Monday, January 30, 2012

"Unleash Ch(i)ang"

A Q&A with Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and Tea Party darling, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine included a puzzling anecdote about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and an ancient Chinese warrior:
After you became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, in 2006, your mentor, Jeb Bush, presented you with a sword. What was that about?
Chang is a mythical conservative warrior. From time to time, if there’s a big issue going on, you’d see Jeb say, “I’m going to unleash Chang.” He gave me the sword of Chang.

From which mythology does this conservative warrior hail?

I think it’s a Jeb Bush creation.
Indeed, Bush described the legend of Chang at some length at that event: 
“Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. 

“I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.”

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift.

”I’m going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior,” he said, as the crowd roared.
It turns out, though, that Jeb most likely inherited the catchphrase "unleash Chang" not from ancient legend or from a kung-fu movie, but from his father. As Timothy Noah writes:
"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got..."

"Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao.
Evening Independent, 10/7/66
Noah scolds Rubio for being ignorant of this meaning, although that seems a little harsh; as Matthew Yglesias notes, it's rather more embarrassing that Jeb (the "less stupid" Bush) himself doesn't appear to know what it means. 

What I'm most interested in is the little Legend of Ch(i)ang that Jeb has substituted for the real Chiang--a story that has at once nothing and everything to do with the original context, and that goes some way to explaining why contemporary American conservatives love to unleash their inner "Changs."

Jeb Bush's "Chang" is a "mystical warrior," a sword-wielding badass ripped straight from martial-arts stereotypes. But he is also, of all things, a champion of "entrepreneurial capitalism," an ideal that doesn't really feature in your typical Hong Kong action flick. What's that about?

Here's where Jeb's Chang meets up with a statement recently attributed to his fellow Republican, Newt Gingrich. In comments written for (then deleted from) a 1993 speech, Gingrich remarked:
For poor minorities, entrepreneurship in small business is the key to future wealth. This is understood thoroughly by most of the Asians, partially by Latinos, and to a tragically small degree by much of the American black community.
For both Gingrich and Jeb Bush, being Asian has some "mystical" connection to being an entrepreneur and capitalist--one that, in Gingrich's elaboration, is not shared by other non-white racial groups.

What we're seeing here, of course, is yet another version of the model minority stereotype, in which Asian Americans rate as "whiter" than other minorities because of their supposed allegiance to values of hard work, self-reliance, and accumulation of wealth. Because these traits are often attributed to "Asian" cultural values ("Confucianism"), they're often extended to Asians in Asia--an extension often abetted by Asian leaders (most famously Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew) who attribute their nations' booming capitalist economies to Confucian values.

All of this helps explain why conservatives like Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Rubio would not just admire but identify with Asians--at least as imagined through figures like the great warrior "Chang." Bush speaks of Chang as a kind of conservative conscience, a mystically pure version of the Republican platform...who just happens to wield a sword.

But the resonant slippage from "Chiang" to "Chang" shows that this caricatured Asian has a more vexed background. To American Cold Warriors, Chiang Kai-shek, and other right-wing Asian strongmen like him, represented bulwarks against a much more sinister image of the Asian: that of the Yellow Peril, here embodied by the advance of Chinese Communism. To "unleash Chiang" was to sic the good Asian on the bad Asian, to defend capitalism against communism.

Noah notes that the elder Bush would have employed "unleash Chiang" with a healthy dose of irony, having served as envoy to the People's Republic of China during the normalization of relations. Jeb's warrior Chang, as a sword-wielding cartoon, has no such irony about him, but he still fills the role of the good Asian, one who is both a reflection and a purification of the values of the American right. It's likely no accident that as China is on the rise again--now as a (threatening) economic power--that anxious American politicians are searching for another, easily domesticated version of the good Asian, and conservatives like Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Gingrich are unleashing Ch(i)ang.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tiger Mom Is Still Better Than You

"Tiger Mom" Amy Chua returned last month with a new essay in the Wall Street Journal. She's a little more circumspect, a little more "hands-off." But don't worry. She's still a better parent than you are.

Chua's older daughter is now in college (at Harvard, of course). Tiger Mom is constantly looking over her shoulder, right? Wrong! That's for inferior Western "helicopter parents," who have to hover over their incompetent college-age kids because they didn't follow the Chinese way when they were younger! Ha!

Chua's new essay, like every public statement she's made since starting the "tiger mom" controversy a year ago, is an exercise in spin. It has nothing to do with what she actually advocates in her book. Her contradictions are so breathtaking that she must assume no one has really read the thing. (I have, by the way.) But it's interesting insofar as it reflects the treacherous landscape of stereotypes that Chua waded into--and added to--with her book. Stung by the backlash that labeled her "Chinese" parenting as scary, foreign, un-American, Chua in this new essay makes the equally implausible case that what she called "Chinese" was always unthreateningly all-American, after all.

The basic gist of Chua's new essay is that "tiger parenting" is a strategy to be used only in childhood, then let go:
It's really only about very early child-rearing, and it's most effective when your kids are between the ages of, say, 5 and 12.
Well, that would be a surprise to the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, whose idea of a compromise with "Western" parenting is this:
"I've decided to favor a hybrid approach," I said. "The best of both worlds. The Chinese way until the child is eighteen, to develop confidence and the value of excellence, then the Western way after that. Every individual has to find their own path," I added gallantly.

"Wait--until eighteen?" asked Sophia [Chua's older daughter]. "That's not a hybrid approach. That's just Chinese parenting all through childhood."
Yup. Real Chinese parenting, according to Chua's book, is a lifelong enterprise. Letting your kid alone when she goes off to college is a sentimental American indulgence. But that was the book, which nobody's read anyway. In this latest essay, Chua seems intent on claiming that tiger parenting is not a permanent state but just an early phase of child-rearing, one that is loosened up in order to give a child more freedom as she becomes a teenager. (Never mind that many of the most harrowing scenes of conflict in Battle Hymn come when Chua's daughters are thirteen and sixteen.)

What's Chua up to here? What she's been up to for the past year: trying to rehabilitate herself, and to salvage her claim that "tiger parenting" is a real model rather than a caricatured monstrosity.

Now you'd think that the major thing Chua would want to defend herself against is the charge that her parenting model is cruel, abusive, and psychologically damaging. But the criticism that most infuriates her is this:
[W]hat drives me the craziest may be the charge that tiger parenting produces meek robots and automatons.
This is interesting, because if you read Battle Hymn you'd think that the most likely outcome of tiger parenting would be psychotic freaks. The charge that tiger parenting produces "robots" has nothing to do with Chua at all, and everything to do with stereotypes about Asians--as a faceless mass of nerds, skilled only at math and science, lacking social skills and personality.

Facing down this criticism is a missed opportunity for Chua. She could take this moment to reflect on how stereotypes about the Chinese shaped the way her own claims about Chinese parenting were received. Maybe she could even have reflected on her own complicity (knowing or otherwise) with those stereotypes. But instead, she gives us yet another disingenuous revision of tiger parenting, leaving anything Chinese far behind.

Tiger parenting, Chua now tells us, "is all about raising independent, creative, courageous kids." Oh really? I dare you to find any of those words used in a positive way in Battle Hymn. (They do appear: "Independent" is a trait of a dog who is difficult to train. And "creative" does get mentioned as a trait--of the tiger mother herself, not her children.) Parenting in Tiger Mother is, instead, a virtuous (or vicious?) circle of shame and obligation, in which the parent's relentless labor, however humiliating to the child, is later repaid by the child's boundless gratitude and respect. Yet Chua would now have us believe that her model of parenting produces idiosyncratic college-dropout geniuses like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, because those guys show us how we should apply the values of hard work to "something that we feel passionate about." The Chua of Battle Hymn would laugh that one out of the room:
[Western parents] just keep repeating things like "You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion" when it's obvious that the "passion" is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.
Take that, Mark Zuckerberg!

But in claiming that tiger parenting can produce Jobses and Zuckerbergs, Chua is confronting a real stereotype about Asian Americans: we make great engineers and programmers, but we simply don't have what it takes to be true leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators. Despite the heavy presence of Asian Americans in US technological fields, they're rarely seen among the icons of the field or the leaders of major tech corporations. (There are, of course, exceptions, like computer pioneer An Wang and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.) Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers" gives us the standard explanations of this phenomenon: it's either due to a racist "bamboo ceiling" that limits Asian American advancement or the result of shortcomings within Asian culture that keep Asian Americans from being leadership material.

Chua has an opportunity to provide us some insight into this debate. Instead, she simply pretends it doesn't exist. Asian parenting, she asserts in her new article, just does produce entrepreneurial geniuses the way it produces math whizzes and concert pianists. But it's really difficult to see how the model of parenting described in Battle Hymn could produce a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates--both college dropouts who spent a good deal of their childhoods goofing around with arcane computer technology. Are we really supposed to believe that Chua ("children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences") would have been supportive if her daughters wanted to spend all day in the garage taking computers apart? How would she have reacted if, instead of playing violin and piano, they wanted to start a band or lock themselves in their rooms programming video games? (I think I can tell you about the band: Chua asserts in her book that playing the drums would have been out because "playing the drums...leads to drugs.") Far from convincing us that tiger moms produce innovators, Chua's book seems like Exhibit A for those who think there will never be an Asian American Steve Jobs.

Guess how many times the word "Chinese" appears in Chua's new article? Zero. That's right: the woman who rose to fame declaring that "Chinese Mothers Are Superior," and whose book is about the desperate quest to make her daughters as Chinese as possible, has completely abandoned the idea that being a tiger mom has anything to do with being Chinese. Instead, it's now "not that different from the traditional parenting of America's founders and pioneers." Ben Franklin was a Tiger Mom too!

Being a tiger mom has gone from being too culturally specific (it's all about being Chinese) to having no content at all (it's just good old-fashioned American parenting).

My problem with Amy Chua has never been her actual parenting advice. What bothers me is the intellectual dishonesty. In her book, it was the willingness to slap the label "Chinese" on her invented, high-stakes methods of parenting. In her subsequent public statements, it's her blithe willingness to misrepresent what her own book says, assuming that her audience is ignorant or gullible enough to believe that "tiger parenting" is whatever she says it is today. In all of this, Chua does nothing to question the stereotypes that have framed the reception of her work; instead, she uses them to her advantage, exploiting the assumptions Americans make about Asian parenting to fashion a platform for herself. Professor Chua's field is law, but she really ought to try politics: she can flip-flop like a master.