Chua and the Death of Sincerity

Lady Gaga may have sang “Poker Face,” but in light of the media conflagration ignited by the Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” — excerpted from Amy Chua’s memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — Mrs. Chua better fits the role of the singer of these lyrics, and the present day media as the chorus.

Here’s a taste of Chua’s Spartan cheekiness: “A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such successful kids … Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, watch TV, choose their own EC activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.” She also threatened once to burn Louisa’s stuffed animals if she didn’t play “The Little White Donkey” on the piano perfectly and called Sophia “garbage” on one occasion.

The inevitable deluge of reactions flooded in. Over the next two weeks her article was linked and relinked into high heavens; it received over 6,000 comments on the WSJ website and around 300,000 Facebook “likes”; columnists and bloggers cried bloody murder (a few rushed to her defense); interviews 24/7; #4 on Amazon’s bestseller’s list; inbox brimmed with fan/hate mail (and death threats).

Facing the hailstorm of attention with levity, the Yale law professor offered a meek genuflection to all the haters out there; self-exculpation by irony. In an interview with The New York Times, she confessed that she found her own narrative self-mocking, “very funny, almost obtuse,” viz. ironic. No Mrs. Chua, we can’t read your poker face. Predictably (because irony is now predictable), Mrs. Chua’s relationship with her daughters is just chirpy (Sophia recently wrote a letter to the NY Post titled, “Why I love my strict Chinese mom” and also e-mailed a Guardian reporter about how Chua let her go to “rap concerts” and do “archaeological digs” in their backyard).

Even more (un)expected was the revelation that Mrs. Chua didn’t even author the WSJ essay. The ever evil WSJ apparently strung “together the most controversial sections of the book” and slapped a polemical title on it. Even more deliciously ironic, the actual book details a journey where at its end Mrs. Chua “gets [her] comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model” (both quotations her own). Of course she was misrepresented by the WSJ, just another victim of the corporate attention-whore machine! Alas, so many man-hours spent chewing over a straw man.

But this is surely feigned ignorance. Chua is a veteran author of two books and purposefully posed with her two daughters (violin and piano at hand) for the article’s exclusive photo. Her WSJ “article” was anything but, much less an argument and can only be genuinely labeled an ad for her book, and an ad that poses as an argument is dangerous, just as an ad that poses as art is dangerous. David Foster Wallace explains: “An ad that pretends to be art is — at absolute best — like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”

At the moment, it seems that our public sphere’s naïveté is still intact; of all the mainstream riffs on the Chua piece, only James Fallow of the Atlantic conjectured that her piece was “planned and written as a to-the-limit self-satirizing joke,” “slightly Swiftian” and treated it as such, refusing to debate her caricature of Chinese parenting that others took seriously.

Only after two weeks of global brouhaha did the truth slip out. “All hype, no heft,” reviewed USA Today on Jan. 19, not a collection of “extreme domestic discipline” but a granular memoir of “her daughters’ musical careers playing the piano and violin” that recalled “the teachers hired and fired … pieces selected and practiced … competitions won and lost.” The publishers were smart to not allow any preview on Google Books, lest it be revealed that “Hymn” is no “Emile” of the East. Despite her narrow topic area, Chua successfully masqueraded as an exotic female Rousseau and elicited responses from the most respectable of sources (David Brooks penned “Amy Chua is a Wimp” this week).

Are we naïve? Or are we so cynical, 40 years after the penning of the phrase “15 minutes of fame,” that most of Chua’s commentators saw through the vacuity of her piece but simply played along and joined the carousel of criticism to exploit the hype? If so, why so serious? Surely we enlightened relativists know deep down that all argument and art are mere ads for the ephemeral, culturally constructed values of historical societies?

Personally, I’m disenchanted by the lack of disenchantment over Amy Chua’s 15 minutes, because it reminds me that our press corps is not cynical but post-cynical, fake-smiling at its readers and pretending to engage in sincere conversation; it reminds me that no one mourns the death of sincerity anymore because its zombie facsimile is enough for us.

Yichao Hao is a first-year economics major. He can be reached at haoy1@uci.edu.