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The Mistakes Issue

I Wanna Riot

Hated minorities.

by Yasmin Sahni
Dec 1 2003, 12:00am


Indonesians burning and looting a Chinese scooter shop because we said, "Go nuts." Photo: AP


"The Jews own everything. Those Shylocks have pilfered everything we have and we want it back—NOW!"

Actually, that’s not true. In America, Jews are 2.6 percent of the population, and they are only slightly disproportionately wealthy. American royalty is still strictly blue blood. If you look at the names of the richest people in U.S. it’s still all Rockefeller and Vanderbilt and Walton. So enough with the ZOG bullshit, already.

But what about Russia? After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, seven billionaires emerged as the leaders of the Russian economy and six of them were Jewish. Are Jews just better at making money than the rest of us? What about Chinese and Lebanese and East Indians? They always seem to do better than everyone around them. Why is that?

Here in America, we think everyone is equally capable of being a billionaire. The American Dream is defined as "I can do dis," because we’ve taken equality and democracy and capitalism and turned it into a big football-shaped piece of freedom. It’s been so good to us, in fact, it just seems natural that it would be good for everyone else. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? No, not right. What American policy makers and citizens alike neglect to realize is that the gander is a seething mass of ethnic hatred just begging for an excuse to kill each other. That is not exactly the best environment to play freedom football in.

For some reason, Americans don’t know how totally and utterly unlike any other country in the world theirs is. For example, imagine if Bill Gates (who at last count had 40 percent of America’s wealth) were Pakistani. Now imagine if Pakistanis also controlled Time Warner, GE, Chase Manhattan, Exxon, Mobil, and the rest of our largest corporations and banks. Now give America’s tiny Pakistani community two-thirds of the country’s best real estate. Once you’ve set up this Sims version of the United States in your head, take the other 98 percent of the population and make us so poor we are all sleeping on floor mats that smell like pee. There. Now America is exactly like the rest of the world, only in Burma it’s the Chinese, in Gambia it’s the Lebanese, in Romania it’s the Hungarians, and in Rwanda it’s the Tutsis. Granting these countries freedom is like granting a firecracker a match.

In Zimbabwe, for example, democracy successfully freed the black majority from the evil white farmers. Today all the farmers are dead and the country is completely broke. Similar things happened to the Jews in Russia, the Chinese in Indonesia, and the East Indians in Kenya. Nobody cared about it before, but now we have Iraq to deal with. "Holy shit," one thinks to oneself.

The world’s leading expert on all this is a law professor from Yale named Amy Chua. We went to her office with a pencil and pad and a determination to find answers to the following two questions: How did these countries get so shitty? And why did our freedom football only make it worse?

VICE: First off, why are Jews so rich?

Amy Chua: Pardon me?

Why are some groups just naturally predisposed to making more money than others?

Well, it’s not necessarily "naturally." It doesn’t have to be that they are born with different genes. There’s a whole combination of reasons certain groups are more successful than others. Look at South Africa. The whites there are a market-dominant minority that clearly owe some of their power to the fact that they took the majority and disenfranchised them and didn’t let them go to school for a hundred years.

However, I’m not going to deny that sometimes there just seems to be a tendency for some groups to adapt better to capitalism. Groups like the Chinese, the Lebanese, the East Indians, and the Jews, repeatedly, in any context, often fare better economically. If you look at the Chinese in Singapore—for example—that is a poverty-stricken area of the world, raising all kinds of theories about the relationship between tropical weather and productivity, but the Chinese just bought some air conditioners and got to work. Today it’s one of the richest countries in the world.

I guess the fact that you would dare even go near such a topic in "pickle-up-the-ass" America is the reason your writings are considered to be so controversial.

Americans, or even Westerners in particular, are terrified of talking about ethnic differences because they’re afraid it’s going to be considered racist, or mean some kind of genetic-superiority argument or something.

Let’s go with it, then. Who does better, Scottish people or Spanish people?

In Latin American countries, the Spaniards that came over about 500 years ago differed culturally from the Scots, Quakers, and Protestants that we’re familiar with in North America. The Scots were incredibly entrepreneurial everywhere they went. The Spanish, conversely, idealized the conquistador. They valued the warrior and great landowners and they actually had contempt for people who worked hard. My aristocratic friends down in Latin America openly say this: There’s almost a norm or value against entrepreneurialism. So what the Spanish (and Portuguese) did when they went to Latin America was basically just disenfranchise the Indians and turn them into serfs on big plantations. That’s one of the main reasons a lot of the light-skinned Spanish in Latin America are so wealthy today. At the end of the day both the Scots and the Spanish have been very successful but for totally different reasons.

Okay, so certain groups are good at getting rich and certain groups aren’t. Why meddle in their affairs?

That’s a complicated question, and I have kind of a schizophrenic view about it. First of all, a lot of people think I’m anti-globalization, but I’m not. I’m originally Chinese from the Philippines and if it wasn’t for General MacArthur "meddling in our affairs," the Philippines would still be under a Japanese dictatorship. He’s a hero for Filipinos to this day. The problem is that America assumes democracy and free markets are the best thing for everyone at all times, in every way, as soon as possible. It’s just not that simple. There are times when liberating a people from an unjust situation can actually leave everyone worse off.

If you look at the bottom of this page you’ll see we have a sidebar explaining what happened when our freedom football, or let’s call it "insta-democracy," was imposed on some countries that had a really uneven distribution of wealth.

I see.

Okay, look down there at Indonesia. Everyone thought democracy would be great for Indonesia after we got Suharto out, but it was total and utter mayhem. Rapes, riots, $58 billion that was stolen from the "evil Chinese rulers" is just sitting there, rotting.

It really screwed up the economy, because as soon as democracy arrived, politicians started campaigning on anti-Chinese, "let’s confiscate their wealth" platforms. In response, the Chinese took their capital and sent it off to Australia, Singapore, and other countries. So about $50 billion was essentially sucked out of the country overnight. On top of that, the Indonesian government has no idea what to do with the Chinese assets they nationalized.

It’s the same with the gangs in Zimbabwe that kicked out (and often killed) all the white farmers but now have no idea what to do with the land. They don’t even know how to work the owner’s house so they end up living next to it under a tarp.

That’s the problem with these revolutions. When the people take back what is arguably theirs, they haven’t the foggiest idea what to do with it. They’re sitting there on top of a car plant or a paper factory or a cement factory, and they literally don’t even know how to turn it on. The strangest part is, they often end up inviting these minorities back again (that’s what happened with Idi Amin).

The economies grind to a halt, and the governments become desperate. Look at Indonesia’s unemployment rate since they’ve been "liberated." Around 40 million are underemployed or unemployed. These are perfect recruits for terrorist and fundamentalist groups. These extremist groups give people without hope something to do, like joining a gang. Right now in many poor countries, the coolest thing to do is to be a part of al-Qaeda. It gives young people an identity and a really big enemy to focus on: the United States.

You talk about all these hated minorities running the rest of the population into the ground, but America is kind of like that if you look at the whole world as one country.

And that is why people talk about Sept. 11 being the "chickens coming home to roost." We’re seen as the world’s market-dominant minority, wielding outrageously disproportionate economic power relative to our size and numbers. As a result, we’re hated in the same way so many other market-dominated minorities are in their particular countries.

Throwing the freedom football to countries with ethnic tension always seems to have the same results, but we threw it over to the Philippines, didn’t we? Why wasn’t there mass looting, raping, and stealing against their "Chinese oppressors"?

While it is true that the Philippines has a tiny Chinese minority (2 percent) that controls 60 percent of the economy, it is unlike Indonesia in that the Filipino people can’t get "revenge" against the Chinese because wealthy Chinese business interests still exert enormous influence over the government. Unable to redistribute or confiscate, the Filipino majority has basically settled for mass kidnapping. Every Chinese person I know in the Philippines has had a relative kidnapped. When it happens, you can’t call the police because they’re usually sympathetic to the kidnappers—if not part of the kidnapping organization itself. Since the hostages are often not killed, the police see the whole thing as a form of redistribution. The "rich Chinese" just have to fork over $500,000 and they can go. The tax system is so corrupt anyway that many Filipinos see kidnap ransoms as a fair practice. Kidnapping is one of the biggest industries in the Philippines, and policemen have even openly supported it in the press. This is a warped version of free-market democracy.

Whose fault is all this? I mean, promoting democracy seems like the right thing to do, but it doesn’t seem to be going very well.
Again, the answer is complex. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall America has been pushing democracy with a blind faith. You have American professors rushing all over the world with Xeroxed copies of the U.S. Constitution and saying, "Here’s a constitution, just cross out the United States and put your country’s name in there and then have some elections." Of course, that brought the mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic to power.

There are specific scenarios where intervention becomes a very dangerous thing. I believe that democracy offers the best long-term political hope for the developing world. Unfortunately, most of these countries have huge ethnic imbalances and you have to be very careful how democracy is introduced. Non-Western countries have cultures and histories completely different from ours, and you can’t just plug in democracy like a light bulb.

It’s like the "ethnic tension doesn’t exist" utopia we see every night on TV has made us naïve.

You can’t ignore ethnic and racial differences. There are tensions everywhere that won’t just go away—they have to be addressed. Even in the U.S., we have pockets of anti-Semitism with the David Duke-types complaining that Jews dominate the economy. Unlike the developing countries we’ve been talking about today, Jews don’t come close to "controlling the U.S. economy." However, their success still infuriates some people. Same with the L.A. riots. The L.A. riots were directed at the Korean shopkeepers in the inner cities because you had an "outsider" group that was maybe 5 percent of the urban population controlling a really disproportionate amount of the wealth.

You have to keep in mind that things are wildly more explosive in the non-Western world. It’s when you have numbers like a 1 percent hated ethnic minority controlling 80 percent of the economy that you have to do something.

All this talk is making me petrified of Iraq. What the fuck?

I think that the process of democratization needs to be subtle and tailored to the local culture. You can’t just spring "ready-made democracy" on a country. There is a 60 percent Shiite majority in Iraq and a lot of them want more Islam and are very anti-American. The problems are not necessarily ethnic like the other countries we’ve been discussing but you still have a minority group, the Sunnis, that due to Saddam Hussein’s pro Ba’athist policies controlled all the best jobs, had the best education, and owned the best land.

The Shiites are in many ways in the same position as the poor majorities of Indonesia or the Philippines. They, along with the Kurds, were basically shut out under Saddam Hussein. That’s about 70 percent of the population, with a huge amount of anger and frustration and even need for revenge. Fortunately, the U.S. government does realize that if we go straight to democracy and overnight majority rule, it could be very scary for us. The new government could easily be anti-market, anti-American, and even fundamentalist. They also might not want our oil companies in there at all. Americans are starting to see that majority rule, or "insta-democracy," in Iraq might not be good for American interests.

So finally America is seeing the dangers of freedom.

Well, yes, but notice how we only notice it when it applies to our safety. Those are our soldiers over there, our companies. When it happened with Indonesia or Zimbabwe, we said, "Oh, it can’t be democracy’s fault" and kept on with the crusade. Americans now see the dangers of overnight democracy in the Middle East. Take Saudi Arabia. If there was an election there now, it might be pretty scary for the United States. However they vote, Islamic or not, it would be wildly anti-American.

So what are we supposed to do? If the Sunnis run things, the Shiite majority will eat them alive, but nobody else knows how to run things. The Shiites are so incompetent they would lead the whole country into poverty and that would just lead to more fundamentalism. It’s like we’ve adopted a 14-year-old gang-member from the orphanage. The house is going to get trashed no matter what we do.

Actually, there’s been a lot of violence already. In the beginning the Americans put some people in power, running the hospitals, universities, and police, who were Ba’athists. The Ba’athists are part of the Sunni minority. The Iraqi people were furious, so the Americans promptly removed the Ba’athists from all prominent positions. The problem is, who else has the skills you need to run things? They are the ones who had all the experience, both in oil and in the professions.

If you ask most Americans where Montreal is, they have no idea. They barely know the earth is round. Then, on top of that, they seem to be totally incapable of discussing ethnic tensions. It seems strange that these same people would end up being the ones traveling the globe, trying to help countries overwhelmed with ethnic tension. It’s like making a retarded blind man your chauffer. You’re just asking for trouble.

Americans are incredibly provincial. We’re geographically distanced from everyone else and we don’t realize how wildly different other countries are. There may not be many racial differences on American TV, as you say, but there are some very serious racial differences in the rest of the world. I don’t know if I’d say we asked for trouble, but we certainly got it.

YASMIN SAHNI
Amy Chua’s most recent book, World on Fire, (Doubleday/Random House) is available at amazon.com.


What a little freedom can do

Russia
Hated minority: Jews are less than 1% of the population. They control about 50% of the country’s valuable mineral wealth.
What democracy did: New free-speech laws in 1998 led to anti-Semitic websites and newspapers and even political parties whose platforms were simply "Let’s get rid of the Jews." There was a lot of confiscation, bombing of synagogues, the beating of rabbis, a number of neo-nazi marches in Moscow, desecration of Jewish cemeteries. The ordinary Russian Jews with no political connections or billion-dollar fortunes bore the brunt of the attacks and even came to resent the rich Jews for it.

Indonesia
Hated minority: Chinese are 3% of the population and control 70% of the wealth. Besides the Suharto family, every billionaire is Chinese.
What democracy did: After Suharto was forced to step down in 1989 about 5,000 shops and homes of ethnic Chinese were burned and looted. 2,000 people died and 150 Chinese women were gang raped (towards the end Chinese women were walking around with steel chastity belts). Politicians were elected on the platform, "Let’s confiscate the Chinese wealth" which worked. Today the Indonesian government is sitting on about $58 billion worth of nationalized Chinese assets. They have no idea what to do with it.

Zimbabwe
Hated minority: Whites are (were) 1% of the population and controlled 70% of the wealth.
What democracy did: In 2002 Mugabe won a democratic election that was as "free and fair" as most of the elections in Africa that the U.S. has supported. He did it with the platform "We will kill and steal from whites." Consequently white farmers were mugged, raped, and murdered. Practically every farm in the country was confiscated and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sugar, tobacco, and maize have gone up in flames. Officials at the U.N. and other world organizations have come to define the country as "totally fucked."

Kenya
Hated minority: East Indians are 2% of the population. Every Kenyan tycoon is East Indian (except for the corrupt politicians).
What democracy did: Politicians have been trying for years to get elected via hate campaigns. "I’ll expel the East Indians if you vote for me" is often the winning campaign platform. Though there has been looting and violence directed towards East Indians in this country already, things are about to get worse.


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