Sounding a little wounded from the wrath that greeted her 2011 parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua has nonetheless jumped back into the pop-ethnography circus with a new book and fresh controversy. Written with her husband, fellow Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America posits another theory about collective identity, one that toe-tests – or perhaps leaps over – the line of political correctness: Some U.S. cultural groups, the couple say, are bound to be more successful than others.
Tracking the trajectories of U.S. minorities such as Iranians, Indians, Mormons, Jews and Chinese, among many others, the couple define three cultural drivers that lift them to the Ivy Leagued, Wall Street or Forbes-listed rungs of achievement. They possess a sense of cultural or historical mission which the authors call a “superiority complex.” They also have an insecurity complex, which means they will feel compelled to vindicate themselves as a result of their collective traumas. They have strong impulse control, an ability to forgo pleasure for future gains.
The book isn’t a collection of flame-tossing whimsy: The research staff acknowledged at the back of the book is the size of a small minority unto itself. Nearly half of its 300 pages consist of footnotes and endnotes to support its contentious arguments: The sense of entitlement that comes from a superiority complex is a leading cause of WASP decline, while Appalachians have the opposite problem – a sense of inferiority makes them feel as though they are not deserving of the same success as other cultures. The authors note their concern about the weakening of impulse control among Jewish-Americans and point out that Mormons are an ideal Triple Package. Uncomfortable yet?
Why did you find it important to write this book now?
Chua: I’ve actually been interested in this topic of disproportionately successful minorities for most of my career. I wrote the book World on Fire in 2002, that was about minorities in the world, and Jed and I, we have these cultural differences. He’s Jewish and I’m Chinese-American, and we’ve noticed big differences and similarities. I used to say, “Chinese people are just two generations behind the Jews.”
The Tiger Mom has nothing on the Jewish mother.
Chua: I know! But people forget that, especially if you think about the Jewish mothers of the 19th, the early 20th century – we found these great passages where they sounded exactly like Asian-Americans today. It was, like, you have to play the piano or the violin. You have to get straight A’s, you have to be a doctor.
And how did you divide the labour?
Chua: I like all this cultural stuff. I was so interested in the Amish and Appalachians and I’m the one that kind of organized the research assistants and just got more and more books and dug in, whereas Jed is more the abstract thinker, the big picture.
Rubenfeld: Just to put it concretely, she gets up at 6 in the morning, which is about the time that I’m going to sleep, so we were actually able to double the number of working hours in a day by….
Chua: And never have to see each other.
Rubenfeld: We have 15 minutes of overlap every day in which we actually exist at the same time.
What sort of reception, or what are folks saying [about the book] in Canada, just so we can get a sense where you’re coming from?
Folks aren’t saying anything in Canada.
Amy: It’s been a big mess. It’s like a déjà vu nightmare all over again.