Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law has poked a stick into a beehive. Tenure is liberating that way. In an op-ed for Philly.com, she argued, with Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, that the decline of “bourgeois values” since the 1950s has contributed to a host of social ills. Male labor-force-participation rates are down to Depression-era levels. Opioid abuse is epidemic. Half of all children are born to single mothers, and many college students lack basic skills.
This is right out of the Charen hymnbook. Behavioral standards that were nearly universal in the 1950s, they contend, such as stigmatizing idleness, getting married before having children and remaining married afterwards, “going the extra mile” for employers or clients, eschewing substance abuse and crime, and upholding an ethic of self-control and delayed gratification, reigned from the 1940s to the 1960s, and contributed to economic growth, social cohesion, and educational gains.
It’s a big subject — which is why my forthcoming book addresses many of the same topics — albeit from a slightly different perspective. Even as a cultural conservative, I quibble with aspects of the Wax/Alexander essay. They repeat, for example, the conventional wisdom that the introduction of the birth control pill ignited the sexual revolution. I’ve come to believe that this is overstated.
The 1950s are now remembered as an age of wan conventionality. In fact, it was a time when the nation went wild for Alfred Kinsey (later revealed as a fraud), copies of Peyton Place flew off the shelves, and Playboy magazine debuted.
But the thrust of the essay was right about the importance of bourgeois values. The response of some segments of the University of Pennsylvania community to Wax and Alexander illustrates the powerful undertow of illiberalism in academia. Wax and Alexander expressed mainstream views that you will find at the center-left Brookings Institution and the center-right American Enterprise Institute, as well as at leading universities. It contained not a particle of racism. No matter. Wax’s exploration of behavioral norms was damned as white supremacy. Comparisons to Charlottesville proliferated. In a letter to the Penn student newspaper, 54 current and former students declared that:
These cultural values and logics [sic] are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement [sic] of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.
Many of the signatories were graduates of the anthropology department — which is evidently not a stickler for grammar or syntax.
Part of what provoked the firestorm was Wax’s assertion that “not all cultures are created equal.” This is a red flag for sociology and anthropology types. But their dudgeon is preposterous. They are, in fact, in thundering agreement. The conviction that not all cultures are equal is the heart of their worldview. They obviously believe that Alabama’s culture, circa 1952, was inferior to that of Philadelphia in 2017. If pushed, they might even concede that Afghanistan’s cultural practices vis a vis women and minorities are inferior (that word!) to Belgium’s — though that would be more challenging for them. Afghanistan is a part of the Third World and accordingly, its sins are placed in the Western ledger due to imperialism and colonialism. (Well, Afghanistan was never successfully subdued by invaders, but never mind).
Some of Wax’s colleagues have engaged with her ideas without dialing the meter to eleven. But 33 members of the law faculty published a letter anathematizing her. While acknowledging the value of academic freedom (something the students and former students who denounced Wax specifically declined to do), they followed their denunciation with a gaudy non sequitur:
We believe the ideal of equal opportunity to succeed in education is best achieved by a combination of academic freedom, open debate, and a commitment by all participants to respect one another without bias or stereotype. To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal, something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it.
Good Lord, nothing that Wax said remotely called into question any of those principles. In fact, it was the hysterical response, not the article, that betrayed the values of open debate. As for bias and stereotypes, if the Left cannot get past its blinkered view that all discussions of character and behavior are code for racism, it will do great harm to all, but most especially to minorities and the poor. And, most important, if the Left cannot distinguish reasoned academic arguments from vile racist insinuations, it will strengthen the very extremists it fears. If everything is racist, then nothing is.