January 13, 2014
The hysterical responses to Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua's book discussing why some cultures succeed and others fail are revealing. Even though Chua was talking about cultural elements, rather than genetic ones, the accusations of racism are entirely predictable.
Chua's thesis, like most similar arguments, is plausible in some areas and implausible in others. Any explanation that tackles as big a subject as that is bound to have as many hits as misses.
And yet it's undeniable that some cultures succeed where others fail.
The politically correct left has long ago lost the ability to distinguish between culture and race; denouncing everything from criticism of Islam to complaints about gang culture as racist. It treats culture as equivalent to race because it doesn't believe that people are capable of change.
The left views people as static. Culture is equivalent to race for them, because they don't believe that people can change. Or that they should change.
The cast of successful cultures in Chua's book is more than racially diverse enough, but it's the idea that people succeed or fail because of their attitude toward life, rather than because of their privilege or lack of privilege that infuriates the left.
Setting aside the details of her positions, Chua's last two books can be boiled down to the simple fact that people who try harder are more likely to succeed and that is not an argument that the left wants aired in the public square. What was once common sense is now dangerously reactionary.
No one succeeds on their own, Elizabeth Warren and Obama insisted. They succeed only through the grace of state institutions. It's not family or culture that matters. It's the support of the state.
But the support of the state isn't enough for individuals or for businesses. Obama lavishly doled out government money to Green Energy companies only to see them fail. With corporate welfare, as with social welfare, the need for government money is a reliable predictor of failure. Those who cannot succeed on their own, will not succeed through the government.
Government money could not compensate for what was inherently wrong with companies like Solyndra, Fisker or A123. It also can't compensate for what is inherently wrong with individuals and communities that are prone to failure, not because of someone else's privilege, but because they have never learned how to try.
The left does not want to deal with the question of why some people succeed and others fail since its entire ideological infrastructure is built around the argument of unequal access. Individuals don't fail, progressives from Obama to Bill de Blasio insist, social institutions fail them.
The New York Times trotted out a young black girl named Dasani living in a dilapidated homeless shelter as its argument that the city had been subdivided between the rich and the poor. Dasani made another appearance at Bill de Blasio's inauguration as a prop for class warfare.
But the city didn't fail a girl whose parents are criminals and junkies and have burned through tens of thousands of dollars. Dasani isn't living on the margins because Mayor Bloomberg or the institutions of the city failed her. On the contrary those institutions have lavished huge amounts of money and resources on her schooling and on every aspect of her life.
If Dasani fails, it's not because the larger society failed her, but because her parents failed her. And the roots of their failure lie in communities where drug use and delinquency have become accepted and commonplace.
The left insists that people are interchangeable. They are not. It insists that their failures and successes belong to the guiding hand of the state. They do not.
Institutional determinism is why the Great Society measures failed. The progressive response to these failures has been to discover new and more abstract forms of racism culminating in white privilege to explain why the lack of access is holding some groups back.
There is an entire academic industry dedicated to turning out proofs of racism to explain failure and yet there are indisputable studies out there documenting things such as the diminished grade levels and higher crime rates for students from single parent homes on a worldwide scale.
While the left pushes harder for its post-family world of powerful institutions, there are reams of data showing how destructive trading the family for the state is. And there is no group of people that embodies that better than African-Americans whose lives have been taken over by the state.
Black families have fallen apart while state intervention in their lives has dramatically increased. It was a bad bargain and its consequences can be seen in the streets of every major city and the lives of little girls like Dasani who are used as props by activists calling for more welfare from a government that can spend millions of dollars, but can't fix the lack of responsibility of her family members and her community.
And she is not alone.
Welfare not only correlates with social failures, it causes them. And it doesn't just cause them in our own country.
Third World activists complain that Western aid destroys local capabilities and cripples domestic economies while promoting a culture of corruption and violence. The best evidence of that may be in the world's biggest welfare state in the Palestinian Authority where the locals know how to do little except make demands and threaten to kill everyone if they don't get what they want.
The Jordanian and Egyptian Muslim populations within Israeli territory who act this way bear a lot of the blame for their own miserable behavior, but it was their Western patrons clamoring for them to have a state who have crippled their ability to take responsibility for their own lives.
During the election, Mitt Romney was blasted for suggesting that cultural differences were responsible for the successes of Israelis and the failures of their neighbors. But Romney was right and his critics were wrong. Obama's latest peace process bid is already imploding because it's not a state that the Palestinian Authority wants; but an international welfare state.
Institutional determinism promotes learned helplessness. It teaches people that their failures can only be remedied by blaming someone else. And that can never lead to success. Without individual responsibility, all that's left are institutional subsidies for failure and there are only so many companies that can be bailed out and only so many individuals who can live off the welfare state without the entire economy collapsing past the point where it can subsidize them.
Many of the cultures that Chua lists are refugees with no place to return to. That distrust of government may be a powerful antidote to Hillary Clinton's village of the state.
And all of the cultures on the list are family oriented.
A basic difference between Asian-Americans and African-Americans is that the former are most likely to be married and the latter are least likely to be married. It is why Asian students succeed in the same "bad" urban schools that are supposedly failing the other minority students.
The magic ingredient is a stable family and parental involvement. It is the difference between Dasani and a Chinese girl who is already working toward getting into Stuyvesant High School; that elite city institution of high-performing students that Bill de Blasio wants to "diversify".
It's not that there are institutional barriers of race that exist for one girl, but don't exist for the other. It's that one girl comes from a culture that values success based on long-term planning and short-term sacrifice and the other one doesn't.
Despite the best efforts of the left, Dasani and her family are not typical of African-Americans. If they were the city and the country would be uninhabitable and there would be no black middle class. But it is the mission of the New York Times and the rest of the left to convince their white readers that if not for their social justice campaigns, every black little girl would be a Dasani.
There are black parents who push their children to succeed every bit as hard as Amy Chua does. I have met some of them over the years. The problem is that there aren't nearly as many of them as there were before the wheels of the Great Society began to turn and African-Americans were told that they should accept failure and even welcome it as proof of their persecution.
Culture is just another way of saying that it isn't the state that makes success possible, but the individual and the family.
We are more than the sum of our institutions, we are our parents and our grandparents, we are the things we read and the things we believe, we are the sense of mission that brought our ancestors through thousands of years of trouble and we are their strengths and their weaknesses.
It's not institutions that make our successes possible. It is our beliefs that make all the difference.
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