Feb. 4 was the publication date of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. That night, the husband-and-wife duo appeared to discuss their book at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
You remember the rabid reaction to Chua’s last book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother—a book purportedly about raising super-accomplished, obedient, respectful genius children according to ancient Chinese secrets. (The actual book was not about this, but I’ll get to that point in a bit.) You may have read the New York Post’s spitting-mad pre-publication response to the current book: “In The Triple Package, Chua and her husband, co-author Jed Rubenfeld, gather some specious stats and anecdotal evidence to argue that some groups are just superior to others and everyone else is contributing to the downfall of America,” wrote Maureen Callahan. “It’s meant to do what racist arguments do: scare people.” Tablet’s own Rachel Shukert mocked The Triple Package as “a slickly packaged treatise, which I’m sure has all kinds of truthy anecdotal big-idea evidence but nonetheless still carries the eerie aura of a eugenics textbook from the early part of the 20th century on how some ethnic groups—Chinese, the Nigerians, the Cubans, the Mormons, and … wait for it … the Jews—seem to find success more easily than others.”
As with most events at the 92nd Street Y, the room was packed with pushy Jews saving multiple seats. My husband Jonathan was late, so I amused myself by seeing which of the other six groups (aside from the Jews and Chinese) the Chua-Rubenfelds name (Lebanese, Indian immigrants, Iranians, Nigerians, Cubans, and Mormons) seemed to be represented in the audience. I kept texting Jonathan: “Can’t see through all the Jews” and “OK, yup, handful of Asians” and “Ooh, Indian dude two rows down” and “One black person in entire room. Presume he is pushy Nigerian.” But yeah, mostly Jews.
The Chua-Rubenfelds are a very good-looking couple. She has long lustrous hair with the ends curled, and she wore a short skirt. He is tall and lanky and looks like a better-dressed Michael Bolton (post-mullet).
During the chat, Chua waved her hands around a lot, interrupting herself, leaving off sentences mid-phrase and starting new ones. She seemed slightly ditzy and accessible, not someone you’d peg as the author (pre-Tigerdom) of a well-reviewed, sober book about globalization and free-market democracy. She did the lion’s (tiger’s?) share of the talking, sometimes offering inflammatory generalizations about the groups in the book; Rubenfeld would smoothly leap in to defuse matters with a self-deprecating joke or a mention of the book’s rigorous research.
Rubenfeld was furious that people were accusing him and his wife of racism. “It’s the opposite of divisive!” he protested of the book. “It’s unifying!” He added that you don’t have to be from one of the eight diverse groups mentioned to be a success in America. “[Success] doesn’t have to be group-based at all,” he said. “A parent or teacher can convey a sense of exceptionality, too.”
I read the book as soon as I got home from the Y; I do not slam books until I have read them. The Triple Package looks at the eight groups it does, the authors say, because those groups are large enough in America to have decent representation in the census. The Chua-Rubenfelds say they used financial metrics as indicators of success because that’s the easiest data to find. They argue that all eight groups, but not only members of those eight groups, share three traits essential for success: a sense of superiority, a feeling of insecurity, and good impulse control.
I agree with Rubenfeld: The book isn’t racist. (Sorry, haters.) Chua and Rubenfeld clearly took pains to show that people of all skin colors and backgrounds can be successful. And the notion that three qualities can boost your odds for winning at life is very enticing.
But the book is still problematic. I was horrified that it defined success in starkly economic terms. (My husband, the statistician, defended this practice: “They used the data available to them! You have to use the data you can get!” To which I say: feh.) Kindness, creativity, and happiness may not be as easy to measure as household income, but it’s awfully demoralizing to see “success” defined so narrowly throughout the book. (Education is mentioned when the authors could find data that backed up their thesis, but artistic and literary accomplishment are mostly relegated to anecdotes. Feel free to enjoy all the quotes from P. Diddy and lists of how many Jews have won Oscars.)
To avoid accusations of racism (which clearly didn’t work out anyway), the writers fill the book with caveats, similar to the way they defended themselves at the Y. They hasten to point out that poverty and discrimination prevent certain communities from being among the eight groups singled out; African Americans, for instance, have been so beaten down by life in the United States that they haven’t been able to develop a sense of group superiority, and Appalachians are too poor and too isolated to have done so. But not being in one of the eight chosen groups doesn’t mean any given individual can’t succeed! Anyone can still develop the Triple Package through hard work and willpower! Lots of other religious and ethnic groups are successful, but their numbers in the census are too small to warrant inclusion by name in the book! As for the three qualities each of the eight groups apparently have in abundance, exactly how they manifest in every group isn’t made precisely clear either.
Furthermore, Jews don’t seem to fit with most of the book’s theories. (Though the book equivocates about that, too—oh, Jews are perhaps different! But perhaps not! They’re losing their advantages! Or not! They’re smarter! Or not! Jeez, say something definitive, people.) The Triple Package says that immigrants in America tend to lose their Triple Packageness after two or three generations, but most Jews have been here longer. In their discussion of impulse control, they mention that the Chinese philosophy of learning involves chi ku, which literally means “eating bitterness”—sucking up hardship and not expecting learning to be pleasurable. But Jewish tradition involves starting schooling with a taste of honey and expecting learning to be a joyful end in itself, a fact the Chua-Rubenfelds don’t mention.
Finally, I think the authors’ protestations of shock at the book’s reception are disingenuous. Chua knows from experience that controversy sells books. She may not have written the headline for the Wall Street Journal op-ed that launched the Tiger Mom book (“Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”) but she sure as heck wrote the piece itself. Surely she knew that proudly announcing that she’d called her daughters “garbage” and listing the things they “were never allowed to do” (attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, watch TV, play a computer game, get any grade except an A) would horrify people. (At the Y, she and Rubenfeld insisted that those rules were only for when the kids were little.) Chua was certainly complicit in the book’s marketing, which capitalized on American anxieties about both parenting and the prospect of China eating America’s lunch. As Chua maintains, the actual book was indeed funny and self-mocking. (Yes, I read it. And enjoyed it.) She makes it clear that her parenting strategy worked for one daughter and totally failed for the other. She admits that she and her younger child were much happier when she chilled out and loosened up—basically, when she acted more like her own stereotype of an American parent.
Here’s a thought. Read the Chua-Rubenfelds’ op-ed, which summarizes the book well, in the New York Times. Then go buy Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character instead. It offers a much more inspiring and rigorous (as well as less dry) look at how kids’ determination and resilience play a role in adult accomplishment.
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.