It's time to get upset about Amy "Tiger Mother" Chua again. Or is it? "I don't want to be controversial," the now-famous Yale Law professor told the New York Times Magazine in a profile published this past weekend. "I just want to be liked."
It was her second straight Sunday in the Times, with her Yale Law-professor husband, Jed Rubenfeld, as the couple does advance publicity for their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, which is scheduled for release tomorrow. A week before, Chua and Rubenfeld had taken over the front of the paper's Sunday Review section to explain the book's not-at-all-controversy-seeking thesis: "[C]ertain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall," because those groups "share three traits that, together, propel success."
Those three traits, in the authors' formulation, are: a sense of superiority as a group, leading members to rise above the ordinary; a sense of individual insecurity, driving them to work harder; and the ability to control their impulses. The apparent contradictions—superior but inferior, insecure but secure—are what keep these groups from settling for the flabby dominant American culture of wanting happiness and self-esteem.
It is an easy thesis to misunderstand. The casual or ungenerous reader might think that Chua and Rubenfeld, by focusing on unequal achievement between different ethnic groups, are poking the hot-button issue of racism, the way Chua's previous book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, poked the hot-button issue of parental discipline (in ethnically charged terms).
But that book was misunderstood, too, Chua told the Times Magazine:
"It was supposed to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek book," Chua interjected. At 51, she has a petite frame and a tendency to gesticulate. "The stuff I had to address was so . . . degrading. It was like, 'Did you burn the stuffed animals?' " She seemed incredulous at the memory of it. "That was irony. That was irony!"
Ironies or inconsistencies abound. The Chinese edition of Chua's book about the superiority of Chinese-style parenting was titled "Being a Mom in America." It was almost as if Chua's message were being differently emphasized to fit the prejudices of different audiences. The American rollout, of course, had been that Wall Street Journal excerpt under the headline "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior":
The excerpt and the headline were misleading. People needed to know that the book wasn't a manifesto, and it wasn't a parenting manual, either. Couldn't they see her narrator was unreliable? Couldn't they see how the book was meant to be funny?
About that unreliable narrator... As presented so far in prepublication, The Triple Package is scrupulously not saying what it might appear to be saying. Although Chua and Rubenfeld in the Sunday Review did dismiss "taboo" and "willful blindness to facts," in the classic tones of popular-academic race-baiting, they insist that they are talking about cultural differences only. Superior groups can and do lose their superiority from generation to generation.
Here is a fairly rigorous expert breakdown of what's wrong with writing a book about the differential success rates of different groups in America:
These facts don't make some groups "better" than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life....The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class—rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels....
Most fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations.... The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of "model minorities"....
We know that group superiority claims are specious and dangerous....Needless to say, high-achieving groups don't instill these qualities in all their members....Even when it functions relatively benignly as an engine of success, the combination of these three traits can still be imprisoning—precisely because of the kind of success it tends to promote. Individuals striving for material success can easily become too focused on prestige and money, too concerned with external measures of their own worth...
Culture is never all-determining. Individuals can defy the most dominant culture and write their own scripts....[I]t would be ridiculous to suggest that the lack of an effective group superiority complex was the cause of disproportionate African-American poverty. The true causes barely require repeating: They include slavery, systematic discrimination, schools that fail to teach, employers who won't promote, single motherhood and the fact that roughly a third of young black men in this country are in jail, awaiting trial or on probation or parole....
Of course a person born with the proverbial silver spoon can grow up to be wealthy without hard work, insecurity or discipline (although to the extent a group passes on its wealth that way, it's likely to be headed for decline). In a society with increasing class rigidity, parental wealth obviously contributes to the success of the next generation.
That merciless critique is Chua and Rubenfeld's own self-caveats, collected from their Sunday Review piece. If you do the algebraic cancellations that they are inviting you to do, what's left is basically an affirmation of the concept of "cultural capital," followed by a denial of the concept of cultural capital, via a shapeless exhortation to try to teach children "grit." Whether the professors mean to be maddening or not, they've made a pretty good case that they're not worth getting mad about.
[Image by Jim Cooke]