Anyone who doubts that the ideal of assimilation is under siege should look at the reception of The Accidental Asian, Eric Liu's new meditation on identity. What criticism Liu has received thus far has been for his defense of assimilation -- which is proof of how far we've fallen, for Liu's defense is so diffident that it proves in fact no defense at all. Indeed, he disavows the label: "I am an assimilist in recovery: once in denial, now halfway up the twelve-step to full, self-actualized Asian Americanness."
What sets Liu's book apart from other multicultural memoirs is that it is, for the most part, refreshingly free of cant. He is too graceful a writer for that, especially in his reflections about his own family: "When your father, who was Chinese, has died, Chineseness seems an irrelevance: an inert container, just one among many, for holding the memories of shared experience."
Liu knows that Asian-Americans cannot reasonably nurse historical grievances comparable to those of American blacks, and he knows that a hyphenated identity supposedly uniting people as different as Koreans and Pakistanis gathers under one racial umbrella immigrants with no common history, religion, or language. He knows, in short, that "the Asian-American identity" is "contrived" and "synthetic," and that it may dissolve through intermarriage within a generation.
So what then is this identity he seeks? It is a sensibility that sees "everyday spaces and objects -- sporting events, television shows, workplaces, bookstores, boutiques -- through the eyes of a well-educated, socially conscious, politically aware, media-savvy, left-of-center, twenty-to-thirty-something, second-generation Asian-American." Above all, it is an identity preoccupied by identity.
Liu, who is twenty-nine, recalls that in high school and college he was a "Banana" -- yellow outside, white within (a knock-off of the derogatory description of assimilationist blacks as "Oreos"). He was no "math and science geek," and he didn't join ethnic clubs or go out of his way to make Asian-American friends. He claims to see in retrospect that a slavish defiance of stereotype is not much different from a slavish acceptance, and he wants now to "detoxify" his old mentality, "to prevent its further spread."
Of course, an Asian-American might refuse to affiliate with other Asian-Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with an "allergic sensitivity to 'pigeonholing.'" For Liu, however, race is always an issue. Did he worry about fitting in as a teenager because he was Chinese-American, or merely because he was a teenager? Did he have trouble getting dates because of his race, or because he was "oblivious to the subterranean levels of courtship"? Overthinking race in this manner -- like overthinking adolescence -- can only be psychologically enervating.
But the aim of forging an Asian-American identity is at last political -- the identity of the self "rooted deeply in threat" to the group. The dangers of this are familiar: It may become necessary to seek out threats, however minor or imaginary, to shore up this identity; and political dissenters must be branded race traitors. Judicious though he tries to be, Liu does not avoid these pitfalls.
The paranoia implicit in this kind of political identity comes out in Liu's obsession with the Asian campaign-money scandal. He spends a few pages describing his anger over a National Review cover depicting the president, vice president, and first lady in stereotypically Asian guises. The cover offended many Asian-Americans, despite the fact that it was an attack on the Democrats rather than Asian-Americans -- though one purpose of such identity-mongering as Liu's is to blur the distinction and force all Asians to vote Democratic. Liu describes a television debate with an unnamed opponent -- me, in point of fact -- identified only as a "South Asian" and (my favorite) "a villain" who reveals his "smarmy hypocrisy" while "mouthing his disingenuous party line."
Still, I get off easy. Columnist William Safire is declared "a ring-leader of the conspiracy theorists": "Early on, Safire fueled fears of Chinese and Chinese American treachery with snarling references to 'favor-hungry foreigners,' 'rich aliens,' 'insidious networking,' and 'penetration by Asian interests' -- just the sort of code and innuendo you'd expect from, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." And then there's this astonishing claim: "In the period since the scandal broke, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased dramatically." Liu provides no evidence, and official FBI statistics aren't yet available.
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.