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DISORIENTED

Eric Liu's Escape from Bananadom

Aug 10, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 46 • By RAMESH PONNURU
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All of this is overblown, to say the least. Some of the early scandal coverage did ignore the difference between Asians and Asian-Americans, but this sort of mistake is far less threatening than a president who is willing to invoke the Yellow Horde by warning that, without racial preferences, "there are universities in California that could fill their entire freshman class with nothing but Asian-Americans." Maybe Liu, a former Clinton speechwriter, can talk to his ex-boss about this, but he probably won't: He ends up lamely arguing that preferences are good for Asian-Americans.


Most Asian-Americans disagree. And here we come to the dirty little secret Liu doesn't face: Most Americans of Asian descent aren't Liu's sort of Asian-Americans. You'd never guess from Liu's book, for instance, that they tend to vote Republican -- more than whites, in fact. (Some subgroups -- Japanese and Filipino, for example -- vote Democratic, but this merely underscores the artificiality of the larger category.) Liu writes that Republican opposition to the nomination of Bill Lann Lee as assistant attorney general is pushing these voters into the Democratic party. I doubt most Asian-Americans have heard of Bill Lann Lee.


It's pretty rarefied crowd, those young, well-educated, socially conscious, left-leaning Asian-Americans identified by Liu. If most prominent Asian-American voices belong to liberals, perhaps it's because everyone else is too busy running businesses and raising families to write books about an angst they don't feel. Liu is laughably off base when he writes that "Asian-American activists, intellectuals, artists, and students have worked, with increasing success, to transform their label into a lifestyle and to create, by every means available, a truly pan-ethnic identity for their ten million members. They have begun to build a nation."


And it is good for the nation -- the real nation -- that he is wrong. "At bottom, I consider myself an identity libertarian," he writes. "I wish for a society that treats race as an option, the way white people today are able to enjoy ethnicity as an option." This is good as far as it goes; and surely the state should not attempt to compel these matters. But can a culture really be neutral about whether people identify more with it than with some sub-culture?


If Liu doesn't have all the answers, it's party because he doesn't have all the questions either. But his Accidental Asian is still worth a quick read, if only for its splendid evocation of a Chinese-American's youth. Even this South Asian villain could appreciate that.




Ramesh Ponnuru is national political reporter for National Review.