Amy Chua, of “Tiger Mom” fame, together with her husband and fellow professor Jed Rubenfeld, appear to have created a firestorm that might make Charles Murray’s 20 year old The Bell Curve seem like a pleasant hearth on a cold night. And their book, which I’m sure many of our friends – across the spectrum, but mainly on the left – would doubtless love to burn, hasn’t even been officially published yet.
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America is due in bookstores, and on Kindle and Nook, February 4. Not one to be favored with the publisher’s pre-release like the publishing cognoscenti, I have not read the book. Chua and Rubenfeld, however, have given us a preview with an article in last Saturday’s (January 25) New York Times.
Commenting on the commentary yet is in order, given the screams already audible and visible. I first stumbled across the fact of the upcoming publication in last week’s Time magazine. Further Internet investigation revealed quite a few opinions, some screeds, and the predictable high tech equivalent of writing on public toilet walls: the anonymous comments.
One Suketu Mehta, who identifies himself as an “American, Calcutta born,” writes a multi-page article in Time asking “when does cultural pride cross over into racism?” The New York Post, the Huffington Post, the British Daily Mail, and others posit the same theme, if not the precise question. A follow up piece in Time by one Anna Holmes positively indicts Chua and Rubenfeld, and anyone who beams in with them, as racists, opining that there is “nothing ‘new’ about their ‘new racism’” at all.
Mehta, by his self-description, belongs to a cultural group that Chua and Rubenfeld identify as having the three qualities they posit are the reason for the groups’ members’ success: Indians. The others are Chinese (like Chua), Jews (like Rubenfeld), Nigerians, Lebanese (though unsaid, they probably mean Christians, not Muslims), Cubans, Mormons, and Iranians.
To point our that Jewish and Chinese Americans include a disproportionate number of over-achievers in this country is to state the obvious. The other cultural groups, especially our indigenous Mormons, have been somewhat under the radar. There is evidence, however, that the number of successful individuals who belong to all of these groups is significantly out of proportion to their number in the general United States population.
According to Chua and Rubenfeld, members of the aforementioned cultural groups possess three traits that are responsible for their achievements in a free society such as ours in America. “The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their group as exceptional. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”
The authors are quick to point out that any individual from any background can have these traits, but the identified groups seem to have cultural forces that install and reinforce them.
How do these traits help success?
In recent years, many American have become hung up on the supposed rise of “inequality” in our society. They mean lack of economic equality, not the legal equality that our founding documents value and attempt to guarantee. Sometimes it is put that our laws and government should foster, if not guarantee, “equality of opportunity.” Economist F. A. Hayek some time ago debunked that chimera as not only impossible, but undesirable. Hayek well explained the impossibility. Chua and Rubenfeld provide evidence to explain the undesirability. A belief in one’s superiority sets a standard to live up to. Like it or not, competition is hard-wired in nature. Is there anyone who really wants to be equal to everyone else? The bell curve is real. Roughly 20% of any given, random population are going to be high achievers, 20% impaired, the other 60% in the middle. Who, other then ascetics, doesn’t want to be in the top 20%, or at the very top?
When first considered, insecurity doesn’t seem to go with superiority. If one believe they are superior, why should they be insecure? Believing you are superior provides confidence, but living up to that belief takes effort. Perfection may be impossible; but striving to be better will at least make for improvement. Aim for the stars, and you might get to the moon. Thus, insecurity can be a great motivator. Especially for one who believes he is superior. Franklin D. Roosevelt once told our nation that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It might be that he got it wrong. The thing to fear is the lack of fear, fear that you might not measure up. Thus, belief in one’s superiority motivates one to prove it.
The trait of impulse control is a technique. It involves foregoing short term gratification for the prospect of long term gain. There is little doubt that successful persons generally do not, like Esau, sell their birthright for a mess of pottage because are hungry. (If they are starving, it might be a another matter – first things first.) Subsumed in this trait is persistence, the ability to continue to strive in the face of adversity. One with this trait refuses to regard a setback as failure; it is actually success in learning what doesn’t work. I have long observed that the inability or unwillingness to see the long term is what traps one into low achievement, usually by squandering, rather than accumulating, resources. Examples abound.
Now to answer the question “when does cultural pride cross over into racism?” The short answer is that it doesn’t. Chua and Rubenfeld aver that while “[m]erely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.” The successful groups mentioned include all races. Nearly all Nigerians are black; Lebanese are Arabs; Chinese are in what was used to be termed Mongoloid; if one were to regard “Hispanic” a race (it’s not), Cubans certainly belong; Jews, contrary to the views of Houston Stuart Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler are not a race, though since the mid-nineteenth century, some have regarded them so; Mormons clearly are not, though most are Caucasians.
Anyway, race and culture are two different things. They may be related, but are not at all congruent. Race is physical and immutable; it’s determined by manifest, usually visible, characteristics that have objectively little or anything to do with a person’s moral, or even biological, status as a human being. They are accidents, not essence. Culture, on the other hand is a system of values that are changeable, and which is manifested by behavior. Culture is associated with race because both developed in insular environments over numerous generations by the evolutionary process. With technology’s overthrow of the tyranny of distance, adult persons can and often do reject the culture, or aspects of it, into which they are born. (One who does is often vilified as a “traitor” to his race, class, or whatever group he rejects, but a contrarian attitude is a value and a virtue, up to a point anyway.) No one is superior or inferior because of their race, but they can be so because of the cultural values they embrace., as Chua and Rubenfeld maintain.
Read more: The ‘Tiger Mom’ Superiority Complex – TIME