Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Amy Chua is no stranger to controversial, provocative writing.  Her 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which delved into her personal experiences with the successes and pitfalls of "Chinese parenting", spurred hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews and blog posts, often scathing and extremely critical of Chua both as a mother and as a person.

In contrast to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, The Triple Package is much less personal and more detached in its approach.  (It should be noted that she co-wrote this book with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, which may account for at least some of the difference in tone.)  She seems to still want to encourage conversation in a deliberately provocative way, but not to open herself up to so much personal criticism.  Can't blame her at all after the firestorm she weathered with her last book.

The Triple Package starts with a bold thesis: there are three traits that can predict whether or not your minority group will be successful in America.  These traits are a superiority complex, a keen sense of insecurity, and strong impulse control.  Chua and Rubenfeld point out several groups that meet these criteria, including Cuban Americans, Nigerian Americans, and Iranian Americans, among others.

Frankly, the main reason I was drawn to this book is that Mormons are one of the groups Chua and Rubenfeld identify as "starkly outperform[ing] others."  It's always nice to hear an outsider describe a group you identify with in positive terms.  (I guess that would be my Mormon superiority complex showing...or would that be my Mormon insecurity?)

Chua & Rubenfeld's examples are compelling and backed by research.  They dig into history and culture to identify why each of these groups has all of the elements of the Triple Package, pointing out not only the positives but also the dark underbelly of the Triple Package traits.  Far from touting the Triple Package as the answer to all our problems, they warn "the Triple Package always comes at a price."

For example, a superiority complex can provide an individual with confidence and "an ethnic armor" that allows one to "cope psychologically, even in the face of discrimination and exclusion."  It can be communicated a pride in one's heritage or a sense of being "chosen" or special.  However, "the ugly corollary of a superiority complex is all too often a propensity toward bigotry, exclusivity, insularity, or parochialism--an intolerance of other groups and other ways of life."

The second trait, insecurity, "may be fundamental to the human condition, an inevitable product of the knowledge of mortality or self-consciousness itself."  Chua and Rubenfeld point out that "everyone is probably insecure to some extent", but insecurity coupled with a superiority complex creates an interesting and motivating tension.  This "goading anxiety about oneself and one's place in society" drives a people to prove themselves, to "show everyone".  Chua and Rubenfeld point to a history of persecution as one source of this insecurity, though scorn from others, fear of being unable to survive, and internal pressure to live up to and be worthy of parents' sacrifices are factors, too.

Finally, impulse control or the "capacity to resist temptation" completes the trifecta of traits.  This one makes the most obvious common sense to me, though Chua and Rubenfeld are quick to mention that impulse control alone doesn't lead to success; it requires all three elements of the Triple Package.  They also point out, however, that "America is the great wrecker of impulse control" as "American culture today celebrates a powerful live-in-the-moment message."

The last chapter examines how the Triple Package is part and parcel of American culture and history.  I found their characterization of the "deep tension" between the Declaration of Independence - with its "consummate expression of America's live-in-the-present rebelliousness...captur[ing] America's throw-off-the-past, antiauthoritarian streak" - and the Constitution - with its "core [of] impulse control" and "structure and restraint" - fascinating.

By the way, I generally judge authors by how accurately they portray Mormonism.  I figure if they get us wrong, I need to be pretty skeptical of what they write about others, too. Chua and Rubenfeld didn't miss a step describing Mormons, either doctrinally or culturally, which, for me, gives greater credence to their portrayals of other groups.

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America
by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
ISBN: 9781594205460
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

No comments:

Post a Comment