The Return of the Tiger Mother

The Return of the Tiger Mother

A new book raises the question: Are Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld racists—or just equal opportunity trolls?


She’s ba-a-ack! Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, who last tormented status-anxious Americans with tales of her emotionally sadistic parenting techniques in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has produced a sequel of sorts. The Triple Package, which she wrote with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld (also a professor of law at Yale), attempts to explain how “three unlikely traits” account for the “rise and fall of cultural groups in America.” As the power couple describe it, in both the book and their widely shared New York Times op-ed “What Drives Success?”, these three traits are: a collective superiority complex (“a deeply internalized belief in your group’s specialness”); a simultaneous and abiding sense of insecurity (“a goading chip on the shoulder, a need to prove oneself”); and impulse control (not so much against carnal desires, but the ability to resist “the temptation to give up in the face of hardship”). According to Chua and Rubenfeld, only eight groups in the United States today possess this Triple Package—and none of them are gay male porn stars. They are: Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mormons, Lebanese, Iranians, Cubans and Nigerians.

Do you feel triggered yet? Because you should. Chua and Rubenfeld’s book is many things: pop psychology, ersatz self-help manual, shallow cultural history, a Who’s Who of rich and famous people without a WASPy last name. But first and foremost, it is an epic feat of trolling. In 225 dazzlingly glib pages, Chua and Rubenfeld traffic in broad stereotypes, hijack social science, sow worry, revel in conflict and derail the conversation—all with the gleeful “sorry not sorry” mania of a Cheetos and Dr Pepper–fueled Reddit poster.

To say that The Triple Package suffers from logical and evidential leaps and gaps is somewhat beside the point. The book is clearly intended to plumb the depths of American nihilism and panic, not showcase rational social science. But just to begin: it’s difficult not to conclude that Chua and Rubenfeld picked their Triple Package groups to resemble an ’80s Benetton ad. Look, there’s at least one of each color! But Russian-Americans, who rank seventh in terms of ethnic household income, are excluded for no given reason. So are South African–, British- and Australian-Americans (nos. 2, 6 and 8, respectively), presumably because they lack the necessary social cohesion (and melanin) to qualify as a distinct ethnic group. Mormons, however, are included, even though they don’t make much more than average Americans; this is explained away by the fact that Mormon men do most of that breadwinning on their own. Meanwhile, Filipino-Americans are not included, because even though they rank third on the list of ethnic groups by household income, Filipino men make less than the individual national average. So much for women being a part of any package!

If you’re feeling left out at this point, count yourself lucky—because the treatment that Chua and Rubenfeld give the ethnic groups they do write about is cringe-inducing at best. Jews are successful because they are told by Talmudic texts, rabbis and parents that they are the “chosen people.” Nigerians of Yoruba background have a sense of superiority because they “boast a royal lineage and a once great empire,” whereas the Igbos, as everyone knows, are called the “Jews of West Africa.” Cuban exiles of the ’50s and ’60s were “humiliated by Castro” and set out to prove him and communism wrong by prospering in Miami. Likewise, Iranian-Americans were not only humiliated by the Arab conquest of Persia 1,500 years ago, but also by the 2007 film 300, which depicted King Xerxes as “effeminate, corrupt, and monstrously body-pierced.” They’ve been working overtime to regain their lost dignity ever since, as the ubiquity of Mercedes-Benzes in the Bravo reality show Shahs of Sunset proves. No, I am not making this stuff up.

Everything in The Triple Package is adduced to support racialized, ethnic and religious notions of “culture,” a concept the authors summarily refuse to define. Critics will compare their treatise to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s notorious The Bell Curve, but it’s worth noting that they serve two very different purposes. Herrnstein and Murray’s book, written in the mid-’90s, invoked the specter of American decline to naturalize the unequal distribution of resources and opportunity among racial groups. For Chua and Rubenfeld, however, racial and ethnic hierarchies aren’t the end goal; they’re merely expedient vectors of Triple Package culture, and the authors maintain a blithe nonchalance about the validity of chauvinist claims. It doesn’t matter whether Jews really are chosen by the one God, or whether Indian-American Brahmans are truly born to rule; what matters is that the people within those groups believe it to be so. In one particularly galling twist, Chua and Rubenfeld argue that the civil rights movement is partly responsible for holding African-Americans down, because by ushering in the liberal mantra of racial equality, it denied them the opportunity to espouse racial superiority.

But Chua and Rubenfeld are equal-opportunity trolls. Anyone, they repeatedly claim, can instill Triple Package values in their offspring. And more important, anyone can lose them in “a single generation”—from the WASPs, who once combined a sense of manifest destiny with a Puritan work ethic to vault to the top of the American pyramid but now suffer from a “culture of lassitude,” to the Jews, who, the authors warn, are “long overdue for a fall.” In a world riven by inequality, capitalist excess and brutal social Darwinism, their advice is simple: be more prejudiced, work harder, suffer more. The rewards, for those who manage to claw their way to the top while shoving others down, aren’t just the conventional measures of success, which the authors acknowledge come with downsides, but also the ability to “cast aside the constraints of the Triple Package” and define success on their own terms. Now that’s a message that the 1 percent of every race, nationality and creed will love.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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