MARCH 7, 2014
The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
— Karl Marx, Preface, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
MARX MAY BE RIGHT generally speaking, but when considering Amy Chua’s particular mode of production, it might be better to start with some with something other than her consciousness. For instance: her agent. Tina Bennett of William Morris Endeavor represents a distinguished list of authors, from Malcolm Gladwell to Matthew Crawford to Rick Perlstein, and from Fareed Zakaria to Tim Wu. The political positions of these authors range from moderate right to squarely left, but they share a certain intellectual seriousness that Bennett obviously recognizes, values, and sells. What’s fascinating about Chua, and her co-author Jed Rubenfeld, is how they are able to, with very little self-consciousness, participate in the dissemination of a highly commodified version of intellectual rigor that, in fact, can best be read as a blunt weapon in contemporary class warfare.
The marketing strategy of Chua and Rubenfeld’s new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, seems to be to both inflame and assuage the anxiety of the privileged, using a study of race — or, in the book’s language, “cultural groups” — to pique its readers’ anxiety about attaining and maintaining economic status. Claiming to offer a rare and necessary corrective to an America that, Chua and Rubenfeld repeatedly posit, is “uncomfortable” talking about the intersections of race and success, The Triple Package mostly offers up a series of faux-data-based arguments that justify economic success and pathologize failure. But we don’t have to have to scratch far beneath the surface of Chua and Rubenfeld’s professed concern about social mobility and economic injustice to find, instead, a neat expression of the tortured state of class-consciousness in an age of competitive, rather than pluralistic, multiculturalism.
Unlike the America they chastise, Chua and Rubenfeld apparently aim to confront race and success head on by explaining why some “cultural groups” are fantastically more successful than others. It’s because, they say, some “groups” are motivated by a magical trifecta of emotional tools: (1) a superiority complex, (2) an inferiority complex, and (3) — wait for it — impulse control. This last quality, famously (if falsely) lacking in those who happen to be African-American, Mexican-American, or just poor, explains for Chua and Rubenfeld why groups that do not defer satisfaction fail to “succeed.” A poorly-done sleight of hand separates Chua and Rubenfeld’s case from the familiar “culture of poverty” argument that is trotted out every few years to help us understand the entrenched immiseration of large swathes of our population: Chua and Rubenfeld will protest that they do not “blame the poor,” even as they cast the poor as emotionally bound to their own failures. Their argument, rather, is that “the United States” is depriving poorer groups of their own Triple Packages. Thus in comparing the success of Nigerian-American immigrants to native-born African Americans, they conclude that “the lesson to take […] is not that native-born American blacks have only themselves to blame for their economic position. The lesson is that the United States did everything it could for centuries to grind the Triple Package out of African American culture — and is still doing so today.” Simultaneously drawing on racial prejudice and defending themselves against it, and with characteristically awkward prose, Chua and Rubenfeld here work to exacerbate and assuage the anxiety and guilt of their “successful” readers.
But what is success, in the world Chua and Rubenfeld describe? Defending their Triple Package thesis, they list fantastic and mind-numbing statistics about the success of Mormons, Indian Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Cuban Americans, Persian Americans, Nigerian Americans, Syrian Americans, and of course Jewish Americans, the original holders of the Triple Package. CEO’s, Nobel Prize winners, hedge fund directors, billionaires, millionaires, and inventors abound, as do doctors, lawyers, policy makers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Their lists of successful people from the “Triple Package” groups reads like dross written in capitalist propaganda cubicles — or SAT prep companies trying to market their services: look at all the people we have helped gain admittance to Ivy League schools! There are no firemen, no public school teachers, no social workers, no psychologists, no steelworkers, no plumbers, no horticulturalists, no veterinarians, no nurses, no carpenters, no astronauts, no computer engineers, no farmers, no soldiers, no tinkers, no tailors, no chefs, no ceramicists, no artists, no non-classical musicians, and no poets in Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s accounting of successful Americans. In Chua and Rubenfeld’s United States, there is no polity, no class, no society, no collective endeavor, no social responsibility. There are the “cultural groups” of the title, each one vying for advantages in the fields of prestige and business.
In other words, Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s social world is entirely invidious: democracy, cooperation, reason, and mutual obligation — the mainstays of liberal pluralism — are entirely absent. Their concluding sentence is jingoistic, awkward, and empty, like the package itself. “The real promise of a Triple Package America is the promise of a day when there are no longer any successful groups in the United States — only successful individuals.”
Chua’s earlier bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) was an irritating but highly entertaining read. When The Wall Street Journal excerpted a part of Battle Hymn under the title, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” the Tiger Mother brand hit pay dirt. Despite her repeated protestations that her book and its title were both self-disparaging and self-reflexive, Chua became the target of moralizing forms of progressive parenting that echoed century long panics about “yellow peril.” Mommy blogs exploded with rancor. The Tiger Mom brand, however, was lifted on the wings of notoriety and buoyed by the winds of controversy, all the way to a perch on the New York Times bestseller list. Battle Hymn nestled there for quite a while, at least 12 weeks at number one: Chua’s webpage describes the book as a “runaway bestseller.” While it is hard to get hard numbers on the total copies sold (150,000 copies by one count), Penguin and Chua seem to have profited nicely from Tiger Mom’s brief takeover of the collective attention span: one blogger called it the Andromeda strain of viral memes.
In Battle Hymn, Chua had woven the dross of ethnic insecurity into the gold of a bestselling book, marbled with conservative, ad hoc, David Brooksian critiques of “self-esteem culture.” Chua’s story about her parenting experiences had a slapstick quality. Her over the top approach to anything educational included the training of their Samoyeds, a breed not known for their tractability or intelligence. At one point, she exclaims in frustration that she “has dreams for her dogs.” Yes, she was successful with her older daughter, a gifted musician over whose practice sessions and lessons she presided anxiously with what she admits was a tin ear. There was the recital at Carnegie Hall, the catered reception with a delectable spread of shellfish abomination. Her second daughter challenged Chua in every way and here the Tiger Mother acknowledged the power of her progeny and confronted the limit of her powers.
As a Chinese-American mother, I could relate: when my son, then aged 10, read the book, he found it funny, and I could understand why. Chua was anxious and driven. Her daughters were expected to make the most of their childhoods; I shudder to think that Leo has flushed hours of his life down the toilet, Instagramming and Xboxing and Minecrafting. What Chua and I both want is to teach our children respect and appreciation for opportunities other children do not have. That is the positive spin on our immigrant anxiety. But it takes dark forms. No doubt Leo found Chua a familiar mother figure: he and I have had screaming fights in the car after a tennis game during which he double faulted away the first set at his set point, only to lose the whole match after his opponent grew in confidence because of his errors. I see the loss of a tennis match as the end of the world. Godzilla is coming to crush our matchbox house into pieces. I feel the dark flush of humiliation when I look at the set scores, 5–7, 2–6. It is my problem, not Leo’s that I react to low stakes defeat in such a hyperbolic manner. He is the levelheaded one, the one who screams back at me that tennis is not all about winning. Pity the Tiger Mother.
So if Chua’s book is funny, it also reveals the terrible emptiness in the middle of the package her next book would praise; the lack of social, aesthetic, and spiritual feeling that fuels our love of labels, degrees, money, publicity, and prestige. When I look down the black hole of my need for approval, I see an abyss into which my parents threw me early on. I climb back out of it each time on the toeholds that others have provided for me: in tennis there is patience, process, and finally love of the game itself that extinguishes the ego — at least momentarily.
Insecurity is a dark and punishing place to be: it has little compassion for the experiences of others.
Thus perhaps it’s not surprising that The Triple Package offers a terrifying view of civic life. The book arrives with a thud, like a scud missile upon our digital doorsteps. Half of it is devoted to footnotes and references shoring up their banal, but slightly sinister proclamations about the positive effects of the Indian-American community’s “strong, if unspoken belief in their ‘distinctive and superior family/ethnic culture.’” This sense of superiority, combined with persistent ethnic anxiety, is a classic Triple Package recipe for drive.” It works precisely to generate the anxiety that Battle Hymn describes. We can be a nation of the Triple Package — a nation of success stories, fed by a combination of xenophobia and feelings of inferiority, with a generous dose of impulse control.
The link between Chua and Rubenfeld’s social analysis and Chua’s earlier discourse on parenting can be seen when we think about how “impulse control” has been helpfully redefined as another fashionable term in child-rearing — “grit.” “Grit” is a term that I started hearing with regard to children and education during the past year as my son approached the teenager milestone. Professor of psychology Angela Lee Duckworth TED talked about it here, and Paul Tough wrote about it here, giving grit a neurobiological dimension — he analyzes studies of children who do and don’t survive the stresses of extreme and destabilizing poverty. The biochemistry of the brain is what concerns Tough, and his book proposes that we help poor children alter their brain chemistry, deformed by traumatic early childhood experiences that make it hard for them to focus or control their impulses. “Grit” for Chua and Rubenfeld becomes an ingredient in a formula for raising successful and super-successful upper middle class kids.
Case in point: we are at an information session with the headmaster of a boarding school in Central California. He is a rugged, informal man. The prep school boasts a beautifully appointed stable and a lower applicant acceptance rate than Harvard. The headmaster casually mentions that “public schools are failing.” His school provides students the opportunity to learn grit, obviously beyond the pedagogical range of any unionized fat cat tenured teacher. If the hormonal and distracted teenager forgets to pack his camping materials properly on their horseback camping trips into the Sierra Madre, he or she will be very cold, hungry and wet. Consequences, grit, and responsibility are preached by this venerable institution at the cost of $47,000 a year, more than I made as a beginning assistant professor.
It was chilling to me: the rich had a monopoly on everything now, including “grit” and the work ethic. In the Gilded Age, even American writers and intellectuals as effete as Henry James imagined the wealthy to be lazy and parasitic. Today, those tables have been turned. The wealthy and the privileged imagine poor and middle class Americans as gadget-wielding layabouts, demanding their PS4’s while amassing consumer and student loan debt. Most American children would be left behind in a grit contest, sinking into mass-produced comfy couches, playing videogames, not controlling their impulses. So what if the unsuccessful have to stare at mountains of debt not nearly as picturesque or conquerable as the Sierras? They had no grit, no impulse control, no Triple Package.
The problem, of course, is that no one is really interested in changing social policies, whether to help poor children get enough food or care at an early age to avoid brain trauma, or to help public schools not fail at teaching academic content. And why should we? The problem isn’t collective, it’s a matter of “cultural groups.” Chua and Rubenfeld, despite their protestations of benevolence, spin out a familiar anxious logic. Barbara Ehrenreich has already done the heavy lifting to explain Chua and Rubenfeld’s assumptions: the middle class, more specifically the white-collar worker, who was seeing her own privileges and wages undermined on every front, identified with the interests of the wealthy in order to put down the interests of the poor, the blue collar, the uneducated and uncredentialed, the welfare mother and the rural ignoramus.
But of course, Chua and Rubenfeld aren’t talking about class. They are talking about “cultural groups”! Class becomes something of a five-letter word, and Chua and Rubenfeld torture prose and statistics in order that we never ever have to pronounce it again. (If Malcolm Gladwell’s pseudo-sociology paved the way for The Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld cannot match Gladwell’s prosody. Gladwell may confuse correlation with causality; he does so with sentences that will never include the adverb “sterilely.”) Chua and Rubenfeld would never admit to having written a middle class panic book, but that’s nevertheless transparently what they’ve produced.
Making the upper middle class more anxious is a great marketing tool: despite all their protestations to the contrary, Chua and Rubenfeld exploit the “how to” aspect of mass-market books — a secret solution lurks on the very next page. After all, they raised two successful daughters: their Jewish-Chinese-American family offers the Triple Package squared or cubed, while a liberal veneer of concern for the poor and the marginal laminates its cold, hard conservative condemnation of “complacency” and dependency. Virtual and real bookshelves at Amazon and Barnes and Noble groan under the weight of self-help books disguised as social, economic and cultural analysis.
The marketing of these book-like objects has distorted public understanding of the entrenched nature of inequality, the terrifying psychic price we pay for generalized social precarity. Behind the attribution of poverty and failure to “lack of impulse control” is the fear and guilt that afflict the successful in an increasingly unjust society. We are an intolerant, impatient, success driven people, ready to gloat temporarily over our victory over the less worthy. Our sense of guilt is window dressing for our drive to leave everyone behind. The ethics of Chua and Rubenfeld’s arguments are reprehensible, but familiar to me.
I doubt The Triple Package will achieve the sales of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but it does not have to. It confuses the issues, stokes the fires of anxiety, creates a pseudo-pluralistic category called “cultural groups,” pretends to find the cause of their successes, and degrades sociology, public discourse, and conversation about civic life while appealing, by those very means, to anxious parents. It will sell well enough.
If you pirate a digital copy of The Triple Package, use the find and replace function. Find “successful cultural group,” replace with “bourgeoisie,” and then the book will become a coherent and honest provocation, rather than the triple package of neurosis, projection, and obfuscation that it really is.