Jed Rubenfeld didn’t sound terribly happy. Pretty frustrated is more like it. It had been a little over a week since the publication of “The Triple Package,” the book he co-wrote with his wife, Amy Chua, and though it was getting a lot of attention, much of it was negative.
Rubenfeld, speaking with Haaretz by phone from a hotel room in Pasadena, California, last week, in the midst of a grueling two-week book tour, said that he and Chua had been widely misrepresented, if not misunderstood. The problems began a month before the book’s official release, with a sharp attack in The New York Post that described “The Triple Package” (Penguin Press, 304 pages, $27.95) as a “series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes.” The book’s goal, asserted the Post’s Maureen Callahan, was to do “what racist arguments do: scare people.”
That item, said Rubenfeld, was “the worst thing that could have happened,” if only because it allowed people to form an opinion of “The Triple Package” long before it was available in stores for them to read for themselves.
The book’s pre-publicity might have been shrill, however, even without the help of Rupert Murdoch. Even if you’d never heard of Jed Rubenfeld until now, you’d have to have been comatose for the past three years not to have an opinion about his wife. “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom,” Chua’s 2011 book about the secrets of Chinese child-rearing practices, shocked and offended many, even though parts of it were clearly exaggerated and meant to be funny – and even though she herself admits in the book that her ultra-strict parenting tactics were effective with one of her daughters, and a failure with the other. (The latter daughter, readers learned in a New York Times Magazine profile of the couple earlier this month, was recently accepted to Yale University.)
For his part, Rubenfeld is neither slouch nor shrinking violet, even if Chua’s book presented him as the parental pussycat to her terrible tiger. A professor of constitutional law at Yale, Rubenfeld, 54, was an undergraduate at Princeton, attended acting school at Juilliard for two years, and got his law degree at Harvard. In recent years, he has written two popular and critically praised psychological thrillers, and in 2013 published a long article in the Yale Law Journal, proposing a redefinition of rape laws so as to limit their application to acts of by force (as opposed to the much wider concept of sex without consent), an idea that couldn’t but incite controversy.
When asked whether he attributes his own professional success to an upbringing in a home guided by “tiger” principles, he says no. “I was raised in a very liberal, permissive home by Jewish parents,” both of whom had rejected the Orthodoxy of their respective childhoods. His own father, though, “was incredibly hard-working, he definitely had the package we describe. So, maybe I am unconsciously copying him. But they weren’t strict tiger parents.” (Rubenfeld and Chua, by the way, have raised their two daughters as Jewish.)
Since their book was deemed racist in the measured judgment of The New York Post, matters hadn’t really improved. At best, reviewers found the book baffling: “a real head-scratcher,” wrote Sandra Tsing Loh in The New York Times Book Review, expressing what was mainly surprise at the book’s repetitiveness and its “dull” prose, although others complained that the authors offer so many caveats and exceptions to their arguments that it’s hard to pin down precisely what they’re saying.
Less generous reviews suggested that the “Triple Package’s” argument is “half-baked” (The Boston Globe), “doesn’t begin to make the grade” (Slate, which did, however, praise its “lively style”), and based on a “colossally wrong-headed line of pop psychology” (Business Week, which also characterized the book as “racism masquerading as social science”).
The title “Triple Package” refers to a set of attitudes and behavior that the book’s authors identify as being common to eight cultural groups in the United States that in recent decades have performed significantly above average in both academic and economic terms. There are other groups that share these values, but the ones they examine – Jews, Mormons, and immigrants from Cuba, China, India, Iran, Lebanon and Nigeria – are the easiest to track via census data because of their numbers.
Asian Americans (including Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese, as well as Chinese), for example, score 143 points higher on the SAT (out of a possible 2,400 points) than the average American teenage taker of the standardized college entrance exam. Indian Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic group in the U.S. And Cuban Americans are 250 percent more likely than other Hispanic Americans to earn more than $200,000 a year.
The most straightforward ingredient of the Triple Package is impulse control – the ability to resist temptation and defer gratification. Most observers shouldn’t have trouble acknowledging that hard work, discipline and the ability to stick with a task are helpful to academic or any other kind of success.
It’s the other two elements of the Package - a feeling of group superiority, and a group inferiority complex - that are more pesky.
According to Chua and Rubenfeld, members of the communities they write about share a conviction that they are special, and feel an obligation to live up to that specialness. At the same time, though, especially if the people in question are immigrants, they are likely to have suffered from discrimination, prejudice or a feeling of being misunderstood by society at large – all of which can contribute to a chip on the shoulder that gives members an extra push to succeed and prove their detractors wrong.
On another level entirely, said Rubenfeld, the inferiority element can consist of parents communicating to their children that “you are not good enough yet. That’s a message that Americans don’t want to give their kids.”
Saying that a group of people regards itself as special, of course, doesn’t amount to labeling them as superior. And acknowledging that members of a particular ethnic group have higher incomes on average than people from other groups doesn’t constitute a value judgment. Yet, the very invocation of the words “inferior” and “superior” clearly makes people uncomfortable, and in the case of Chua and Rubenfeld, it has led to charges of racism.
But their book is not racist. For one thing, they are drawing a correlation between success and certain psychological attitudes, not congenital characteristics. They also go out of their way to say that the Triple Package, or the material success it can help people attain, is no guarantee of happiness, and they give plenty of examples of the psychological damage it can do. Even more significantly, There’s no doubt that attitudes – and performance – can and do change over time.
Hence, Rubenfeld’s excitement when he noted, several times in our interview, that “the groups that are successful now weren’t successful decades ago. And the ones who were successful a few decades ago don’t maintain that success for more than a few generations.” So, the impressive statistic about the SAT scores of Asian Americans doesn’t hold over beyond the first two generations after immigration.
“When researchers broke it down,” he said, “they found that third-generation Asian kids don’t do any better than their peers. That’s remarkable.”
Starting a conversation
Like other interviewers, I asked Rubenfeld if he and Chua didn’t anticipate the indignant response they have provoked. Maybe they and their publisher were operating according to the belief that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? (It’s too early to summarize the commercial success of “The Triple Package”: After its first week on sale, the book was in slot 14 on The New York Times combined hardcover and e-book best-seller list, and in place No. 22 on the Publishers Weekly list, having sold a total of 3,703 paper and digital units.)
“I think that anytime you talk about group differences in American, it’s sensitive material,” acknowledged Rubenfeld. “So, we were aware we’d run up against it. There’s a deep reluctance to talk about the fact that some groups are doing better than others.”
But Rubenfeld insisted that he and Chua – who is also a law professor at Yale – did not set out to write a deliberately provocative book (“nothing could have been further from our minds”). They simply wanted “to start a conversation” about a subject that Americans clearly find uncomfortable.
“As an academic with tenure, I will never be stopped from writing what I believe,” he declared. And he is certain that a conversation about the ingredients they have identified as a recipe for success is one Americans could benefit from.
“What we’re seeing is a remarkable phenomenon: It’s a tough economy, and we have rising inequality in the country, and yet, against that background, there are some groups that are still rising at an exceptional rate. We should all be interested in that. What is it that’s responsible for this performance? We prove in the book that it’s not genetic.”
As a reader, I enjoyed the extensively sourced statistics and anecdotes that provide the basis for Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument, and was not especially troubled by the fact that “The Triple Package” is not an academic book. For me, its main value is found in the final chapter, in which the authors examine where America has gone wrong. Here they do some moralizing of their own.
Chua and Rubenfeld believe that the United States used to be a Triple Package country, and that it is no longer. “In the last half of the 20th century,” they write, “America declared war on both insecurity and impulse control. By 2000, all that remained of the American Triple Package was the superiority complex – which, by itself, leads not to success, but to swagger, complacency, and entitlement.”
The end of the Cold War, and the incredible growth in wealth of the 1980s and 1990s, led, though, from a national urge to prove oneself, to complacency and self-satisfaction. Worse, they say, the self-esteem movement, as typified by psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who has written that there is not “a single psychological problem … that is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem,” made it verboten to have negative thoughts about oneself. The chairman of California’s task force on self-esteem (yes, there was such a thing in 1986) even suggested that “virtually every social problem can be traced to people’s lack of self-love.”
Write Chua and Rubenfeld: “The self-esteem movement promotes the exact opposite of Triple Package insecurity. No one should feel that they’re not doing good enough or that they have to ‘prove themselves’ by doing better; self-acceptance is the first rule of a successful life.”
For the authors, though, the focus on self-esteem inevitably leads to a need for instant gratification. It’s reflected on the individual level in all kinds of obvious ways – just look at the mortgage-debt meltdown of 2008 – but also in the relation of public debt to gross domestic product (30 percent in 1980 versus 100 percent-plus today), or the way America allowed its material infrastructure to rust and fall apart. My favorite statistic in the book is the assertion that “by 2009, American were spending more on potato chips than their government spent on energy research and development.”
Of course, self-indulgence and individual lack of restraint don’t come close to explaining the shocking economic inequality in the United States (or here in Israel), which continues to grow. And denying the systemic and historical causes of poverty and inequality is benighted and dangerous.
Rubenfeld warns against regarding this as an either-or question: “One side wants to say that poverty is institutional, and built into the system. The other side says, it’s all personal responsibility. We can’t fall into that sort of dichotomy. Anybody can see the history of discrimination, and also the big macro-economic changes in our society. These are not connected to peoples’ culture, these are built into the system. We have to be able to recognize and see that. But we also need to be able to say that there are behaviors that help or hurt people.”
Rubenfeld believes in his book and is convinced that it hasn’t gotten a fair shake in the media. And he’s willing to go the extra mile to defend and explain it, if that’s what it takes. If there was such a thing as a Triple Package author, in fact, Jed Rubenfeld would probably be one. Time will tell whether he and Amy Chua are vindicated.