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REVIEWING

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

By Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

The Penguin Press | 2014 | 308 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Jed Rubenfeld

Let the Generalizations Begin

What is authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld-- one a Chinese American, the other, a Jewish American, both Yale Law School professors and married to each, with two daughters-- big idea, or, as is the case, big ideas?

They insist in Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, using a great deal of academy studies and anecdotal  evidence to backup this claim, that certain groups rise in this country because they process The Triple Package of an ingrained Superiority Complex; Insecurity because of the belief that the WASP majority looks down on them, and don’t consider them real Americans, which gives them a “chip on their shoulders;” and Impulse Control, where strict self-discipline prevail.

It goes without saying that group solidarity is the glue that holds all of this together.

The religious and racial groups they cite include Chinese, Jews, Mormons, Nigerians, Cubans, Iranians, Indians and Lebanese. What all of these groups have in common is that most of the people in these groups are recent immigrants to this country, starting with the lifting of restrictions that favored certain kinds of Northern Europeans that ended in the 60s (thank Senator Edward Kennedy for help making that happen) with the exception of the Mormons and the Jews, both German and Eastern European.

Many Chinese Americans, which strangely, they didn’t note, have also been in this country for many decades, and were the essential key to the building of the western part of the cross-country railroad system in the 1860s.

This is also not the first book that has traveled down this road. For example, Thomas Sowell, the black conservative Stanford University Economist made similar points in a more concise way in his 1981 book, Ethnic America: A History.

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Although Chua and Rubenfeld offer interesting profiles of these “rising” groups, in the end, it is their insights into the Chinese and Jewish personalities that dwarf anything they write about the other groups, and it is why this reader realized early on that this book was not just some dry academic study as was professor Sowell’s book.

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This was also personal. Almost as if the authors said, if I show you mine, will you show me yours, which made this book almost impossible to put down.

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With the insights they have at hand, Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have concluded that what the rest of these striving groups have in common with the Chinese and Jews, is the ability to see their group as better than anyone else, with tons of history to back up that claim; to study hard; put in long hours at whatever line of work they decide on (work that must carry with it prestige, and lots and lots of money). They also are people who closely follow the time-honored rules of the group (the collective unbroken genetic memory) and resist the temptations of a broader American culture.

As they point out, “America today spreads a message of immediate gratification, living for the moment. …Americans are taught that no group is superior to another in any respect…Americans are taught that self-esteem—feeling good about yourself—is the key to a successful life.”

The groups they are writing about will have none of this.  For them, it is about money, power and pleasing your parents.

Jewish, Inc. Chinese, Inc. Nigerian, Inc. will always trump the myth of two-fisted individualism any day.

In fact, Thomas Sowell, agreed with them. Or, maybe they agreed with professor Sowell

I couldn’t argue with their basic idea because the evidence is there. Jews are far and away the wealthiest people in America. Followed by most of the groups they mention. The once dominant WASP are now mere shadows of their former mighty selves.

What I did find questionable is how they tried to paint New World groups with the same brush as Old World people.

For example, in their treatment of the so-called Hispanics, they seem to not fully understand why most Cubans hate being lumped in with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Santa Dominicans.

What they also don’t seem to know is that most Mexicans also dislike being called Hispanic, or Latino. 

I should know.

My ex is part Mexican and I have gotten earfuls at the dinner table from her large family about how “you guys” are the illegals, and they have been in this part of the world at least 12,000 years. They also took serious exception at being considered Spanish.

The Cubans that fled Castro were the white elite. Cuba was the second to last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. This occurred in 1886, followed by Brazil in 1888.

It wasn’t just that these exiles considered Castro a closet communist, which proved to be the case, but also the fact that he said that blacks were equal citizens of Cuba.  

For them, that was unforgivable.  

This lumping of all of all these people together is mostly for political reasons and has no basic in any kind of group affinity.

And speaking of blacks, they also trotted out the argument for separate but equal for African Americans as a way for economic attainment; giving more face time to the early version of Malcolm X when he was in the Nation of Islam, than to the latter Malcolm X who turned his back on his old ideas, 

Martin Luther King, Jr., with his idea of integration, was not even worth discussing in any length.

But again, I smelled Old World people trying to lump New World people in the only box they know. Try as they may to prove otherwise, the fact is that most African Americans are not Africans with an unbroken genetic memory like the Chinese and Jews.

The One Drop Rule was a grim fairy tale, enforced by the English settlers at the point of a gun because they wanted to hold their mixed race offspring in bondage, as Thomas Jefferson did.

Here is what another law professor, Ralph Richard Banks of Stanford wrote in his recent book, Is Marriage For White People: “For most of American history, the question of whether a black woman’s children would be black was a nonstarter…that was done by the so-called one drop rule…according to this principle, reflected in social practice and law alike, “one drop” of black blood was sufficient to make a person black. In the infamous 1896 case of Plessey vs. Ferguson, for example, the fact that seven out of Homer Plessey’s eight great-grandparents were white was not sufficient to allow him to sit in the white railroad car in segregated Louisiana. “

As law professors at a school like Yale, I would have expected our two authors to know this and add this to their analysis of African Americans; as well as know that, starting in the 60s most interracial children were raised by their white mothers, which was perhaps the most radical change that has occurred in American history.

African Americans are New World people, and our story is just now being written, if we can just avoid Old World typecasting.

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Still, the Triple Package was often one of the most riveting books I have read so far this year, mainly because the authors, bravely in my opinion, faced up the negative consequences of the Triple Package, and didn’t shy away from seeing the dangers inherent in the three traits they claim helped the groups they mentioned gain so much economic power in this country.

As the two authors focused their attention, and zeroed in on both the Chinese and Jewish populations, something they know both intellectually, and most important, emotionally-- we get enormous insight into both groups, and the price they pay for the direction they embarked on centuries ago.

For the Chinese, it is an overbearing culture based on denial, hard work, self-control, and above all, conformity.

A Confucian principle, which still guides many Chinese, teaches that the goal of life is for the good of the group, not of the individual. (Ayn Rand was clearly not a Confucian); they also have to deal with learning by rote, which could end up only suiting them for exact science where two and two is four, with no questions asked.

The authors are aware of this, as well as many in China and the Chinese in America. Recently, in the Bay Area, for example, Chinese business people held a large conference because it was impossible to no longer ignore the fact that although Chinese students now dominate the numbers at UCBerkeley and Stanford, two of the most elite universities in the world, that when they graduate, often with honors, and enter the work world, they rarely rise out of middle management at major corporations in the Bay Area. 

They concluded that this was not due to racism, but culture.

“Speak up! Take chances!” one angry businessman shouted to the mainly Chinese American audience.

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This book gives us many insights into the inner dimensions Chinese Americans face, and I was glad to see that the author’s face it directly, and with almost brutal honesty.

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The Jews also have their own cross to bear. And quite a cross it is. Despite their being, by almost any measure, the most successful Old World group in America, they are still haunted by deep-seeded insecurities, according to the authors. For example they note that “Jews are also awkwardly prominent in Hollywood, a fact that many Jews prefer not to highlight.”

They dislike having this fact discussed with such passion that a non-Jew could be labeled anti-Semitic for writing the same quote you just read

In addition, they question the idea that a single-minded pursuit for money and power is a productive way to spend one’s life. For them, a single-minded focus on money and power could lead Jews into some dangerous waters.

Professors Chua and Rubenfeld are not alone in this observation. This is a recent, soul-searching editorial by Rob Eshman in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in regard to the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. “But, just between us (and one lone African American listening in), let’s talk about Belfort-the-Jew — let’s go there. In the movie, you never really understand how someone so gifted can be so morally unmoored. But in his memoir, upon which the movie is based, whenever Belfort refers to his Jewish roots, the diagnosis becomes more apparent. 
“He is a kid from Long Island. His dad, Max, grew up “in the old Jewish Bronx, in the smoldering economic ashes of the Great Depression. Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.” 
“Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”

“It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others.   

“Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is an extreme example. These are guys who feel they have nothing, they are nothing, so they will do anything to acquire everything. They cross a pretty clear line and just keep going.

“The question that gnaws at me is whether there’s something amiss in the vast gray area that leads right up to that line. Are the Belforts and Madoffs unnatural mutations, or are they inevitable outgrowths of attitudes that have taken root in our communities?”

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If there is anything that can prove that they make good points in their book, The Triple Package, it is that editorial in the Jewish Journal.


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