Tiger mom: author Amy Chua at a the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Playing the race card: the Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

A provocative new exploration of ethnicity vs success in modern America by the authors of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.99

It is not surprising that The Triple Package has caused such a stir. Its subject matter – the connections between culture, ethnicity and success – is emotive and controversial. Written by the husband-and-wife team of Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, the author of the parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it has a fluent style and possesses all the hallmarks of American comfort food: it is easy to consume but not altogether fulfilling.

The “triple package” is touted as the combination of magic ingredients that enable certain ethnic groups to achieve extraordinary success in modern America. Chua and Rubenfeld identify three key qualities: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity and “impulse control”.

Some have denounced the book as racist. This loaded term is often bandied about in discussions about culture and achievement. Yet to point out the material success of Mormons in the United States is clearly not racist. Mormons represent just 1.7 per cent of the US population but they are disproportionately represented in the higher levels of business and politics in the country (Mitt Romney is perhaps their best-known representative). When the subject is Jews or African Americans, people get nervous. However, to talk about sociological differences is precisely the opposite of the biological racism that was prevalent in the 20th century. The book’s point is that it is cultural, not genetic, factors that lead to success.

The Triple Package is not racist but it is certainly provocative. Chua and Rubenfeld write: “The majority of African Americans typically still do not – to put it mildly – grow up with a group superiority complex.” This trite observation is used to explain their underachievement.

The book is peppered with interesting but rather meaningless facts. We are told that Jews, who make up just 2 per cent of the US population, have received 36 per cent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded to Americans. Among African Americans, Nigerian immigrants are held up as exemplars. In 2010, there were some 260,000 people of Nigerian origin in the US – 0.7 per cent of the black American population. Yet in 2013, between 20 and 25 per cent of the 120 black students at Harvard Business School were Nigerian. One response is simply: “Who cares?”

The three determinants of success are curious, if rather crass, subjects of speculation. The superiority complex is familiar to historians. The British empire was shaped by it; no class in history has been as self-confident as the late-Victorian imperial administrator. Unfortunately, the past is a glaring omission from The Triple Package. Identifying groups is all very well but you cannot understand culture without an appreciation of history, an observation that surely applies with as much force to the example of the computer whizz-kid son of Chinese immigrants who sails through Stanford with top grades in the US today.

Next, Chua and Rubenfeld deftly explore the roots of insecurity among their fav­oured ethnic groups. Here, American Iranians, Arabs and Indians are held up as examples of peoples who have deep insecurities that derive from the casual stereotyping they have experienced, especially since 9/11. Depictions of Arabs as baddies in films and popular culture have reinforced a sense of insecurity in the past decade.

The third ingredient is impulse control. This refers to delayed gratification. The con­cept is not new; even the most casual sociologist will know Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which describes the hoarding instincts of Protestant capitalists in the early modern era. John Maynard Keynes, from a different intellectual tradition, described this instinct to accumulate more than 90 years ago, when he wrote about Europe in the 19th century: “To save and to invest became at once the duty and the delight of a large class.” As the economist put it, in a spirit of irony: “A rich man could, after all, enter into the Kingdom of Heaven – if only he saved.”

The last chapter of The Triple Package addresses the favourite subject of all Americans: the United States of America. The authors somewhat naively call for the US to recover its triple package, to ensure economic dominance. Despite the range and diversity of the ethnic groups described, the book is intensely self-regarding. It remains firmly in the “America the Beautiful” genre.

Though parochial, Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is enjoyable and timely. After the financial crisis – and with rising material inequality – discussions about the cultural roots of economic success are necessary. The Triple Package may be superficial but the issues it raises are serious. They will no doubt generate more controversy and impassioned debate in the years ahead. l

Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP and the author of “Ghosts of Empire” (Bloombury, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon