Jackson Doughart
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Does our Culture Make People Stupid?

Prince Arthur Herald, 18 March 2014

Review of The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (New York: The Penguin Press, 2014).

The latest book by Amy Chua, affectionately dubbed the “Tiger Mom” after her previous recommendation of stricter upbringing for children, has been met with much emotional response in the American press. Chua and her co-author (and husband) Jed Rubenfeld offer a compelling thesis about the source of success and failure for cultural groups in the United States. They argue that the conventional explanations for inter-group disparities, such as innate traits like IQ, institutional and popular prejudice, and income disparities, are not cogent theories. Rather, developed cultural traits and practices that influence people throughout their lives, and which differ greatly from one group to the next, best explain why the members of certain groups vastly outperform others in material terms.

The three traits which they identify form the “triple package”. First, members of successful groups possess a sense of chosen-ness and superiority, i.e. they see themselves as a vital population that is in some sense above the rest. Second, group members are insecure, often being stressed to the max about not being successful and fearing the prospect of failure, which brings shame upon their parents and group. Third, successful cultures are able to inculcate an impulse control, convincing their members to delay gratification and avoid the enticing pleasures of contemporary life which come through no effort or merit.

The groups adduced in the book are not easily categorized by the common racial constructions of our discourse. The successful groups discussed included Nigerians, Jews, Mormons, Iranians, Lebanese, and Asians—a crew motley enough to suggest that accusations of racism against the authors are certainly unfounded, and instead represent a rather cheap and demagogic way of silencing their arguments.

It is for this reason, as well as the general sensitivity of American political culture to the mere mention of ethnicity or race, that the text has come to be seen as controversial. Since this element of the book’s public response has been so thoroughly reviewed by others, I’d like to skip any lengthy discussion of it here. I would only suggest that it would be far more honest and magnanimous of the authors’ oversensitive critics to admit their modus operandi: namely, to intimidate the politically incorrect against speaking by slinging a very dangerous and unmerited character attack. If America is not prepared to listen to those who have uncomfortable truths to share about substantive ethnic inequalities, it should state so openly and accept the shame of its closed-mindedness instead of slandering those who dare to speak without pre-ordained mass approval.

The main point of praise for this book is its serious treatment of the individual and specific backgrounds of the surveyed groups. They take as important, in a way that many commentators take as trivial, things such as the circumstances of group history and the material and lifestyle implications of their religious values. For instance, they evidence the strict moral restraints of the Mormon religion, which prohibits the ingestion of drugs and promotes sexual conservatism, as instrumental to the qualities that have elevated Mormons to the upper echelons of the corporate world. Another example is the generation of American Jews whose parents had fled Europe in the 1930s and 40s. These people felt (and understandably so) an overwhelming need to succeed, given the plight experienced by their often-immediate families. History, in this case, impressed upon Jews a seriousness about life that propelled them to greater heights than they may have otherwise reached.

Few books on this type of subject can be categorized as significantly non-ideological, but this is one of them. The authors have jettisoned the starting assumptions of today’s Left and Right, not so much in the service of an argument that is especially “centrist” or compromising of the two camps, but rather one that pursues an original thesis that leads the facts to a conclusion, instead of the other way round. However, the attempt of the authors to present their case in a non-partisan fashion, in addition to the clear appreciation they have for the sensitivity of the topic, leads the reader to feel that they are walking on eggshells, so to speak. In addition to the effect that this has on the prose, they understate the influence of grander social and historical forces in producing America’s mass culture, which is antithetical to their triple package. Particular to this point is the sexual revolution, which succeeded in aggressively demoting delayed gratification as a virtue shared across cultural groups. They also fail to point the circumstances that have held back unsuccessful groups, especially concerning the decline of preparatory education, the rise of out-of-wedlock births, and the decline of marriage. These are not “traits” per se, but they are what one imagines to be a refracting influence on a group’s approbative qualities, hindering them from producing success.

The writing and organization of the book could have been much better. The explanations of the “triple package” were rehearsed in a repetitive and didactic way; for instance, the introduction includes a fairly lengthy spelling out of the relevant points, leaving the meatier chapters dedicated to each trait with more details, certainly, but with less allure than if the authors had held off in the introduction. (Call it an exercise in delayed gratification.) They also overuse the phrase “triple package” —a catchy term, of course, but an annoying one when it appears in every paragraph. One understands that this text is intended to be for a popular instead of an academic audience, but this is precisely why a more streamlined style would be welcome.

Ultimately, and especially in the chapter entitled “America”, the authors present a damning and accurate portrayal of the downside of our contemporary culture. In particular, the strange pre-occupation of American education to inculcate self-esteem in children comes at the expense of a strong work ethic and the development of tangible skills. And as the authors suggest, these factors have the effect of dragging down “triple package” groups, making it plausible to believe that the mass, mainstream culture effectively dulls the pursuit of excellence, even among the most prosperous of American sub-groups.

Though this book aims to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, the critique offered gives one a starting point for reforming the declined common culture in which both successful and unsuccessful groups participate. A stronger, more demanding common culture would provide a better foundation for the flourishing ethnicities, and perhaps give a proverbial leg up to those who lag behind.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com