Magazine | April 7, 2014, Issue

Born into Anxiety

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (Penguin, 304 pp., $27.95)

Amy Chua of “Tiger Mom” fame/infamy has written an airport book. An airport book is like an airport meal: bland and easy to consume (if not to digest), so rarely good that a good one is memorable, and of course engineered to be consumed most frequently (but not exclusively) in airports, in business travelers’ hotels between airports, and in similar locales. Because they are aimed at business travelers, airport books touch most frequently on subjects at least tangentially related to the theme of “success,” whether in business or nonbusiness enterprises. And because they need to be of at least potential mass-market appeal sufficient to carry them past the gatekeepers at Hudson News, which edits air travelers’ choices of readily available reading material with at least as much zeal as any Index-amending medieval cardinal, they often are wildly profitable. The irony is that if you are really good at writing airport books, you can afford to spend very little time in airports, at least outside of the first-class lounges or general-aviation terminals.

Ms. Chua became a household name with her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which nobody read, because they’d already read the short version, published as an essay in the Wall Street Journal under the much more forthright title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Her latest is The Triple Package, written in partnership with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, like his wife a professor at Yale Law School. Both of them have written other books, largely on law and politics, Mr. Rubenfeld having written two novels as well. How the division of labor on this particular volume breaks down is unknown to me, but however much of the book is his, the voice is hers.

Triple Package to some extent is “A Tiger Mom Makes Nice.” Perhaps stung by criticism that her earlier work was on some level racist (which in these infantile United States is a damnation that stands apart from and supersedes the question of whether that work is true), Chua engineers a multicultural construct that emphasizes the shared gifts and burdens of three elegantly diverse and highly successful groups: Asian Americans, here not limited to superior Chinese mothers but including also their colleagues of Indian, Korean, and other Asian origins; Nigerian Americans, whose levels of educational and financial success are remarkable and offer social critics a very handy high-melanin human rhetorical shield when making unpleasant observations about the state of non-immigrant black Americans; and, in what very often feels like a slightly strained outreach effort with origins in the marketing department, where the intelligent among them are conscious of the market power of conservative readers, she considers the case of American Mormons, who have achieved remarkable success in business and politics, securing for themselves employment as chief executives of everything except the federal government.

The so-called Triple Package to which Chua credits the success of American minority groups ranging from Russian Jews and Koreans to Gujaratis and graduates of Brigham Young University consists of the following: a feeling of in-group cultural (and often racial) superiority that does not necessarily confer proportional feelings of superiority on the individual level; a sense of cultural and individual insecurity that inculcates a lifelong dread that the physical and social security of the group and its members are at all times threatened, requiring constant fortification in the form of accumulated wealth and social honors; and a culture of impulse control that encourages not only such puritanical habits as thriftiness and sobriety but also levels of study and dedication to rote tasks that far exceed the standards of the surrounding mainstream culture.

Chua offers a persuasive case for her thesis, treating in turn (if not in any great depth) competing explanations such as economic history, immigrant-selection bias (we tend to get the smartest Indians and Chinese), IQ (upon which ground the authors tread very lightly), and others. She is by no means fanatical in making her case, and is more than willing to consider non-supportive data points — e.g., that many of the Cubans who made great fortunes in the United States came here with small ones, and that there exists a marked difference between the immediate post-Castro exile generation and recent waves of Cuban émigrés. On the subject of the Cuban diaspora she is in fact particularly enlightening: I had been aware of Cuban rejection of the notion that Cuban cultural identity should be subsumed into a broader Hispanic or Caribbean identity, but I had not been aware of the intensity of that rejection. “Every time I hear someone refer to me as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino,’ me dan ganas de meterle una pata por culo a [alguien],” as she quotes one Cuban-American commentator saying.

The figures are occasionally shocking: A 2004 study of young to middle-aged American adults found a median household net worth of $99,500 — but $443,000 among American Jews. Americans of Indian origin have the highest income of any group monitored by the Census, at about twice the national average — a particularly significant finding when you consider the “bimodal” nature of Indian immigrants: Many are in highly paid professions, but many work in humble occupations, the stereotypical convenience-store operators and motel proprietors.

#page#As is probably inevitable, the main role played by Nigerian Americans in her analysis is to provide an example of a population of Americans who are African who do much better in life than the people we refer to as African Americans. Thus we learn a few interesting things, such as that while Nigerian Americans constitute only 0.7 percent of the black population in the United States, they constitute between a fifth and a fourth of the black population at Harvard, 10 percent of the nation’s black physicians, etc. “In addition,” she writes, “Nigerians appear to be overrepresented at America’s top law firms by a factor of at least seven, as compared [with] their percentage of the U.S. black population as a whole.”

Nigerian Americans, in short, are closer in achievement levels to Mormon Americans or Korean Americans than to other black Americans. Perversely, though, as Chua notes, black students report the highest levels of self-esteem, followed by Latinos, whites, and Asians — which is to say, self-esteem is reported in inverse order of group academic achievement. Here, Chua reaches outside her model, locating sources of black underachievement in historical social and economic exclusion (certainly true) and in an “oppositional urban culture” that disdains academic achievement as “acting white” (also certainly true), but she might have fruitfully taken a closer look at a factor to which she pays insufficient attention: marriage culture.

Chua is very interested in the subject of out-group marriage, which threatens to extinguish such culturally distinct groups as Lebanese Americans, but about marriage per se she has relatively little to say. This is a subset of another set of factors in which she shows relatively little interest: sex differences. Historical Jewish-American social norms, very much like those developed by Indians living in India and Chinese living in China, were associated with strong marriage cultures because one of the two things that young men care about (the other is status) was very strongly linked to marriage, and marriage was linked to educational and financial achievement. The popular culture of, say, the 1950s might have made a great many young Jewish men feel as if they could never live up to the ideal of American masculinity, which was blond and WASPy and playing quarterback, but a successful lawyer or businessman or (to condense 1 million Jewish jokes) a doctor might have a fighting chance at marrying an attractive girl. Chinese Americans not named “Jeremy Lin” in 2014 are surely in the same position. (This is true regardless of individual physical condition; the phenomena of stereotype “boost” and stereotype “threat” — i.e., the fact that members of certain groups do in fact do better and worse at specific tasks when they believe that members of their group are expected to — are real, measurable, and widely documented.)

Remove the link between achievement and marriage, and between marriage and sex, and a big part of the so-called triple package is deeply discounted for about half the population, that being the half with testicles. Native-born black Americans never developed a triple-package culture for obvious reasons: Economic and educational opportunities were so limited for the great majority of blacks that there was little meaningful chance for them to distinguish themselves in that manner. Add to that black and white stereotypes about blacks’ abilities (athletic and musical rather than intellectual), release any meaningful link between sex and marriage, and the results should not be surprising. The interesting question for Chua’s triple-package cultures, which retain some link between sex and marriage but are deeply immersed in a culture that works actively against that linkage, is whether their achievements can persist in the absence of a marriage culture. Consider the convergence between black and white rates of illegitimacy: The convergence is not in the desirable direction.

Indeed, Chua’s entire thesis assumes the ability of families to inculcate habits, values, and culture. It is far from clear that this is possible for many Americans now, or that it will be possible for others in the near future. Critics of the original “Chinese Mothers” essay went so far as to suggest that such strict parenting amounted to child abuse, and indeed such methods as were used to instill discipline in high-performing generations past (and in your obedient correspondent, for that matter) are today not only frowned upon but not infrequently treated as illegal.

Chua is very insightful on the subject of our contemporary therapeutic self-esteem culture: It is, she argues, largely an intellectual cover to enable the making of excuses for mediocrity. She imagines a man in a flash of sudden insight untangling the mysteries of string theory while walking on a beach, and writes that such a thing is indeed possible — if you assume that he has spent grueling years mastering quantum physics beforehand. She similarly notes that the greatest of our creative types developed new techniques and modes of expression only after mastering the old ones, and makes a very persuasive case for rote learning oriented toward the attainment of skill and competency as prerequisites to innovation and creativity. The problem for tiger moms is that we have kitten schools and a sex-kitten culture. The upside is that those happy few who manage to inculcate such steely habits as Chua advocates will slice through an increasingly soft and sloppy American culture like a bullwhip through Cool Whip. The downside is that they are bound to be disappointed in just what kind of society they have risen to the top of.

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