3 years


Experiments in Meritocracy

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Amy Chua’s controversial new book suggests ‘outsiders’ can and do succeed in unequal America—but at what cost?
The Triple Package | Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld | Bloomsbury India | 225 pages | Rs 499
At a time when meritocracy in America is widely understood to be a sham, undermined by deep systemic inequalities, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld suggest, in their book, The Triple Package, that certain groups ‘outside’ the American mainstream that may seem at a disadvantage are in fact better placed to succeed. Why? Because they possess ‘the Triple Package’, three qualities that combine to form a sort of engine of success.

These three qualities are: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. Which is to say, a sense of one’s own specialness, an uncertainty about one’s position or prospects, and a mix of self- discipline, restraint, and deferral of gratification. The book singles out eight groups— Mormons, Nigerians, Lebanese, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Jews and Cubans—who ‘outperform’ other American subgroups, and argues that their success is due to their collective possession of these qualities.

This is a shaky premise, to say the least: identifying successes, figuring out what they have in common, and suggesting those commonalities as a prescription for success. It is a provocative one too, striding rashly into the tense territory of American identity politics. This shaky, provocative premise unfolds into a uneasily simplistic argument built largely on anecdote, correlation and words like ‘culture’ and ‘group’ and ‘success’.

In the weeks since its appearance, the book has been roundly criticised for poor methodology, racial insensitivity and courting controversy—the latter likely due to the provocative nature of Amy Chua’s previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

‘Chua and Rubenfeld’s book is many things,’ wrote Richard Kim for The Nation online, ‘pop psychology, ersatz self-help manual, shallow cultural history, a Who’s Who of rich and famous people without a WASPy last name. But first and foremost, it is an epic feat of trolling.’

Indeed, it does seem to have been received as a deliberate, shit-stirring snub to the unspoken rule in liberal America that the success and failure of groups cannot be ascribed to their race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, or any ‘attributes’ thereof. But does Chua care about political correctness? “No,” she replies immediately, over the phone from Manchester during a tour of the UK. “I hate political correctness.” That is no surprise.

It is somewhat of a surprise that this book’s argument has not been more vigorously employed in the service of the American Right’s ‘majority under threat’ shtick—‘Look out, guys, the immigrants are rising!’ But let’s be clear anyway: the alleged hyper-mobility of certain groups is not a concern commensurate with the systemic disadvantages faced by minorities and marginal communities in America. The fabled meritocracy in which much of the country continues to put its faith cannot function in the service of equality when the deck is stacked against so many.

America’s liberal half appears to have internalised this, and its awareness of systemic inequality comes with a kind of privilege-shame. Privilege, here, is meant in the sense of success, or a greater chance at achieving it, that is inherited, unearned or possessed by default; a jump-start, an unfair advantage, anathema to the notion of a level playing field so central to an equal society.

Now more than ever, privilege in America is understood to have calcified. It is clear not everyone has an equal shot at success and not everyone can be successful at once—the one per cent can only accommodate, well, one per cent. In this context, meritocracy is a delusion, more likely to reproduce inequalities than offer equal chances of success.

‘A seemingly un-American fact about America today is that certain groups starkly outperform others,’ opens the first chapter, rather obviously. But it goes on to suggest that most of these groups are not successful because of systemic privilege; in fact, they write, ‘America’s successful groups are all outsiders in one way or another.’

This is what makes Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument intriguing— they are self-proclaimed ‘outsiders’ arguing, in a way, for meritocracy. Or arguing, at least, that success is possible in a system where the odds are stacked against you, provided you have the right tools/values.

Unlike critics of America’s structural inequalities, they see privilege less as an unfair advantage and more as an Achilles heel, a source of complacency. Those not born with privilege, they argue, those who have not grown up feeling entitled to success, are more likely to succeed—precisely because of their determination, their uncertainty, and their willingness to rough it out.

The effectiveness of the Triple Package as a tool-kit—not to mention the authors’ spurious claim that it is a value system endemic to certain groups, and their fairly myopic use of ‘group’ and ‘culture’ and ‘success’—is ultimately less interesting than the authors’ suggestion that beginning at a disadvantage can help you crack the system.

Nevertheless, the authors seem to have been aware that exceptions would be taken, and so have included plenty of caveats. They seem especially concerned that they not be seen to be making the laughably backward argument that certain groups—races or ethnicities or cultures (often used interchangeably throughout the book)—are simply destined to be worse off than others.

Critics have largely been unconvinced. In a scathing critique for Time, Suketu Mehta called the book racist and took it apart for ignoring structural realities in favour of vague ‘cultural’ factors. A rather more concise gut-punch came from writer and expert tweeter Teju Cole: ‘The real Triple Package: exploit some people, enslave others, and kill off the rest. Or just show up later and benefit from this scenario.’

The authors anticipate this response early in the book, and make a point of saying that they are not about race- blame. ‘In almost every case,’ they write, ‘America’s persistently low-income groups became poor because of systematic exploitation, discrimination, denial of opportunity, and institutional and macroeconomic factors having nothing to do with their culture.’

Speaking after the book’s release and the first wave of criticism, Chua is emphatic that they “are not using [the term ‘culture’] in an essentialist sense… We start off with some basic assumptions: that a group’s culture is highly dynamic [and] capable of changing radically even in one generation; that culture is usually many sided, not monolithic; and most importantly that people can change their cultural condition. That’s the way we’re using it.”

Past that, though, they stick to their guns. To support their thesis, they demonstrate that many of America’s ‘poorer groups’ lack the Triple Package. And though they clarify that this lack ‘was not the original cause of their poverty,’ they nevertheless suggest that ‘now that they do lack it, their problems are intensified and harder to overcome.’

In effect this means that, in their worldview, it is a kind of cultural deficiency that keeps a group’s fortunes from rising. This is problematic of itself, but the solution is still more disheartening: individuals can cultivate Triple Package values to achieve success regardless of their ‘background’.

Individual success, here, is a kind of escape from outsiderness, an audition for the American mainstream. Once achieved, success renders group identity—so important on the outside— irrelevant.

Chua is sensitive to this loss—she is her own best example. She is aware that what motivated her to succeed is, in a way, destroyed by her success. Her daughters, no matter how tiger- parented, will never possess the Triple Package in quite the same way she did, and one or two generations on, the package will self-destruct. Success will atrophy, leaving privilege.

It is not the loss of the engine of success she laments, however, but the loss of her ‘heritage’, her group identity, to which she is deeply attached. Chua says this book is, to her, “about how to turn being an outsider into a source of strength.” This is the warm, well-intentioned, personal core of Chua’s work— her previous book too. It is clear she has drawn strength and support and a sense of self from her identity as an outsider. It is less clear what remains of her identity once the outsiderness has given way to success. Or perhaps success is its own identity.