Scandal Erupts over the Promotion of ‘Bourgeois’ Behavior

Professor Amy Wax (image via YouTube)
Two law professors face racism, sexism, and homophobia charges for urging Americans to act responsibly.

Were you planning to instruct your child about the value of hard work and civility? Not so fast! According to a current uproar at the University of Pennsylvania, advocacy of such bourgeois virtues is “hate speech.” The controversy, sparked by an op-ed written by two law professors, illustrates the rapidly shrinking boundaries of acceptable thought on college campuses and the use of racial victimology to police those boundaries.

The Fuse Is Lit

On August 9, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling for a revival of the bourgeois values that characterized mid-century American life, including child-rearing within marriage, hard work, self-discipline on and off the job, and respect for authority. The late 1960s took aim at the bourgeois ethic, they say, encouraging an “antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal [of] sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society.”

Today, the consequences of that cultural revolution are all around us: lagging education levels, the lowest male work-force participation rate since the Great Depression, opioid abuse, and high illegitimacy rates. Wax and Alexander catalogue the self-defeating behaviors that leave too many Americans idle, addicted, or in prison: “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”

Throwing caution to the winds, they challenge the core tenet of multiculturalism: “All cultures are not equal,” they write. “Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” Unless America’s elites again promote personal responsibility and other bourgeois virtues, the country’s economic and social problems will only worsen, they conclude.

The University of Pennsylvania’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, spotted a scandal in the making. The day after the op-ed was published, it came out with a story headlined “‘Not All Cultures Are Equal’ Says Penn Law Professor in Op-Ed.” Naturally, the paper placed Wax and Alexander’s op-ed in the context of Wax’s other affronts to left-wing dogma. It quoted a Middlebury College sociology professor who claimed that Middlebury’s “students of color were being attacked and felt attacked” by a lecture Wax gave at Middlebury College in 2013 on black-family breakdown. It noted that Penn’s Black Law Students Association had criticized her for a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2005 on black self-help.

But the centerpiece of the Daily Pennsylvanian story was its interview with Wax. Wax (whom I consider a friend) is the most courageous truth-teller on American colleges today. Initially trained as a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, she possesses fearsome intelligence and debating skills. True to form, she stuck by her thesis. “I don’t shrink from the word, ‘superior’” with regard to Anglo-Protestant cultural norms, she told the paper. “Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” these values. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” Western governments have undoubtedly committed crimes, she said, but it would be a mistake to reject what is good in those countries because of their historical flaws.

The fuse was lit. The rules of the game were the following: Ignore what Wax and Alexander had actually said; avoid providing any counterevidence; and play the race card to the hilt as a substitute for engaging with their arguments.

Enter the ‘Isms’

First out of the gate was the Penn graduate students’ union, GET-UP. On August 11, a day after the Daily Pennsylvanian article, GET-UP issued a “Statement about Wax Op-Ed,” condemning the “presence of toxic racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes on campus.” The “superiority of one race over others is not an academic debate we have in the 21st century,” GET-UP wrote. “It is racism masquerading as science.”

But the Wax-Alexander op-ed and the Wax interview said nothing about racial superiority (much less about sex or homosexuality). It argued for a set of behavioral norms that are available to all peoples but that had found their strongest expression over the course of a particular culture. As the Daily Pennsylvanian itself acknowledged, Wax had emphasized to them that she was not implying the superiority of whites. “Bourgeois values aren’t just for white people,” she had said. “The irony is: Bourgeois values can help minorities get ahead.”

No matter. Time to roll out the racial victimology. “The kind of hate Wax espouses is an everyday part of many students’ lives at Penn, and we can and must fight against it,” GET-UP thundered in its peroration. “For every incident like this that gains press and publicity, we must recognize that there are countless [others that] go unmarked and unchecked.”

The idea that privileged graduate students at Penn, one of the most tolerant, racially sensitive environments in human history, experience everyday ‘hate’ is delusional.

The idea that privileged graduate students at Penn, one of the most tolerant, racially sensitive environments in human history, experience everyday “hate” is delusional. The adults on campus so fervently seek the presence of underrepresented minority undergraduates and graduate students that they use racial preferences to admit many of them.

GET-UP bravely announced that it “stands with the students attacked by Professor Wax, and against racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia in all their forms.” Fact check: Wax had attacked no students. Her argument was against the 1960s countercultural revolution that had undermined the legitimacy of bourgeois values.

Unanswered question: Were Wax and Alexander wrong that the virtues of self-restraint, deferred gratification, and future orientation are key for economic and personal progress, and that an anti-achievement, anti-authority culture of drug use and a detachment from the work force is inimical to advancement? GET-UP had nothing to say about those key matters.

The Daily Pennsylvanian followed up with another article on August 13, titled “Campus Is Abuzz over Penn Law Professor Amy Wax’s Controversial Op-Ed, Which Called for a Return of ‘Bourgeois’ Cultural Values.” The August 13 article quoted liberally from the GET-UP statement and added some sarcastic tweets by an assistant professor of educational linguistics at the education school. The professor, Nelson Flores, also implied that Wax was nostalgic for Jim Crow. The student paper noted that a Philadelphia councilwoman had tweeted that Wax’s comments were “miserable.” University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann would not comment on the matter because she was traveling, a university spokesman told the paper. Nothing prevented the university, however, from issuing a strong statement supporting its professors’ good-faith participation in public debate.

Feisty as ever, Wax e-mailed the paper: “If this is the best Penn professors and grad students can do, our culture really is in trouble.”

More Booty, More Bureaucracy

Missing so far from the reaction was a call for speech restrictions and more diversity infrastructure. The IDEAL Council, “representing marginalized graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania through the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly,” corrected the omission with its August 17 “Open Letter to the University of Pennsylvania Regarding Hate Speech in Our Community.”

Wax and Alexander’s Inquirer op-ed “pivoted on the denigration of a number of racial and socioeconomic groups,” which “will not be surprising to many students of color, especially those in the law school who have had to take a course with Wax,” IDEAL claimed. “Her racist and homophobic statements are well-documented both on and off campus.”

The Inquirer op-ed, however, is about behavior, not about racial groups per se. (IDEAL and GET-UP both ignore the fact that Wax and Alexander criticize white underclass behavior, a silence necessary to clear the deck for full-throated racial victimology.) Far from mistreating “students of color,” Wax has received a law-school teaching award from Penn’s law students and a second university-wide teaching award, conferred by faculty committee. If she oppressed “students of color,” the faculty presumably would have heard about it.

A glad cry must have gone out among IDEAL manifesto writers when they discovered that Wax had taught at the University of Virginia law school until 2001. Voilà! Irrefutable proof of bigotry! “Prior to teaching at Penn, Wax was a professor at the University of Virginia Law School,” the manifesto gloats. “On August 12th, White supremacists marched through the University of Virginia carrying torches, chanting ‘You will not replace us,’ and yelling racial and anti-Semitic slurs.” The causality speaks for itself, but in case the reader needs help, IDEAL explains that the white supremacy “can find its intellectual home in the kind of falsely ‘objective’ rhetoric in Amy Wax’s statement, which positions (white) bourgeois culture as not only objectively superior, but also under incursion from lesser cultures and races.”

“Falsely ‘objective’” presumably means: “based on facts that one is unable to rebut.” Nothing in the Wax-Alexander op-ed claimed that white culture was under incursion from lesser races. The 1960s attack on bourgeois culture came most forcefully from American “academics, writers, artists, actors, and journalists,” they write, “who relished liberation from conventional constraints.” That is not a racial critique, it is an ideological one. For good measure, IDEAL also links Wax to “eugenicist ideas and practices.”

Having established Wax’s connection to the “metastasizing KKK chapters of Pennsylvania,” IDEAL gets down to brass tacks: demands for a “formal policy for censuring hate speech and a schedule of community-based consequences for discriminatory acts against marginalized groups.” Typical of the associational chain used by campus leftists, the IDEAL Open Letter equates rational argumentation with “hate speech,” and “hate speech” with “discriminatory acts.” Without consequences for these “discriminatory acts,” U. Penn.’s “vulnerable students” will continue to be “harmed,” “dehumanized,” and “compromised” in their ability to get an education. If a student’s ability to pursue his education can be “compromised” by a single op-ed, perhaps he is not ready for advanced studies.

Finally, of course, comes the demand for booty and bureaucracy: a “formal, centralized Diversity & Inclusion office with staff that are charged directly with . . . providing resources for students experiencing marginalized [sic] or discrimination at Penn.” Never mind that Penn has been cranking out “Action Plans for Faculty Diversity and Excellence,” “Faculty Inclusion Reports,” “Gender Equity Reports,” and “Minority Equity Progress Reports” for two decades.

Were Wax and Alexander wrong that the virtues of self-restraint, deferred gratification, and future orientation are key for economic and personal success?

The unanswered question remains: Were Wax and Alexander wrong that the virtues of self-restraint, deferred gratification, and future orientation are key for economic and personal success? Like GET-UP, IDEAL had not one word to say about the Wax-Alexander thesis, confining itself instead to accusations of racism.

Well, perhaps Wax’s fellow professors at the University of Pennsylvania law school will do better? No such luck. On August 20, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Sophia Z. Lee, Serena Mayeri, Dorothy E. Roberts, and Tobias Barrington Wolff, all U. Penn. law professors, published their own op-ed in the Daily Pennsylvanian, “Notions of ‘Bourgeois’ Cultural Superiority Are Based on Bad History.” The Roberts et al. op-ed employed two strategies: linking Wax to white supremacists and focusing on 1950s race and sex discrimination to the exclusion of anything else.

The group column likens the Wax-Alexander celebration of bourgeois virtues to the “defense of Confederate statues that ignores their promotion of white supremacy.” Like the statue defenders, Wax is making a “thinly veiled argument for . . . Anglo-Protestant superiority.” But Wax and Alexander were arguing for the superiority of a set of cultural norms. Anyone can adopt those norms; they are not limited to a particular race, though historically, they developed most fully in the West.

The rest of the Roberts et al. column details the very real civil-rights violations of pre-1960s America, as well as some not so real ones. But Wax and Alexander readily acknowledged, in their words, the “racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism” of the period. They argued, however, that banishing discrimination need not entail banishing the cultural norms that allow individuals from every social stratum to lead productive lives. Roberts and her co-authors recycle the lie that white conservatives used the criminal law to reinstate de facto segregation. To the contrary, it was the millions of law-abiding blacks in high-crime neighborhoods who demanded a crackdown on drug dealing and violent crime in the 1960s onward (see Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority and James Forman’s Locking Up Own Own). 

The column ends by taking another jab at Wax and Alexander’s supposed racism: “If the history of the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, teaches us anything, it is that assertions of white cultural superiority have devastating consequences.”

Unanswered Questions

The same questions remain unanswered, however: Are bourgeois virtues a solution to today’s economic and social ills? Should the country’s so-called thought leaders affirm the value of temperance and thrift? Is the rising illegitimacy rate a good thing for children? These are the core matters raised by the Wax-Alexander op-ed, but the piece by Roberts and her colleagues, like the manifestos that preceded it, is silent about them. As for Wax’s observation that migration overwhelmingly flows to countries that have historically embraced bourgeois values, not one of the critics has provided any counter-examples.

Classes at the Penn law school begin after Labor Day; we will see whether the attempt to silence Wax continues when more students arrive on campus. The law school to date has tried to distance itself from the controversy: “The views expressed in the article are those of the individual authors,” a spokesman told the Daily Pennsylvanian via e-mail. “They are not a statement of Penn Law’s values or institutional policies.” That is either an anodyne truism or an underhanded dig at the op-ed as contrary to the school’s “values.” The administration should make it crystal clear that reasoned argumentation is not “hate speech” or a “discriminatory act.”

Wax will not be silenced by this fierce deployment of the racism card. But most academics are not so brave. The op-ed’s primary sin was to talk about behavior. The founding idea of contemporary progressivism is that structural and individual racism lies behind socioeconomic inequalities. Discussing bad behavioral choices and maladaptive culture is out of bounds and will be punished mercilessly by slinging at the offender the usual fusillade of “isms” (to be supplemented, post-Charlottesville, with frequent mentions of “white supremacy”). The fact that underclass behaviors are increasingly common among lower-class whites, and not at all limited to poor blacks and Hispanics, might have made it possible to address personal responsibility. That does not appear to be the case.

What if the progressive analysis of inequality is wrong, however, and a cultural analysis is closest to the truth? If confronting the need to change behavior is punishable “hate speech,” then it is hard to see how the country can resolve its social problems.


    Free Speech Under Siege

    Understanding the Campus Free Speech Crisis

    North Carolina’s Free Speech Act

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops.





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