Law professors Amy Wax (University of Pennsylvania) and Larry Alexander (University of San Diego) recently published an opinion piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer regretting the breakdown in contemporary America of “bourgeois” norms such as getting married, getting an education, and a job before having children. The consequences of this breakdown, they allege, include increasing opioid abuse, a decline in workforce participation by adult males, and a growing number of college students who lack the basic skills to do college-level work.
As they recognize, the causes and consequences of the decline of these and other “bourgeois” norms and what society should do about that decline are complex, and important subjects for debate. However, several academics at the University of Pennsylvania chose not to debate Wax and Alexander but to ignore what they said and, instead, to vilify them for things they did not say. The critiques are stunning in their dishonesty.
Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger responded in a column that tied the Wax-Alexander item to the events in Charlottesville. This was ethically troubling in itself, since it associates a Nazi rally with a totally unrelated social analysis. Much worse, however, he said, “I reject emphatically any claim that a single cultural tradition is better than all others.”
It’s True: Not All Cultures Are Equal
Wax and Alexander made no such claim. What they said is: “All cultures are not equal.” That statement seems not only defensible but axiomatic; would anyone claim that China during the Cultural Revolution is morally equal to China today? If all cultures are equal, then nothing we do can make our culture either better or worse. Is that what Dean Ruger believes?
Wax and Alexander then questioned the rejection of “bourgeois” norms by several subcultures in America, including “the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture on inner-city blacks; and the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.” Dean Ruger’s distortion of what they said is despicable cowardice since he is Professor Wax’s boss; she would risk retaliation in many ways if she called him out for distorting what she said.
Five of Wax’s colleagues at Penn were even more dishonest. In a column, they charged that “it is irresponsible to ignore the ugly history of claims of white cultural superiority and to minimize the inequality embedded in 1950s valorization of male Protestant whiteness.” The charge is suspicious since both Wax and Alexander are Jewish and Wax is a woman. And what did Wax and Alexander actually say of this period?
“There was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism. However, steady improvements for women and minorities were underway even when bourgeois norms reigned. Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture. Quite the opposite: The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups.”
Wax and Alexander directly address the issue they are accused of ignoring.
Are Norms Like Marriage Inherently Racist?
The critics say further that Wax and Alexander’s claims “cannot be revived today washed clean of their racist roots.” Really? As the critics noted, many social welfare programs, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and protections of unions, were also instituted during periods of severe race and sex discrimination. Are they saying that these programs must also be eliminated? If not, they are being dishonest in criticizing Wax and Alexander for arguing that we can condemn the bad (race and sex discrimination) but try to retain the good (like the commitment to marriage, work, and education).
And is it true that ‘bourgeois’ norms like marriage, education, and work are inherently racist? Are Wax’s colleagues saying that ethnic minorities are inherently incapable of following these norms? If so, aren’t they the racists? If not, why do they savage Wax and Alexander for claiming that adherence to these norms benefits everyone?
The critics also took Wax to task for reportedly saying in a separate statement that “Anglo Protestant cultural norms are superior” and that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”
I wouldn’t have said that; no hordes of refugees are clamoring to get into Belarus. However, it is true that many countries ruled by white Europeans are considered desirable by many emigrants, and that almost none of the countries from which people are fleeing are ruled by white Europeans. Why this is true is complicated, but stating this truth is not a claim of racial superiority.
It is also undeniable that the Protestant Enlightenment (represented by British thinkers like Hume, Locke, and Adam Smith) is a principal foundation of modern notions of equality, democracy, and human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, is unimaginable without that foundation.
These Professors Aren’t Claiming Racial Superiority
Again, historians disagree about why these things happened where they did, but by saying that they happened Wax and Alexander (who, recall, are Jewish) are not making a claim of racial superiority. If the critics had been interested in adding to our understanding, they might have talked about how non-whites like Gandhi and Martin Luther King have enhanced our understanding of morality, but they were not interested in serious discourse; they were interested only in slinging mud.
The disparagement of Wax and Alexander is part of an ongoing effort to intimidate anyone who criticizes political correctness by distorting their criticisms and vilifying them as bad people (e.g., racist, sexist). This is the same scare tactic used by Joe McCarthy against his critics; call them Communists, which will shock the public into ignoring what his critics actually said and stir up so much venom that the critics will fall silent.
No one need agree with everything said by Wax and Alexander, or by anyone else. But it is crucial that serious scholars and all people concerned about serious public discourse seek real debate and condemn those who try to squash debate with distortion and vilification.