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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 30, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

The Triple Package and Culture Change

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, is a book that may not have all the answers, but it certainly asks some of the right questions.

Naturally, the Left immediately responded to the book the way they respond to every book or article that suggests that some ethnic groups may remain at the economic or educational bottom of society because of problems in their own culture. Such works are condemned as racist because they "blame the victims" of longtime racism.

Keep in mind what racism actually means. To believe that a group, because of their color (or other genetic traits), is permanently doomed to unavoidable inferiority or menace -- that is racism (or, when applied to Jews, anti-semitism). Racism depends on the idea that groups cannot change their "nature."

Culture, on the other hand, is not race. Culture is learned patterns of behavior shared by a group, as exemplified by the stories they tell themselves about themselves. The group may be defined by race, but the culture is not inborn and it can be changed. Cultures change all the time, with masses of people deciding to behave differently, usually because the self-story of the ethnic group has changed.

But the Left treats all descriptions of cultural differences as if they were racial differences, so that anyone seriously thinking about ways that the culture of a racially-identified group needs to change so as to improve the lives of its members is condemned as a racist.

This is how they are able to mindlessly dismiss the massive, excellent work of Thomas Sowell, for instance, denouncing him as a "race traitor" because he doesn't buy into the idea that American blacks (or any downtrodden group) are doomed to failure until other people change.

Instead, in different terms and following different paths, Sowell and Chua reach the same conclusion: If American blacks are to rise out of the bottom-of-the-pile statistics that tell such a bleak story about the outlook for young African-Americans, then they need to find things they can do, themselves, individually and as a group, without waiting for society in general to save them.

In other words, instead of relying on superhero government programs to save them, such groups should look at ways to transform their own culture -- which is almost entirely under their own control -- in order to promote the success of their own children.

The Leftist establishment has no incentive to encourage African-Americans to be self-reliant, as a culture, and so they instantly reject all such books as racist, even though they are obviously not racist, to anyone who actually reads them (and who knows anything about the real world, historically and economically).

Intelligent people never reject a serious idea until they've looked at the actual arguments. And because The Triple Package is much more accessible and engagingly written than Thomas Sowell's most scholarly works, it's not a bad starting point for a useful discussion.

Long before Amy Chua co-wrote (with her husband, Jeb Rubenfeld) the book The Triple Package, she looked like an "immigrant success story" herself. Born and raised in the Chinese-Filipino culture in the Philippines, she has written other books about cultural disjunction, which have been widely read. She has earned a place in the public discussion.

But, as Khanh Ho pointed out in the Huffington Post's "The Blog," being a Chinese-Filipino put Amy Chua squarely in the very richest, most economically dominant group in the Philippines, where the Chinese remain a very separate cultural group that happens to own 60 percent of the Philippines' corporations.

She comes from a cultural group that gives bars of gold as graduation presents. So she certainly doesn't represent an immigrant rags-to-riches story herself.

Khanh Ho treats this as complete proof that "The Triple Package is Dead Wrong." Of course, that's just plain stupid -- but maybe he didn't write his own headline. His review is hostile, because he buys into the story of the Left: Oppressed minorities can only be saved by fixing everybody else. The fact that Amy Chua's life has not been one of struggle does not discredit her ideas.

Here's what The Triple Package actually says: Some ethnic groups in America have done very, very well, measured by educational, political, and economic success, while others have not. She draws on a wide range of examples, historical and present-day, and she came to the conclusion that the most successful cultural groups share three traits -- the triple package:

1. A superiority complex

2. Insecurity

3. Impulse control

Most of these groups began as immigrants, of course -- how else do you establish a distinct ethnic group in America, except by having formed a culture somewhere else and bringing it here?

The eight groups that Chua and Rubenfeld cite as prime examples are: Chinese, Jewish, Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban, and Mormon.

You can guess that my interest was originally piqued by the inclusion of Mormons on the list. Since my own ancestry is 100 percent British Isles, there's no way I'd be included with any special immigrant group. Mormons are the only group on the list that people can and do readily join without marrying in. It's the only group that recruits new members.

I would love to see a broader study that included and accounted for some other historical immigrant groups -- Irish and Italian, for instance -- which achieved prominence and, in some cities, political and/or criminal dominance -- because if you cherry-pick your examples, then you can always "prove" your thesis.

The Irish and Italians certainly did not arrive with a superiority complex. Instead, they had fierce loyalty to kinship group and/or religion, and responded defiantly to persecution by establishment Americans who didn't like them.

It would have ruined the tripleness of their triple package, but I wonder how much of a role persecution and discrimination have played in the success or failure of various groups. Or maybe persecution is entirely included under the heading of "insecurity."

No other group has suffered anything like the murderous oppression directed against Native Americans and ex-slave African-Americans (though the Chinese in California came closer than most), so it may well be that some persecution arouses defiance and helps promote survival and then success -- but too much of it works to destroy confidence and hope.

What does The Triple Package mean by "a superiority complex"? I don't think it means that every member of the ethnic group believes that they're better than everybody who isn't in the group. Rather, I think it could be restated as personal confidence arising out of the belief that their group, as a whole, knows or does something that is superior to the beliefs or practices of other groups.

For Jews, it's Torah, the belief that the ancient covenant with God makes them a chosen people, if they keep that covenant. German Jews arrived in America with education and experience that privileged them; Russian Jews arrived from the dire poverty of pogrom-terrorized shtetl life in the Pale, and, like the Irish and Italians, they were definitely discriminated against in open, obvious ways.

But the discrimination changed, because Jewish culture traditionally gave its greatest prestige to scholars. That's why American universities had quotas in the first half of the 20th century: This many Jews and no more, or else Jews might quickly have become the majority of the students at most such schools.

In effect, "affirmative action" works the same way with Asian students, excluding them in favor of groups that do not produce obsessively successful students. This is the great irony of affirmative action, because I can tell you that regardless of income, intact African-American families that are intensely supportive of education in their children's lives don't need affirmative action to get their kids into good schools. They qualify by the same standards as everybody else.

But African-Americans get the constant cultural message that they can't succeed without government help. While racism is blamed, the message is still: You can't succeed by your own efforts, but here, we've saved a seat for you anyway.

The condescension and arrogance of this message from the Left is so deeply racist that a moment's honest self-examination should make any rational person ashamed to express it. But instead, anyone who even questions the value of that message is called racist.

I have no way of knowing whether Indians, Iranians, Lebanese, or Cuban exiles have a superiority complex, because I don't know enough members of these groups.

Chinese have a national superiority complex dating back thousands of years -- Han culture doesn't even suspect that it might not be better than every other culture.

And certainly their cultural vibrancy has been borne out throughout eastern Asia and the surrounding islands, where Chinese really are as economically dominant as Jews are (falsely) reputed to be in the West. Chinese form a cultural enclave in city after city, where their "insider" trading with Chinese in other cities leads to great prosperity.

Meanwhile, their children are pressured to succeed in ways that many non-Chinese parents would consider to be destructive. But the result is academic success at a rate that leaves most other ethnic groups in the dust.

The other group I actually know is Mormons, and I can affirm, not that individual Mormons think they're better than other people (quite the contrary), but rather that they believe their culture is ordained by God in exactly the way that Jews believe -- because of covenants with God.

And, as with believing-and-practicing Jews, believing-and-practicing Mormons have the same constant sense of insecurity and, above all, the impulse control that are also markers of the triple package.

I mean, it's kind of obvious. If you're a believing-and-practicing Mormon, you don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't do drugs; you don't sleep around; you expect to work to support yourself; and your worship life is centered in the home and family.

In addition, believing-and-practicing Mormons (roughly half the official membership) manage their financial affairs so that they can donate one-tenth of their "increase" (usually taken to mean gross income) to the Church -- which does not pay its ministers. So I think that, as a group, we've got impulse control covered, whatever lapses individuals might have.

Khanh Ho correctly points out that Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, and Cuban immigrants are overwhelmingly from social classes in their home country that had already achieved economic and educational success. His implication is that they arrive rich and well-educated, and in some cases (notably Iranians fleeing the revolution in 1979) that may be true of many members of the group.

But his argument falls apart when you look at the immigrant experience. Let me give you a couple of cases. I know a doctor from Latin America who decided to bring his family to America. Certainly they arrived with more money than Latin American immigrants who come to pick fruit or paint walls.

But his medical degree was rejected here in the U.S., so despite his years of successfully practicing modern medicine, he had to go back to medical school and "learn" the same things all over again in order to qualify.

(This does not happen to Indian computer programmers who move here, mostly because nobody cares if you have a degree in computer programming, they only want to know if you can code.)

This doctor is now prosperous in America, and all their kids have done well academically even though they had to change languages to do so. It's easy to say, "He was a doctor back home, he's a doctor here, of course he prospered." This ignores the fact that he had to endure a long, offensive "apprenticeship," and that he and his family were definitely not wealthy by American standards when they arrived -- and they had to learn another language.

Now let me give you another example, this time from one of the Triple Package groups. I know a Nigerian professor who had a position of great prestige, until Nigeria's thugocracy decided he needed to die (too much talking and writing against corruption). He fled to America and, eventually, got political asylum for himself and his family.

But even though his doctorate has been officially evaluated as equal to an American Ph.D., American universities don't count publication in peer-reviewed African journals when they judge a scholar's record of publication.

More to the point, every school that offers a course in African literature already has someone teaching it.

And, despite protestations that they are not racist or colonialist, they are institutionally incapable of considering that a professor of African literature who is actually African might have some added value. The very fact that he is African -- and therefore was educated and published in Africa -- seemingly disqualifies him to teach African literature in America.

Recognizing that they were going to have to make their own way in America, his wife -- who also possessed a doctorate -- went to nursing school in America, as did their older daughter. And their children have been exemplary in their academic achievements -- because their culture had to struggle for every scrap of education, and they have contempt for people who are academically lazy.

These Nigerians will definitely end up boosting the statistics that show Nigerians as a highly successful group in America -- but anybody who thinks that they had an easy road to success -- either in Nigeria or here in America -- is an idiot.

What I see in both these families is that values trumped money as a predictor of success. It was unthinkable that their children would not do excellent work in school, and nothing less was acceptable.

I well remember that when the Nigerian family arrived, they had a son whose age suggested he should enter Greensboro schools as an eighth grader. He absolutely refused, and started as a high school freshman. He didn't just keep up, he excelled.

Mormons, like Russian Jews, Irish, and Italians, are not selected from groups that already had great advantages. In fact, since most believing-and-practicing Mormon families have at least one returned missionary, we are all keenly aware that we rarely convert financially prosperous people -- because they don't see any need to change their lives.

Instead, Mormon converts are generally drawn from the working classes and the poor, yet new members who thrive in Mormon culture tend to be those who have or learn the traits that lead to success in middle-class occupations: The ability to fulfil assignments without reminders, the ability to self-train, a love of learning and study, and the ability to work well within an organization without needing to be paid in order to perform.

So Mormons don't convert the rich and prosperous, but Mormon culture inculcates values that lead to success ... as a group. Individual results vary because individual lives vary. That's true of all these groups.

The closed-minded people who completely reject Chua's and Rubenfeld's thesis without a serious examination of it -- and I include Khanh Ho in this group, because the "flaw" he found is almost irrelevant to their conclusions and does not erase any of their evidence -- are actually hurting the very ethnic groups they think they're defending.

Racism alone cannot explain the continuing relative failure of African-Americans, as a group, in America -- because Caribbean and African immigrants are just as black as lifelong African-Americans (none of them pass the racist "paper bag" test), and yet they tend to do better, as a group, than native-born whites. Indians and Chinese are also affected by racism, while Iranians, Lebanese, and Indians suffer from the "towel-head" bias.

More and more leaders of the African-American community are recognizing that white culture isn't going to change any more than it already has (and it has); if African-Americans are going to rise out of their present morass, they are going to have to do it by changing their own behavior, as a group and as individuals.

For instance, the biggest single predictor of "success" in American life is not membership in any of these ethnic groups. It's whether there is a father and a mother in the home. This is true even within the African-American community. Marrying before having babies doesn't guarantee success -- but it raises the odds so dramatically that any culture that isn't actively encouraging -- no, requiring -- marriage before childbirth, and faithfulness within marriage, is dooming itself to failure.

And there's nothing that white people are doing in America that prevents people of color from marrying before having children. That's a decision made by individuals within the culture.

It also happens to be the decision made by the most prosperous whites.

Indeed, "white privilege" may well be "faithful-marriage privilege" -- for marrying before having children and staying married while you raise them is likely to "privilege" those children relative to those born without that kind of family support structure.

And single-parent (usually single-mother) status is the surest indicator of poverty and struggle in the future, whether that status is acquired through out-of-wedlock pregnancy or divorce.

None of these markers is a guarantee of success or failure. Determined individual efforts can usually overcome many obstacles; and individual poor decisions can sweep away any number of natural advantages. It's worth remembering that there are more white welfare recipients than black, despite "white privilege."

When members of certain cultures succeed at a higher rate than members of the surrounding culture, it's worth looking at the values of those successful cultures to see if those are traits that other cultures can adopt.

Personally, I think the Asian obsession with academic success often deprives children of the creative play that depends on having unstructured free time. But then, I come from one of the "successful" ethnic groups -- one that has achieved that success by emphasizing somewhat different values.

In the end, The Triple Package does oversimplify. It's like those online "tests" to find out what color your personality is. If you think that everybody fits into one of four personality types, you know nothing about human beings. (The trick in those tests is to describe each personality type in such flattering terms that nobody wants to reject the results.)

But let's face it -- statistical evaluations of cultures are about simplification. You can't say anything true about any group of people, if you require that it be equally true of every member of that group. And yet some cultures are more successful than others.

They key is to decide which measures of success you aspire to. How important is financial prosperity to you? How important is academic achievement to you? How important is adherence to a set of commandments? How important is creativity? Choose your standards of success, and then see what patterns of behavior within a family and a cultural group lead to achieving those measures.

You don't have to become a Mormon, for instance, to raise your children in a home that completely abstains from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Is it surprising that people who have never tasted alcohol are far less likely to become alcoholics or get arrested for drunk driving than those who think you can't have a party without beer?

It's weird that people are perfectly capable of becoming vegetarian or vegan without being rejected by their friends, while abstinence from alcohol can make many friendships impossible. ("He's no fun anymore.") That's an American "value" for which we pay an enormous societal price, ranging from drunk-driving deaths to the terrible price that families pay for the alcoholism of one or both parents.

So even though The Triple Package doesn't have all the answers, and may not, in the end, have any answers, it still raises important questions that should be central to a society that has decided to fragment itself into identity-groups.

Above all, it should encourage members of a low-performing identity-group to look within their own culture to find possible changes that might solve some or all of their problems.

Because no matter how you rage and condemn others, you're unlikely to improve your own outcomes by attacking them for having better outcomes than yours.

The number of African-Americans killed by police action is a tiny fraction of the number of African-Americans killed by other African-Americans. Those police killings are a remnant of an era when racist whites could lynch blacks with impunity, and the rage each time it happens is completely understandable.

But if you seriously believe that black lives matter -- and I do -- then surely the most important change is the one that can only be made entirely within the black community: to get young black men to stop killing each other. Young black males are not by nature more violent than young males of other races. It is their shared culture that encourages and rewards displays of violence. Change that culture -- which can only be done from within -- and countless black lives can be saved.

And if the culture of violence among young black men changed, there would be less policing of predominantly black neighborhoods, and fewer policemen who assume that any young black male is a likely threat. The number of police shootings may well go down.

When a culture believes in and acts on the story that its children can and must excel in education and productive ambition, competitive impulses can be turned, not to violence, but to achievement.

Think of how American culture has changed just in my lifetime. When I was a schoolchild, teachers and principals had the authority to physically punish misbehaving children. It was assumed that parents could and did spank their children -- often with an implement (belt, hairbrush, paddle, ruler).

Now, our culture looks with shock on parents who merely handle their children a little roughly in public. We are collectively sickened by violence against children.

It's a change for the better -- and it happened in a single generation, without legislation, without intervention from the courts. When a society wants to change, altering their culture can transform them far more quickly and completely than altering their laws.

And when a society does not want to change, altering the laws will ultimately fail. If you doubt that, look at our failed experiment with Prohibition.

When African-American children stop punishing each other for "acting white" by studying and getting good grades, and start to admire and praise those who succeed in academics the way they now admire and praise athletes, then why should we not find, in a generation or two, that American-born blacks reach the achievement levels of Nigerian and Caribbean immigrants -- or of people raised in Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese immigrant cultures?

That is a change that cannot be achieved by government programs or do-gooder interventions or affirmative action or blaming all whites for all the ills of black society. It is a change that can only be wrought from within the culture -- by changing the ethnic self-story.

That is the only important message of The Triple Package -- made most clear by the fact that among those high-achieving groups is one that achieves its results through culture alone, since you can join it and leave it at will, regardless of the culture you grew up in. Adopting the cultural behaviors leads, eventually, to achieving the culture's general results.

Why shouldn't African-Americans expect themselves and each other to be, not the permanent victims of American society, but, despite all obstacles, the pinnacle, the shining example to all others? Why shouldn't African-American families be the happiest, the most complete, the most faithful and loyal?

Any culture can decide, collectively, what it wants to become, and set out to achieve those results. Any culture can choose values that transform their child-rearing.

They do not have to blindly adopt the values and stories of another culture -- no culture gets perfect results, and productive values often go along with nasty ones even in cultures that show many outward signs of success.

American Blacks don't have to become white or Asian or even African; they already have many wonderful self-stories that can be used to transform their own culture into one that does not discourage achievement, suppress family-formation, and consign its young men to criminal lives until they kill each other off or go to jail.

American black culture is still permitted by the surrounding white culture to be openly religious. Nobody criticizes African-Americans for publicly praising God -- only whites like Tim Tebow are scorned for that.

The widespread church-going culture provides an alternative source of stories that can give African-Americans the tools to change their own culture -- if black ministers would stop taking their cues from white Leftist politicians and instead draw upon what is already strong in African-American culture.

But one thing is certain. Cultures don't change because people hope things will get better. Cultures change because people decide to behave in ways that will make things better.

Sadly, they also change for the worse when people decide to behave in ways that make things worse. Haven't we all had enough of those cultural changes?

(If you want to read Khanh Ho's badly reasoned but well-written critique of The Triple Package, here it is)

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