ethnic Chinese. They're only 3 percent of the population, but they control about 70 percent of the private economy, and the majority of Indonesians hate them. So, every time you have democracy in elections, what do you think they're going to vote for? You had an authoritarian like Suharto bottling it up, but then when you suddenly have elections, Americans think, Oh, elections will bring peace and prosperity. Instead, the angry majority will vote to confiscate the rich peoples' assets, or to kick them out, or to kill them.
What's funny is when I started writing this book about five years ago, it was just going to be about more foreign policy—Iraq and Vietnam. Then, the November 2016 elections happened here. I remember teaching my class—International Business Transactions—and teaching from World on Fire and reading a passage from that book. I was making the point that I had always made, that we do not have this problem in America. That's why we keep getting our foreign policy wrong; because we don't have this. Democracy always works for us.
I'm reading a passage, and I said, "In developing countries, under certain circumstances, demagogues with no political experience will sweep to power on an anti-establishment platform by tapping into deep social resentments and ethnically tinged populism." I was talking about Hugo Chavez. That's a quote from World on Fire where I'm talking about Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. I stopped. There was silence, and then this student, a woman, raised her hand, and said what everybody was thinking, which is, "That sounds just like what just happened here."
In the last three months—my book was due—I redid the book. The new thesis of this book was that, for the first time in American history, we are starting to experience—this is just the point you made—some of the dynamics that historically were most associated with developing countries: namely, all these things—the rise of populism and ethno-nationalist movements, this white nationalist thing has always been around but now has open conferences and lurches toward authoritarianism, and the erosion of trust in institutions and electoral outcomes. These are all things I've been studying about in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and we're starting to see them.
Just to finish this up, one of the things I realized is that we are starting to get our own version of a market-dominant minority. It's not ethnic. America is different than other countries. It's not like one little ethnic group.
The Jews, by the way, do not control the U.S. economy. I actually study this.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Just the weather.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: Just in New York.
AMY CHUA: Interestingly, the Jews were a market-dominant minority between the First and Second World Wars in a few Eastern European Countries—Lithuania and Hungary; I use a very strong definition, really controlling these major sectors.
The group that I see as rising as the U.S.'s own idiosyncratic market-dominant minority today is what you referred to. It's really what we call the "coastal elite." They're not really all coastal.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Us.
AMY CHUA: Us, and it's not always on the coast. It could be in Chicago, but it's really the cosmopolitan elite.
What's interesting here is the rhetoric. When Donald Trump said, "Make America Great Again," the dynamic, even in Serbia, it's always, "We need to take back our country. The rightful owners need to take back our country from these outsiders that are controlling everything." That's exactly what President Trump has been tapping into, maybe not explicitly—he actually did say, "We need to take back our country."
Because we here are viewed as—you'll hear this from heartland America: "They" care more about the poor in Africa than they care about the poor here. They want to let in all these minorities and immigrants, but they don't care about the "real" Americans, and President Trump tapped right into that.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: There's a long tradition of populism in the United States. It has mostly been left populism.
AMY CHUA: Yes.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: I think one of the questions that has to be asked now, is why populism in the United States has shifted from the left?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I don't think it has been mostly left populism. I think the left has invented a populist past. William Jennings Bryan, if you think about his "Cross of Gold" speech, that was the greatest anti-Semitic dog whistle in American history: "Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold"—you bankers!
AMY CHUA: Wow. I didn't know about that.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: It was a profoundly racist William Jennings Bryan. Yes, there were a few nice people in there, but the leadership of the movement was consistently racist, and in Southern politics, the small farmers and so on, the more populist actually wanted to highlight racial differences. The elites wanted to play it down to get more Northern capital.
There are different varieties of American populism, and you can't talk about Brooklyn economic populism in the 1930s, which was socialism, and it's not the same thing as Arkansas, etc.
In terms of reforms, in some ways the biggest difference between our generation of elites and earlier elites, like the Roosevelts—great example. Teddy Roosevelt, growing up as a young man in New York, where Tammany Hall was ruling everything—you have privilege, you have political machines, and no gentleman would go into politics or learn how to talk to average people because it was too disgusting. It was all corrupt.
He decides, he says, "I realize that my friends have decided not to be in the political class. I choose to be in the political class." He goes, and his first term in the New York Assembly, he's such a jerk. He's got the bow tie. He looks like—what's the name of the guy in The New Yorker?—Eustace Tilley. That's how he cruises into the New York Assembly.
But he learns, and then he goes out. He goes out to Montana. He's a cowboy. He gets past this, and his Rough Riders. He carefully builds a regiment of poor people, Southern people—it's like a World War II bomber crew—in Cuba in 1898.
He realizes that the elites have something to give. There's a knowledge base. There is a certain cosmopolitanism of outlook. There are other things. The country actually needs some of the leadership these folks can provide. But they can't do it if their identity is based on stressing and exaggerating the differences between them and the rest.
I think you look at the socialization process in a lot of American colleges and universities—my alma mater, Yale, and some others—the socialization process is: the more ostentatiously you can be dismayed by the attitudes of "the great unwashed," the larger the psychological and mental difference is between your world and their world, the more you're welcomed in to cosmopolitan Valhalla. That is a recipe for disaster on an enormous scale because people can feel contempt. When you have politicians, for instance, they have such contempt for you that they haven't even bothered to learn how to lie convincingly to you.
Did people see those Hunger Games: Mockingjay movies? They're really good. You, of all people, should see them. To a lot of Americans, that's reality. That's our current world. That's not future fiction. All of us crazy media people dressed up in those weird—that's CNN. That's The New York Times.
I think a lot of this has to start with people who are ostensibly being trained to be the leaders of America, getting less engaged with the leader part and more engaged with the America part.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: It seems that if there's one thing that unites what we might call the World on Fire populism around the world, it's immigration. It's not economics. It's largely this sense of immigration. Then you say we need to get onboard with the great unwashed masses. What does that mean? Does it mean accepting the anti-immigration status?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Let me look in hindsight.
Suppose in the 1990s, we had been less indifferent to illegal migration. I think we could have taken some very small, measured, humane steps that would have kept a lot of this out of our politics, but when people see 11 million illegal migrants coming in, that's like the Rohingya that the British government let in that the people didn't consent to. There's a huge, huge difference between democratically voted-on migration and illegitimate migration.
AMY CHUA: The immigration thing is such a mess right now. I am an immigrant's kid. I don't think anybody could be more pro-immigrant. One of my books I wrote, Day of Empire, is all about how diversity of pluralism is the source to—
Having said that, it is such a mess. The split between the right and the left on this now, there is just no way of talking about it.
I think one problem on the progressive side is there are a lot of numbers in here. We have had a huge amount of immigration since the 1960s. They're not from Europe, but they're from Asia and Latin America principally, and then next, Africa. This means a changing demographic.
As you all know, I think another reason we're seeing what we're seeing now is that whites are on the verge of losing their majority status. So, for the first time in our history, every group feels threatened. It used to be just the minorities, but now you've got the whites who also feel threatened, but everyone else still also feels threatened.
I think it's a mistake—even just five years ago you could talk about things. Now at Yale Law School, you certainly can't say the word "illegal" or "undocumented," you cannot. This vocabulary fetish is another problem. If you're poor and from the middle of the country, you don't know what the latest term is, you don't know to say Latinx.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That's one of the ways they know who to have contempt for, the people who don't speak—it's true.
AMY CHUA: For immigration, I wrote in the book, having started by saying I'm such a pro-immigration person, I think that people should be able to express their anxiety about it. They should be able to say, "Wait . . ." but they're not allowed to because immediately if you say something like, "Should we let these people in?"—"Xenophobe! Racist!"
What happens with that, even at Yale Law School, when a few people want a raise, well maybe we should have some limits, what happens then is it goes underground. It's not that it just goes away, it goes underground, where it is very dangerous, where you really do have terrible elements.
I do put a lot of blunt numbers in, and it is true that after we had the biggest period of immigration in this country—1800s–1900s—a period followed, which I am against, in which we cut down on immigration. However, the result of that was that there was a lot of time for—and this is smaller numbers—assimilation and all this stuff to happen.
We're in this uncharted territory in some ways. I don't even know the solution. I'm an optimist, but I see the presidential candidates, and it's like—certainly at the primary stage—no one can say anything.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think the thing to try to think about here is that there's a goal that intuitively makes sense to a lot of people in America, which is, immigration has built this country. It's a good thing, we want it, and the people who come here tend to be pretty good people on the whole—though it's a mix like any group of people—and that's good.
Then we have to think about what's a sustainable system for immigration that would allow you, in the long run, to take as much advantage as possible of talented immigrants. In Indonesia once, a bunch of Indonesians were getting on my case about America limiting migration from Indonesia, saying it's a human right. We should all be able to go to America.
I said, "Fine. Here's a deal. I'll make a deal with you. The day Indonesia allows free migration from China to Indonesia, America will allow free migration from Indonesia to the United States."
It was like, "No, no! That's crazy! That's ridiculous! They're completely different things!"
AMY CHUA: Especially, then if you fall on the left you want a very strong welfare state, you combine those two things, then it's—
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Even in Sweden this is creating Nazis.
AMY CHUA: Even in Sweden.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think you cannot play with dynamite, or if you do, you will get your fingers singed and maybe worse. And immigration is dynamite, especially I think immigration that doesn't have a legal framework.
Again, a lot of Americans don't know what our current immigration laws are. They don't know how it works, they don't know how many immigrants are allowed in every year, they don't know why the numbers are what they are. When they hear things it gets them angry, because they often hear them out of context.
We do at some point need to really think about our immigration laws, and part of that is probably going to be there is a hard annual limit, and then it's how do you distribute within that. Countries—Australia has done pretty well. They have a lot of pressure from people who want to get to Australia that they don't allow in. But in terms of a country that has had pretty high levels of migration for a sustained period of time after a racist history, where "White Australia" was like a slogan, they've actually managed it pretty well, but they've managed it more tightly than we have.
There's no automatic answer, but I think illegal migration, numbers are a factor. Maybe if you say, for example, if unemployment rises above a certain level, the migration number goes down so that people feel that whatever migration system we have, they—the current residents of the United States—are the intended beneficiaries of the policies of the United States. The fact that the establishment was unable to articulate that kind of connection in 2016, is one of the reasons Donald Trump is president, maybe one of the top reasons.
QUESTION: Because we're all here, I'm taking for granted that we're "us," that we all think that supergroupism is a good thing. And yet, I don't think anybody here could not think that the concept of the supergroup has been under attack in this country—at least in the last three years and maybe before. My question is really, is this idea that a supergroup is a good thing—it's what America is all about—under attack because of Trump, or was it disintegration in the belief that the concept of a supergroup is a good thing, something that was already starting to erode, and that facilitated Trump's election?
I think that's tied in with the question you were just talking about, which is, is Trump because of the economy—which was what you read a lot about a couple of years ago—or is it because of immigration, or is because of something else?
AMY CHUA: Great question. This is a nice opportunity for me to say a little bit why I like this concept of a supergroup. Many of our friends—and possibly you—are cosmopolitan liberals. A lot of people just say, "Look, really the ideal for the world is just not even to have nations. Let's just all be people." Maybe someday we can get there. Even the EU project is falling apart.
The thing is, I like the idea of a supergroup because it means that you don't have to choose between multiculturalism and having a strong, overarching identity. That's just something to think about because I've had debates with people.
Anyway, on your point, I think it's related to the question of immigration. What is the content of this national identity that's supposed to tie us all together? Of course, it was much easier when the country was economically, politically, and culturally dominated by white males. Now we need to have a national identity that resonates for and can bind together immigrants and non-immigrants, rural people and urban people, and also the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners.
Obviously, we understand why some people might be less excited about the Constitution. If you think about the three-fifths rule and how the Constitution did not apply to so many people for so long. I always feel so conservative saying this, but it's actually the principle of Hamilton, the play, because that's actually a very patriotic play if you think about it. It puts minorities, the people who were excluded, front and center, but the idea is that these principles can belong to all of us. America has always been an aspirational nation. Our ideals have always been so far ahead of our reality.
In some ways, the optimist in me says that this feels like such an ugly moment. Sometimes I just feel terrified to even go in to Yale Law School. I used to teach really provocative classes, and I still do, but now I'm so much more careful.
It's not that we're more tribal now, it's just that many, many, many voices used to be suppressed and silenced. So, now a lot of formerly suppressed voices are having their shot at airing their views. It's a very ugly moment because there's a lot of anger and resentment.
I feel like we're in this period of renegotiating that supergroup identity. I do think that the only hope is the Constitution. It can't be ethnic. That's the terrifying thing from the right. The white nationalists are trying—if what they are advocating comes true, which is that America should be a Christian nation, America should be a European nation, America should be built on Judeo-Christian values—you see this now in the rhetoric. Obviously, white would be the worst, but sometimes they just say "Christian." That is a move toward ethno-nationalism. That is exactly what Hannah Arendt was talking about; those are the ethnic nations. And we've never been that way, at least as a matter of principle. That's not our foundational myth, that's not where we came from. That would really be the end of America. I think it does have to go back to the constitutional principles.
Going back to the previous question, upward mobility and the American Dream is another exceptional thing about America. We forget here how unusual it is that people think that they can rise. If you look at the studies, even Germany and England, even today in our economy the percentage of Americans who think that through hard work and a little luck you can rise, is like triple any other country. It's very high.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Although the actual statistics on that have reversed.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: That makes the belief that much more amazing.
AMY CHUA: Exactly. I have this story that I wanted to share. The end of this story is maybe all the statistics show that we are losing a lot of that mobility and the sense of belief of it, and I think that might also be contributing to what we're seeing now.
When I was teaching at NYU almost 10 years ago, I had a Vietnamese student, an arch-libertarian, in a seminar called Law and Development that I was teaching. We were having a heated debate. Finally, he raises his hand and says, "I am the poorest person in this room. I guarantee it." And he proved it. He was like, "I don't have a home. My parents are dead. But I am totally against form of redistribution at all. The reason for that is that I am very poor now, but I don't plan on being poor for very much longer. I give myself about three-and-a-half years. When I make it, I don't want the government redistributing one penny away from me."
It was such a stark thing, but that is the powerful form of it. We admit it, we've always had poor majorities. We've had huge amounts of inequality in this country. We have much less redistribution than a lot of European welfare states, but we've been able to sustain it without confiscation, and that is because we have had this very powerful—you can call it a dream or a myth.
That's another huge problem, that right now related to Battle Hymn, education has always been that root. It used to be—like even seven years ago—you could be a poor kid, go to state school in the middle of the country, make it to New York, for all these reasons that a lot of my colleagues are writing about. It's not working anymore. It's impossible to live in New York or Silicon Valley. No one can afford it. SAT tutors, so many things are changing right now that are blocking the usual routes, so all these factors I think are contributing to why we're seeing these dynamics.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you all, how do you think in a lot of really liberal classrooms when you teach about American history, there's often the very social justice undertone or overtone in a lot of cases. How do you teach about that without getting the room to become very tribal? I've had a lot of experiences in my own classrooms where people, when talking about something like slavery, everyone starts looking at the white kids.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That is a very interesting thing. One of the things I think about is when I went back—there wasn't that much American history to teach when I was young. It was so long ago. It wasn't as big as deal, it wasn't as complicated.
I went to a very elite New England boarding school, where a lot of the kids in my classes—an all-boys boarding school, which, by the way, we did not feel was an advantage, for the most part—many of them were descended from leading families in the country. I think there were like seven great-grandsons of Theodore Roosevelt in the class, and Morgan bankers, and on and on. We even had one kid who descended from the Nicholas Biddle, who fought with Andrew Jackson over the Bank of the United States.
But the American history that I was taught there, when I compared it to what my friends back in North Carolina in the public schools, it was much less sentimentalized. It was pretty tough stuff—how the industrialists robbed, and blah, blah, blah. In fact, our teacher would every now and then take one of the kids aside and say, "Well, now. We've been reading about these war profiteers in World War I who made a lot of money selling bad goods to the soldiers. You need to know that your great-grandfather . . ." This was part of his job, and the families wanted him to do it because, you know what? If you're going to run a place, you need to know the truth about it.
Yet, this was combined with a deep sense of patriotism. Flawed as it was—and really, it was very flawed—it was worth defending. It seems to me you can only really talk about America in a serious way when you've given up trying to sprinkle sugar coating on things. You've really got to talk about the real thing.
It's also a little comparison, too. How was France doing in those days? How was England doing, etc.? So, looking at America not as either this Prince of Peace or Chief of Sinners, either crowned with glory and the unique saint of the earth or the worst sinner that ever existed. Can we maybe look in a human way at America?
This is hard to do in a high school class. I think we have a bit of an intellectual monoculture in a lot of American education. Every kid should study what Howard Zinn teaches in A People's History of the United States, because that's part of the story, but that is not the story, and we've got a lot of people being brought up to think it is, and it is a problem.
AMY CHUA: To me, this is one of the biggest problems. I'm all in favor that we shouldn't whitewash our history. This is good. I guess all I would say is that it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which I sometimes I feel like we're doing. It's very difficult for me—not even just high school, even at the law school where I teach.
One very interesting thing is that I have a lot of immigrant children. Either they're immigrants themselves—right now in my seminar I have an Iraqi American woman, a Tunisian American young man, an Egyptian American woman, and they are such great forces for patriotism and the Constitution actually. Often there'll be Caucasian people who have privilege who feel very guilty, so they're trashing, trashing, trashing.
These people who are very progressive, obviously very pro-immigration—one of them lived in a refugee camp. But their perspective is very useful. It's basically, "Let me tell you about the country I just came from. If you think your Constitution is bad, let me tell you what happened to my relatives." It's very refreshing, actually.
Also, this upward mobility thing—anyway, those are just unformed thoughts. But I've liked that diversity in my class, to have this diversity of background because it's this comparative thing. When you said, "What were other countries doing back then?" How are other countries doing now? I think it's maybe the hardest question we have right now.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: When I was in high school, I was taught American history from three books: Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the United States, and Gordon Wood's The American Revolution: A History—three wildly different perspectives. My daughter is being taught it simply from Howard Zinn.
It has changed. I agree. I love Howard Zinn. I spent a year of my life after college reading all of Howard Zinn's work. But you can't just read that, and part of our job as teachers is to stand up and say, "We have to teach what is. We have to teach the world as it is." That's what we have to do.
Our job is not to tell students what to believe. It's not to tell them what the future should be or how they should revolt. It's to tell them that the world as it is, is complicated. It has been difficult, and yet it's a world that we respect enough that we want to preserve it in some way so that you can change it. That's what I see our job is as teachers.
We're conservatives insofar as we teach the world as it is, and we're revolutionaries insofar as we say to you, "It's your job to change it. Our job is not to tell you how to change it."
If your classroom is being shut down in some way by that kind of attitude, that's a problem. It's hard to deal with it. We are having some racial issues up at the campus this week, and there was a meeting last night. One of the things students said is they want more white professors to teach about race.
I'm the only white professor at Bard who teaches classes on race. I've taught them the last three or four years—to my detriment. I have some people who love these courses—and I've loved them, I've learned a ton from them—but I will tell you that some of the teaching evaluations I've gotten in these courses are that, "This person should never be allowed to teach these courses."
AMY CHUA: Can you explain why they want more white professors to teach race? So they can learn?
ROGER BERKOWITZ: Here's the question. They said they want white people to show that they care and are interested in the issues. They said, "And if they say the wrong thing, we want them to be fired."
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Oh, sign me up. Sign me up.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: I happen to agree with them. I think there's a reason white people need to teach, and I think the reason is we actually have to have this conversation. In the Army, the one-on-one where you get to know each other? That's what teaching should be, and that's what I find is happening in these courses.
But it's very hard. I was talking to the dean today, and she was like, "Well, you have to be tenured." It has nothing to do with tenure. You have to have courage. You have to be willing to have people come at you, and that's a hard thing to do.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Actually, we're very lucky at Bard, because in a lot of colleges the message of senior administrators is a little mixed on some of these topics. Leon Botstein at Bard is consistently really hardcore about this value.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: That's one of the reasons I can do this, because I know he has my back.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Right. During the 2016 campaign, thanks to Roger, we actually brought in Larry Kudlow to give a pro-Trump talk at Bard, and a lot of students were very upset about it, but the argument was made, and the backing came right from the top that, in fact, it's part of an education to offer this, and you should ask really hard questions. You should go and ask really tough questions and see what he says. We're not doing our job for you if we're not —
That sort of leadership is really rare, because too many university presidents see their job as negotiating stakeholders, and frankly a lot of foundations are chief enforcers, I find. So, a university president doesn't want the staff of the Ford Foundation or someplace like that to put a little mark by their name. There's a lot of cowardice out there, but at Bard we're lucky. We have a brave president.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: I've got one final question. What tribe do you belong to?
AMY CHUA: One of the things—maybe it goes back to your first question—I think the beauty of life, not just America, is that we can belong to tons of tribes. You can be a Yankees fan, a Chinese American, a New Yorker, this political thing, a member of this club.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: But isn't that a very cosmopolitan answer?
AMY CHUA: I don't know that it is. You can be somebody—
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Fiorello Laguardia would have been interested in—
AMY CHUA: I don't think it's cosmopolitan. It's cross-cutting group affiliations. Because I could be somebody—and I am more somebody who is—maybe because of my own background, just like Walter. We're all autobiographical. When the EU project started in the 1990s, everybody was so excited. I remember there was talk that the European Union was going to expand to include Saudi Arabia, and then the United States would join the European Union.
That's because of my own background as somebody who was always an outsider. My parents were Chinese in the Philippines, so I was so conscious of this "you will never be able to cross these lines." That's a bias on my part, so I'm sensitive to that.
So, in a way I'm not a cosmopolitan. I like the cosmopolitan idea, but I'm very dubious that we can get there quickly. I think it's possible to have all of these different affiliations.
I guess the harder question would be is, what is your first tribe? What is your main tribe?
ROGER BERKOWITZ: The unwashed masses. I'm just interested in how you are received. Do the "unwashed masses," as Walter calls them, consider you a cosmopolitan, or do they see you as someone—
AMY CHUA: They would probably—before hearing me talk—immediately assume I'm a cosmopolitan.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: A Yale Law School professor.
AMY CHUA: Yale Law School. Barack Obama's the quintessential.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: As Hannah Arendt once said, "If you're attacked as a Jew, you defend yourself as a Jew."
I call myself a self-hating cosmopolitan. I'm aware of the fact that cosmopolitanism is this incredibly elite, arrogant, non-grounded whatever, and yet it's who I am.
AMY CHUA: You know what's interesting? To flip it, the exact opposite of you, a lot of people used to ask me—I wrote a piece in Politico about this—"How could all these poor working-class people not see that Trump is not part of their tribe? Don't they see that he's a billionaire?" This is in the opening pages. To me, it's obvious why they see him as part of their tribe. Group identity is all about identification, and in terms of the aesthetics—the way he dresses, his style, the way he talks—they identify perfectly with him. They like the wrestling thing, NASCAR. All of us, when we say, "Oh, my god," for years it was like, "This is going to bring him down. He's going to be out next week."
In fact, so many people in America relate to the fact that the liberal media is constantly calling him out for not being politically correct enough, for not being feminist enough, for eating fattening McDonald's and taco bowls, and they just identify with that.
I think in terms of sensibility, he is actually exactly their tribe. The way he talks—even now, all this crazy stuff coming out, and then everybody wonders, Why is there so little moving in the polls?
The other thing about tribalism is once you identify with a champion—it's like you're a sports team. Some years you'll be so mad at your sports team—you're mad at the players, you're mad at the coach. But you don't just switch to the opposing team. Lots of times people are like, "I'm so sick of this guy," but he's your guy, and you kind of stick with him.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: Walter, do you have a tribe?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I suppose if you got right down to it: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
That sounds like a very nativist tribe, but you look at those words very carefully, "and liberty and justice for all," "under God," which—even if you don't believe in God—means that there is a moral law that is superior to the rule of the state, so that your pledge of allegiance is not idolatrous, it's not putting the state as the source of all good, it exists in a moral framework.
That works for me. This is your idea of the supertribe. I don't say, "My nation is just the people who look like me or think like me who live here." It's everybody else who pledges allegiance. The act that makes you an American is joining America, and different people do it different ways, and understand it different ways, and have different problems with our common nationality and existence.
But I think in spite of it all we are a people, and that's the people to whom I want to belong. That doesn't mean I want to go conquer and hate other people. I'm quite happy with our boundaries. I don't want an inch more of anyone's territory. I don't want unfair commercial advantages over any other country. All of that.
I love to travel. I love foreign food. I love meeting foreign people. I had a fantastic time with the Dalai Lama last month. It's not about only wanting to associate with people like yourself. In fact, the sense that I feel of being grounded as an American allows me to go to China, to go to India, to go to Pakistan, all over the world, and interact with people in very interesting ways.
That's me. My tribe is you and us, and long may we prosper.
AUDIENCE [off-mic]: How about running for president?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: No. I hold my tribe in too high regard to seek political office.
ROGER BERKOWITZ: I don't think we can end on a better note than that, so please join me in thanking Amy and Walter for a wonderful conversation.