The Chinese-American “Tiger Mom” who infamously wrote a how-to guide to child-rearing advising parents to threaten to burn their kids’ stuffed animals if their homework wasn’t perfect is back with another combustible book, this one about the rise and fall of U.S. cultural groups — and this time Cuban Americans are in her sights.
A superiority complex bordering on arrogance riddled with neurotic insecurities and undergirded by extraordinary willpower, Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld write in The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, has given Cuban exiles a super-charged drive to success that has lifted them into “America’s elite.”
Cuban-Americans are among six cultural groups that Chua and Rubenfeld — both Yale Law School professors — identify in The Triple Package as psychologically pre-wired to succeed in America. “The reality, uncomfortable as it may be to talk about,” they write, “is that some religious, ethnic and national-origin groups are starkly more successful than others.”
If that seems to you to strike a chord somewhat out of tune with America’s relentlessly egalitarian ethic, you have plenty of company. Even as The Triple Package climbs the best-seller lists, critics have savaged it as a Hitlerian celebration of master races.
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Time magazine called the book “the new racism ... it’s not about skin color anymore — it’s about ‘cultural traits.’ And it comes cloaked in a whole lot of social-science babble.” Slate declared that “ The Triple Package isn’t really serious scholarship,” merely “another intentionally provocative story for a trade press playing to the crowd.” Chimed in the Los Angeles Times: “A grim book, a kind of scolding rebuke about the softening of America dressed up in pseudo-academic arguments. It will convince few and offend many.”
That certainly extends to Miami’s Cuban exile community. “I don’t know how wacko this lady is,” exclaimed Radio Mambi host and longtime exile activist Ninoska Perez. “But I don’t think groups have any superiority over each other according to where they come from.”
Chua, a former corporate lawyer, won awards for her writing on globalization and ethnic conflict. But she turned herself into a national catchphrase with her 2011 tough-love book on parenting, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother. Rubenfeld has had his own brush with controversy: a 2013 law-review article advocating change in sexual-assault statutes that, outraged feminists claimed, would virtually legalize date-rape.
Their new book argues that religious and ethnic groups that believe themselves superior to others, but also have suffered traumas like political persecution or racist treatment that leave them with the feeling that they have something to prove, have a cultural edge that gives them a better shot at success. (It also helps if they have the willpower to resist America’s national inclination toward instant gratification.)
“Because all three elements of the Triple Package run so counter to modern American culture, it makes sense that America’s successful groups are all still outsiders in one way or another,” Chua and Rubenfeld write. They identify six such groups: Mormons, Jews, Nigerian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans and Cuban-Americans.
Much of what they write about the Cuban-American exiles who fled the island soon after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 is flattering. From a penniless and bedraggled band of refugees, the exiles built themselves into the most potent economic and political bloc in South Florida and turned Miami into “the second-largest Cuban city in the world.”
“Like the Biblical Jews, Cuban Americans have created an identity for themselves as an exceptional people expelled from their promised land,” Chua and Rubenfeld write.
Yet there are also harsh descriptions of the swagger and pomposity of “Cuban exceptionalism” that will likely ruffle many South Florida feathers. “It can be a little hard to understand exactly why Cubans think their homeland is so exceptional,” the authors write. “What Cubans say on this point is sometimes contradictory, sometimes disturbing.” Several of the claims that Chua and Rubenfeld report — from the theory that Cuba’s greatness stems from the extinction of its Indian population to the insistence that Adam and Eve were Cuban — fall among the latter.
Because The Triple Package hit stores just two weeks ago, relatively few sociologists, demographers and other experts have had a chance to read it. But many of the contentious issues it raises — in particular, the roles of culture and ethnicity in economic and social success — have been around for a while. The fact that the arguments are familiar does not make them any less tenacious.
“It’s preposterous to deny that some groups do better than others,” says Norman Podhoretz, the founding editor of the magazine Commentary and one of the forefathers of political neoconservatism. “People see it with their own eyes, so the only way you can deny it is to make it taboo, which is what we’ve done.
“You see it all over New York. When Koreans arrived here and started setting up little shops, within five minutes they had the whole family working there 22 hours a day and doing very well. Chinese do very well, too, every place they turn up.... I believe there are genius peoples, or people who have special talents. Chinese are a genius people.”
But Maria Cristina Garcia, the Dartmouth professor of American studies whose book Havana USA is perhaps the most comprehensive history of Cuban exiles, says it’s too simplistic to slap labels on entire ethnicities without regard to the vagaries of immigration law and the quirks of politics.
“I think it's plain wrong to say that some groups are more hardworking than others,” she says. “Even the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories of a century ago recognized that it was a combination of pluck and luck that contributed to success.”
Garcia notes that Cuban exiles, fleeing communism at the height of the Cold War, had abundant help from the U.S. government (almost a billion dollars, by some accounts) to resettle, aid that isn’t available to, say, Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants today.
“It really helps when the U.S. government believes in — and invests in — your future,” she says. “Talent and skill needs opportunity to thrive.”
And even if a particular cultural group is successful, circumstances can change quickly. “There are Cubans and there are Cubans and there are Cubans,” says Lisandro Perez, who teaches Latin American studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and has written extensively on the exile community.
Perez participated in one study that tracked the academic performance of American-born children of Cuban exiles in San Diego and Miami. “One of the findings we had was that as immigrants become more American, their kids start screwing up in school.
“When you’re a lonely kid whose parents don’t speak English, your motivation to succeed in school — which is an enormous part of your world — is much bigger. So whatever drive exiles have is not necessarily inherited by their children or grandchildren.”
Whether Cubans — or, indeed, any of the other groups Chua and Rubenfeld write about — really believe themselves to be “chosen people” superior to others is also a matter of some dispute.
“I know they make a big deal about the traditional belief among Jews that they’re a ‘chosen people,’” says Steven L. Pease, author of The Golden Age Of Jewish Achievement. “But ‘chosen’ to Jews doesn’t mean they’re superior. It means God has given them a role to play in helping repair the world’s problems. It means they have a special duty, not that they’re better than anybody else.”
Anyway, argues Ze’ev Wurman, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution think tank and former policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, practically all groups think they’re superior to other groups in some way.
“Why are Greeks and Turks at war with one another all the time?” he says. “It’s because Greeks think they’re better than Turks, and Turks think they’re better than Greeks. The belief that your group is superior is not really a distinction. It’s an integral part of every group’s identity.”
Wurman, however, believes that The Triple Package, even if exaggerated in some respects and oversimplified in others, is a welcome addition to American political debate. “It’s good to show that hard-working people are successful; otherwise people become complacent,” he says.
“Different people are driven, and they are successful. They become successful, they are less driven, and they become less successful. That’s a good message for success. It’s a message we don’t hear enough in the United States.”