Authors argue that cultural background determines our fate

02/16/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

“The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld (Penguin Press, 304 pages, $27.95)

More than two centuries ago, our Founding Fathers declared that all humans are born with the same inherent potential. Ever since, having the phrase “created equal” in our Declaration of Independence has been one the coolest things about being an American.

Now, married Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have stepped forward to say that being “created equal” doesn’t matter. Instead, their controversial (and sometimes cringe-inducing) new book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” argues that our cultural background largely determines our fate.

The luckiest Americans, they say, are born with “The Triple Package,” a set of can-do values handed down to them by their families. Chua and Rubenfeld know that saying some of us are born to more ambitious cultures than others makes them sound “un-American,” but they don’t care.

“The Triple Package” is a grim book, a scolding rebuke about the softening of America dressed up in pseudo-academic arguments.

“An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention” by Matthew Kneale (Counterpoint, 272 pages, $26)

“As the son of a Manx Methodist atheist and a refugee German Jewish atheist,” Matthew Kneale tells us in the first sentence of “An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention,” “I have never been much of a believer.” It’s a great way to begin a book on faith, by staking out the territory of skepticism.

Kneale is a novelist – his “English Passengers” (2000) won the Whitbread Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize – so it makes sense that he would frame faith as an evolving story we tell ourselves. Beginning 33,000 years ago, with the development of animal spirits and trance worship, he works his way up to contemporary movements such as Scientology and al-Qaida, for which spirituality masks a more secular set of ends.

At the same time, his focus on institutions, or ideologies, illustrates a fatal flaw in his approach.

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