“Tiger Mom” Amy Chua is back, and this time, she and her husband Jed Rubenfeld collaborated on a new book detailing how and why some “cultural groups” in America are more successful than others.
To recap, in 2011, Amy Chua published a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she wrote about telling her daughters they were garbage and denying them sleepovers and the permission to act in school plays, all with the purpose of getting them into Harvard and onstage at Carnegie Hall. In The Triple Package, rather than write about her own experience, Chua puts forward, with Rubenfeld, a grand theory that the groups in America succeed if they have three characteristics 1) a superiority complex, 2) insecurity, 3) strong impulse control.
First, let us get out of the way the question of whether this book is racist. Chua and Rubenfeld are careful to insist that neither the traits that lead to success, nor the traits that lead to failure, are intrinsic.
Now, I am not entirely ready to let go of the fact that deep down, and maybe irrationally, I believe that any discussion of the disproportionate success of certain groups due to their character traits (inherent or not) is kind of racist. But for the sake of this book, I will put those assumptions off to the side.
Taking the book on its own terms, how does it stack up?
Though they claim that everything in the book is based on research, the evidence they cite is so paltry that it is just embarrassing. Here are a handful of examples from the book: “One twenty-three-year-old Indian American professional recalls…” “In the words of one business-school graduate, born in the United States to two Nigerian parents…” “As two young Korean Americans explained…” “As a Juilliard parent put it…” It goes on and on in this vein.
To give credit where it’s due, those quotations are all sourced to works of academic scholarships. Only, in The Triple Package, indepth qualitative studies of cultural groups in America (which may be quite good works of scholarship, I wouldn’t know) are not used appropriately. In one memorable passage, we are told:
“’In Southern California,’ one Iranian American reported, ‘every Mercedes you see belongs to an Iranian person. They live in a little shack yet go out and buy themselves a Mercedes and drive around’”.
Really? It would be extraordinary if it were true that every Mercedes in Southern California belonged to an Iranian. Of course, once you follow the endnote and discover that the quote comes from an academic study of young second-generation Iranian Americans by a sociologist, you might guess that the quote was not meant to be taken literally. In the text of The Triple Package however, this quotation is completely contextless. It is not that a pithy quote from a research subject cannot be used to illustrate a point. But the supporting evidence to a claim cannot be just pithy quotes. (The plural of anecdote, yada yada yada.)
Even worse, the book is full of anecdotes about and references to celebrities, writers, fictional characters, Jewish mother jokes, The Shahs of Sunset and in the lowest point in the book, an extensive quotation from an internet celebrity who is literally, not figuratively, a puppet. To reiterate, the evidence of the superiority complex of one of the main groups the authors focus on, Cuban-Americans, is in large part based on the testimony of a humorous puppet whose human master is anonymous.
All of that would be a huge problem, if not for the even bigger problem that for all the research that is listed in the endnotes, and for all that they insist every statement is backed by empirical research, there aren’t enough statistics. So you tell me that Mormons are disproportionately successful. Please give me some stats, and not just a long list of CEOs that are Mormon (plus Jon Heder) (yeah, Jon Heder).
Finally, does it really need to be said that impulse control and a combination of feelings of superiority and insecurity can be an excellent way to foster success? Doesn’t that seem common sensical? On the one hand, Chua and Rubenfeld refer to their theory as if it is counter-intuitive. On the other, they claim that Max Weber had the same ideas.
It’s bad enough that this book bruises the delicate sensibilities of those of us who as they put it“have so internalized modern postulates of equality”, but if they must discuss these tricky subjects, must the book also be quite this bad?
This book is lazily researched, ignores empirical data that do not support its claims, and ultimately advances a theory that is neither new, surprising, nor helpful.
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America is available now as an Amazon Kindle ebook or hardback.
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