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'Triple Package': Controversial book outlines 'unlikely' traits of success

By Alicia W. Stewart, CNN
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 2008 GMT (0408 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author Amy Chua sparked a national discussion with her first book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"
  • Her new book was co-written with her husband and examines cultural group success
  • "The Triple Package" outlines three traits that explain their success

(CNN) -- When an excerpt from Amy Chua's soon-to-be-best-selling book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, it caused an uproar.

Amy Chua, co-author of \
Amy Chua, co-author of "The Triple Package"

The piece and its provocative headline, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," kicked off a tense discussion about parenting, and particularly motherhood.

So it's no surprise that her latest book about success and cultural groups was given a bit of side-eye, even before it published.

The Yale law professor wrote "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America" along with her husband and fellow legal scholar Jed Rubenfeld.

The book has sparked controversy about what it takes to be successful in America. It has been labeled as an example of "new racism" and been derided by historians.

Jed Rubenfeld, co-author of \
Jed Rubenfeld, co-author of "The Triple Package"

"Dear Amy Chua & Jed Rubenfeld," tweeted historian David Leonard. "the 1920s called and want their (racial) theories back."

But Chua admits to being surprised by the response, especially since she made a point to steer clear of controversial topics after the reaction to her previous book.

"I felt like it would be thought-provoking. ... We're gonna say that at this point in time, certain groups are outperforming others, and we want to explore those groups and why they are," she said. "Why should that be so explosive?"

CNN read the book, and criticism, and sat down with Chua and Rubenfeld to discuss the swirl of controversy set in motion even before most people had read the book.

The definition of success

What does it take to succeed in America?

What the book says: "This book is about the rise and fall of groups. Its thesis is that when three distinct forces come together in a group's culture, they propel that group to disproportionate success. Unfortunately, there's a darker side to the story as well. The same forces that boost success also carry deep pathologies, and this book is about those pathologies too."

Why it's controversial: The measures of what and who is successful, critics argue, may only be defined in personal terms. "How does one rely on numbers to tell of such strength and radiance of heart?" Jie-Song Zhang asks in a widely shared Huffington Post piece. In The Atlantic, Olga Khazan writes success "for (the authors) seems to hover somewhere in the nexus of money, fame, and power."

What the authors say: "Well, No. 1, we define success as achieving your goals, whatever they are," Rubenfeld said. "We focus on material success in the book for two reasons: One, because it's measurable, it's something you can quantify and two, because for a lot of people, that is a goal."

The traits of success

What the book says: "It turns out for all their diversity, America's overachieving groups are linked together by three cultural commonalities, each one of which violates a core tenet of modern American thinking. For lack of a less terrible name, we'll call these three cultural forces, taken together, the Triple Package." (Its elements are: a superiority complex: insecurity, and impulse control.) "America's successful groups tell their members something different: You are capable of great things because of the group to which you belong; (but) you, individually, are not good enough; so you need to control yourself, resist temptation, and prove yourself."

Why it's controversial: "I've profiled six billionaires and I didn't pick up on any of those traits. Confidence and drive, yes, and maybe a touch of superiority over their rivals. But inadequacy? I don't think so," wrote Forbes staff writer Susan Adams, who takes issue with the traits described.

What the authors say: "The real surprise was that in these vastly different groups from totally different parts of the world, we found three cultural commonalities, over and over again," Rubenfeld said. "And not just a pattern, but invariable, every single case. And that was what was so amazing to us, and I think that's what made us write the book."

'Tiger Mom': Some groups are superior

Triple package cultures

What the book says: "But the dirty secret is that the groups enjoying disproportionate success in America do not tell themselves, 'We're as good as other people.' They tell themselves they're better. In this paradoxical sense, equality isn't fair to African-Americans. Superiority is the one narrative that America has relentlessly denied or ground out of its black population."

Why it's controversial: By defining traits that make different cultural groups successful in America, the book also highlights "relatively less successful" groups, couched in very measured terms. Speaking of African Americans, the books states: "Over and over, African Americans have refuted and fought back against the narrative of inferiority that the United States tried to impose on them, but its legacy persists."

They go on to explore this theme, using quotes from Sean "Diddy" Combs and other successful African-Americans.

Writer Mary Curtis says the selection of Combs as a spokesperson is a "warning" of a faulty argument: "Their assessment of the historic civil rights movement that freed all Americans to be their best selves and challenged America to live up to its founding principles and realize its promise is willfully, dumbfoundedly clueless," Curtis writes in the Washington Post's She the People blog. "Who could view the photos and newsreels of brave men, women and children, and conclude that the movement took away hope for a 'superiority narrative' by striving for equality under the law?"

What the authors say: "We are absolutely not saying that any culture is superior to any others. We actually state that (in the book)," Chua said. "What we say is that at this point in time, (some are) doing better than others -- that doesn't mean they ARE better. Our book is filled with facts and statistics."

"I think if we come to the point where ... you can't cite a statistic without being accused of stereotyping and cultural racism, it's going to be really hard to learn," she said. "You know, we have intractable problems of poverty and education, and yet some groups are still managing to rise more than others. And I think willful blindness, that would be really unfortunate."

A 'new racism'

What the book says: "That certain groups do much better in America than others -- as measured by income, occupational status, test scores, and so on -- is difficult to talk about. In large part this is because the topic feels racially charged."

'Tiger Mother' still roaring

Why it's controversial: By generalizing and honing in on groups, the book's argument subscribes to a "groupthink," that is "ethnocentric thinking writ large," author Suketu Mehta argues in Time magazine. "The roots of alleged superiority have changed over time from race to class to IQ to religion and now to culture."

Additionally, history professor Ellen D. Wu writes of her concern that the the book "perpetuates the 'model minority' myth, and ... the notion that Asians are culturally -- even genetically -- endowed with the characteristics that enable them to succeed in American society."

What the authors say: "It was disappointing to me when Time magazine jumped on board that freight train (of criticism)," Rubenfeld said. "I would say that that showed an unwillingness to read our book fairly, because I think anyone who reads our book fairly, will see what we're saying. There's nothing racial about the successful groups in our account of it."

"The idea that there's racism in our book, is ridiculous. We show -- we prove-that the people succeeding in the United States today have all different skin colors," Rubenfeld said. "There are people from every race, and many different religions and many different backgrounds succeeding. Moreover, the groups change over time. We've written a book about the qualities that propel success, the groups, we say over and over, change over time, sometimes in just two generations."

Chua added: "Again, contrary to what's out there, (our book) actually explodes these model minority stereotypes ... because we say there are all these stereotypes about Asians, but after one or two generations, they don't all want to do math, and science, and they do not outperform the students. So it's very much an immigrant phenomenon."

The American dream

What the book says: "America offers exceptional upward mobility to an exceptional number of immigrants and their children (which is why so many people want to come here). ...This phenomenon demands attention and substantially complicates the claim that upward mobility is dead in the United States."

"At the other end of the spectrum, for many non-immigrant groups in America, poverty is deeply entrenched. For example, Owsley County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia ...[is] on of the poorest counties ... in the continental United States."

Why it's controversial: In a chapter that examines mobility in America and the Triple Package, the heart of Appalachia is noted as a culture that is "not upwardly mobile." The authors are quick to emphasize: "Appalachian culture is not a Triple Package culture -- but that's not the cause of Appalachian poverty. This point is so important we're going to repeat it: The absence of the Triple Package did not cause poverty in Appalachia."

Critics say the book does not deeply examine institutional barriers to economic success, instead relying on the triple package traits to explain overcoming obstacles. "It's an intriguing line of thought, but the argument only holds in an imagined world where culture, institutions and social structures move independently and have little bearing on each other and people's ability to succeed, or even survive, in life," Julianne Hing writes in Colorlines.

What the authors say: "As to whether (the book is) prescriptive or descriptive, it's definitely not a simple 'how to' book. I think it's quite a subtle exploration of what generates drive and what are the costs of success," Chua said. "But yes, at the end, you know, we have a couple things to say. One, I think we feel that more impulse control in America wouldn't be a bad thing."

"This term superiority complex is ... so loaded, and we talk all about how dangerous it is," Chua said. "But what we say at the end is the one kind of superiority that is worth aspiring to as a nation is a sense of superiority based on the fact that we are a nation that respects equality and opportunity for everybody."

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