Do some racial, ethnic or religious groups in America succeed – or fail – because of their cultural backgrounds?

This is the provocative question raised in a controversial new book called "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America."

The authors are the husband and wife research team of Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua.  Chua made headlines a few years back with another controversial book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," in which she spoke gleefully of shaming her children into higher grades while depriving them of things like TV and sleepover parties.

Some of this was in jest, but Chua’s point was clear – too many American parents are lax and weak.  If you want to raise an ambitious Master of the Universe, you and your kids better get ready to do some work.

Well, Chua and her husband have now set out to explore why some parents and kids are (much) better than others at doing that.

They argue that Jews, Mormons, Nigerians, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Lebanese and Cuban exiles all have within their culture a mysterious trifecta that more or less guarantees success.  What are these three magic elements?

First, a superiority complex, which ingrains these children and their parents with a feeling that they are destined and chosen for great things.

Secondly, insecurity.  This might seem paradoxical, but according to Chua and Rubenfeld, insecurity keeps these chosen people striving.

Thirdly, impulse control.  These folks just seem to be able to keep themselves in check, whether you are talking about grade school behavior or resisting 21st century temptations as adults.

An obvious question arises. How do these eight chosen groups (whose immigrant success in the U.S. is indeed impressive) stack up against past immigrant groups in America?  Surely, exploring the experiences of the Irish as well as the Germans, the Italians and Poles, would shed light on how and why certain groups are and are not succeeding in America.

And so, dutifully, I flip to the index of The Triple Package and search for “Irish.”  Or “Ireland” or “Irish American” or “Irish immigration.”


Not even an entrance on “Catholic,” even though for 150 years or so Catholic schools have been using all kinds of tactics (some gentle and nurturing, other involving rulers and knuckles) to instill the triple package in immigrant Americans and their children.

As William Deresiewicz noted in "The New Republic" this week, Chua and Rubenfeld “ignore the Irish, a proud people with a long history of oppression and, in Irish Catholicism, abundant resources of impulse control.”

There are two gigantic problems with what Chua and Rubenfeld are doing.  (Maybe three if you count the fact that the two of them both have awesome Ivy League jobs as well as the effortless good looks of newscasters.)

First, they are trying to find some polite way to say something very impolite, which is that some cultures simply raise their kids better than others.  That may be an impolite thing to say, but, okay, if you want to have that discussion, fine, let’s have it. 

But be up front about it.  Be prepared to walk up to some people and say plainly, “Sorry, but I don’t care about bigotry and economic inequality. Until you push your kids harder and teach them impulse control you and your inferior culture are going to be left behind.”

Secondly, how is it possible to believe you have made a convincing argument about this topic without looking to the largest and most-loathed wave of immigration to America – Famine Irish Catholics?  Surely there is plenty to say about whether or not the millions of big city Irish Catholics – or rural Scotch-Irish Protestants, for that matter – did or did not have the “triple package.”

This is a broader problem when it comes to debating culture and immigration in 21st century America.  It’s as if the Irish never existed.  Too many very smart people immediately jump to the conclusion that this is the first time we’ve wrestled with such complex issues.

It must be because they have no impulse control.

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