In the USA, pre-publication controversy has kicked off over The Triple Package. The authors are accused of racism for constructing a hierarchy of ‘advanced’ ethnic groups and lesser peoples. (I paraphrase the charge.) Sound and fury is good for sales, not for critical engagement. The book is not racist; it is well written and seductive. But its premise is flawed, arguments pernicious and methods disingenuous. And there is a whiff of aromatic complacency on every page.
Chinese-American Amy Chua and her Jewish-American husband Jed Rubenfeld, both Yale law professors, are smart, gorgeous, wealthy, influential and aspirational. And ever so lucky. Jews and the Chinese are among the big players in their imagined premier culture league. So too Mormons, Nigerians, Iranians, Indians and Cuban émigrés. Among the losers are African Americans and WASPs. I interviewed Chua in 2003 about World on Fire, her sobering tome on free market dogma, group conflicts and global disorder. I sensed she wanted not just respect, but fame. Her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother ( 2011) was a chilling account of how she raised her daughters with steely, military discipline- common in Chinese families. They had to strive till they cried; she tore up their drawings, wouldn’t let them meet friends, chill. And yep, it caused a furore, turned her into a celeb. That was the taster to this full-on manifesto for success.
How does the book define success? Simply, bucks and position. Not accomplishments in science or the arts, not excellence in public or the caring services. Those do matter of course, say the authors condescendingly, but cannot be included in their neat spreadsheet. Which makes their main claims capricious and hopelessly unconvincing. These two have low emotional literacy, don’t seem to value creativity, dissent or the good life.
So, on to their reductive analysis: overachieving ethnic groups have a deep sense of inherited superiority, yet feel insecure and are able to control impulses. So, Jews do brilliantly because they are the ‘chosen people’ but never safe and taught to be gaol oriented. These qualities apparently are ‘open to anyone, anywhere, of any background and they can drive success of any kind’. How do you artificially make someone believe they have an exceptional heritage? And then sprinkle in just enough anxiety so it spurs and doesn’t break the person?
White Americans think they are chosen people but must be failing because they are clearly aren’t nervous enough. Lacking superiority, African Americans should, perhaps, tell themselves they were stolen from Africa because they were the best. But then they do have this problem with delayed gratification...This is dangerous, ethnocentric rubbish.
Little consideration is given to social and human capital, networking, the fact that middle class, educated migrants do well in their new lands for obvious reasons. Writer Suketu Mehta, himself a high flying Indian in the US, excoriates Chua and Rubenfeld in Time magazine, for sidestepping the structural causes of inequality, victim blaming, curious use of published evidence and ‘social science babble.’
The authors try to pre-empt criticisms by including endless caveats and admissions. Those concessions cannot ameliorate their cultural determinism ( as bad as biological determinism) or their contempt for equality and personal autonomy, the principles that have served their nation so well.
America is admired globally not for its money and power but its films, pop music, crazy innovations, free spirit. How would this couple feel if one of their daughters married a cool, African- American, small time jazz player? But then she probably never could do that. Success as characterised in this book is a mental prison. Chua and Rubenfeld think everyone wants cash and power. Millions of us, even triple packagers, value freedom and happiness much more.
Amy Chua will talk about her new book with Jed Rubenfeld at the Independent Bath Literature Festival on Saturday 1 March. Visit www.bathfestivals.org.uk or call 01225 463362