Battle Hymn of the Culture Warrior
The Triple Package
By Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
Penguin, 304 pages
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s hot potato of a new book, The Triple Package, sets out to answer a question most sentient Americans have wondered about probably more than once: Why do some groups succeed where others don’t? The enviable wife-and-husband team—she’s the author of the scandal-making Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, he’s written bestselling novels himself, and they are both chaired professors at Yale Law School—know they are wading into political lava. They regularly detour through caveats, provisos, and exceptions, reassuring us that they, too, find it “hard to write or talk about Appalachia” and “harder to write about Jewish wealth.” They needn’t have bothered. Their book has offended the chattering classes deeply, thereby creating a controversy that tells us more about current American debate than does the book itself.
So how have the Chua-Rubenfelds caused so much offense? After all, they are able to point to some pretty obvious winners in the American sweepstakes. Nobody questions Jewish success in business, Hollywood, and academia. And the achievements of Indian and Chinese immigrants are no secret; the former have the highest median household income of any ethnic group, and the latter are not far behind. Other winners highlighted by The Triple Package have caused critics to accuse the authors of defensive racial and political maneuvering, but the two have some intriguing facts on their side.
Most unexpected, for this reader at least, are Nigerian immigrants, who are overrepresented in elite schools, law, and investment-banking firms; almost a quarter of Nigerian households make more than $100,000 a year, compared with 10.6 percent of black households overall. Cubans, who are far more likely to be professionals than Hispanics overall, have taken the helm of AT&T and Kellogg; all three Latino senators are Cuban American. Iranians are the most highly educated ethnic group in the United States. The Lebanese earn almost as much as Indians do. Meanwhile, Mormons make up only 1.7 percent of the population, yet their membership has included CEOs of Dell, JetBlue, Marriott, Fisher-Price, Bain Capital, and Deloitte, among other elite firms. The holdings of the Church of Latter-day Saints are now many multiples of those of the Church of England.
Three mutually reinforcing traits explain the success of these groups, according to The Triple Package. First is a sense of group superiority: Successful minorities share a belief in their own exceptionalism, one that is grounded in a grand founding myth. The Jews are the chosen people; Nigerians view themselves as the descendents of royals. Second, and paradoxically, is the fact that high-achieving immigrant groups suffer from low self-esteem, driven in part by their outsider status in the United States. The third piece of the triple package is impulse control, or “the capacity to resist temptation.” Motivated by the productive combination of self-doubt on the one hand and proud group identity on the other, triple-package peoples work intensely hard, avoiding pleasures that can trip up less ambitious groups.
Chua and Rubenfeld do venture to make some prescriptions, though their book is not exactly a how-to guide for achieving the good life. They warn that while triple-package cultures produce successful children, they can exact a punishing price. “The same forces that promote success carry deep pathologies,” the authors write, including an “inability to experience beauty, tranquility, and spontaneous joy.” They caution that the triple package does not explain poverty: “America’s persistently low-income groups became poor because of systematic exploitation, discrimination, denial of opportunity, and institutional or macroeconomic factors,” they write. Still, they warn, America, once a triple-package nation “with a chosen-people narrative rivaling that of the Old Testament,” has been softened by its own success, an ethos of instant gratification, and a misguided belief in the powers of self-esteem.
Their critics have good reasons to pile on, primarily because of the authors’ methodology, or lack thereof. Why should we conclude that these particular three qualities explain group success? Belief in superiority, for instance, is in the very DNA of human groups who almost always define themselves (favorably, of course) in opposition to outsiders. As for impulse control, all human civilizations repress, redirect, and channel different urges. Which ones, and under what circumstances, are essential to success?
Their groupings can be puzzling as well. Appalachians are supposed to dramatize triple-package failure—the group suffers from high rates of substance abuse, poverty, poor health, and fatalistic attitudes—but they are a subset of a much larger group of Scots-Irish whose achievements in American life are far more impressive. Then there is the problem of “self-selection.” It seems likely that the gumption of Nigerian or Chinese immigrants—Chinese from the Fujian province of China often endure medieval conditions to get themselves to America—distinguishes them from their stay-at-home counterparts. It would have helped to explore what social and economic arrangements unlock the powers of the triple package. Some groups, such as the Chinese and Lebanese, are able to maintain businesses in even the most corrupt and hopeless of Third World countries, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for most of them. Why is that?
In the end, The Triple Package comes across as an intensively (and apparently successfully) packaged publishing product, heavily curated by Penguin’s marketing and publicity departments. It’s not irrelevant that Rubenfeld and Chua are a glamorous pair of the kind you don’t generally find in ink-stained circles. Add to their looks their exalted professional status and Chua’s recent notoriety, and you get, well, a triple package that I suspect excited the publishers far more than the book proposal itself. The two got serious pushback along the lines of this from The Guardian: “What has made us both brilliant lawyers, bestselling authors (and one of us a devastatingly attractive Tiger Mother), while you struggle along on welfare benefits?” The snark is not entirely undeserved.
Still, the war on The Triple Package is rooted in something deeper than fast-and-loose methodology or, for that matter, envy. The truth is, liberal critics are repelled by the very idea that cultural differences might provide some insight into people’s fortunes. For them, American success can be explained only by inherited privilege and the discrimination or hostile immigration policies that privilege inevitably produces. Those who harp on culture ignore the structures and debilitating economic realities behind inequality and so reveal themselves as bigots in disguise. “Dear Amy Chua & Jed Rubenfeld,” tweeted David Leonard, a historian at Washington State University after the book’s release, “the 1920s called and want their (racial) theories back.” The word eugenics made more than one appearance in the blitz of accusatory reviews. Culture, schmulture, the critics insist: The rogues are really talking about race.
This is more than a tactical ploy. Most reviewers of The Triple Package seemed to have little concept of a cultural group defined not by skin color or, maybe, food preferences, but by long-shared histories and inherited traditions that regulate everything from everyday greetings to parent-child relationships to ways of religious expression. The economics writer Tim Harford objected that because “the authors take it for granted that the logical way to divide up the U.S. is on ethnic and religious lines,” they ignore other groups, such as “hipsters, lesbians, hackers, or hippies.” If even Harford, a man of some wit, can confuse culture with ethnicity and religion, and can equate the depths of cultural identity with computer expertise or sexual orientation, then a key aspect of human identity is being lost to English language and thought.
For all the faults of The Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld do understand that the way people go about training the next generation can’t be explained by their skin color or their income quintile without acknowledging cultural habits. There is a substantial scholarly literature, for instance, describing the high academic expectations of Chinese parents regardless of their bank accounts. These expectations are expressed through long-standing, very particular familial patterns. It takes a remarkable level of willful blindness to imagine this has nothing to do with their proven ability to succeed in the contemporary American economy.
Clearly The Triple Package is not enough to make the blind see. Where is Max Weber when we need him?