The Un-P.C. Reason for Labor Day

By | 2017-09-07T09:04:09+00:00 September 3rd, 2017|
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Ah, Labor Day! For many, this national holiday is chiefly a bittersweet celebratory marker: a line in the sand (preferably at some winsome beach) between the season of recreation and the seasons of toil. Summer is packing up, autumn and winter are about to schedule their arrival.

Yet Labor Day is also something more. It is a national recognition of the value and dignity of hard work.

“Hard work”?

If the phrase has a displeasing feel in your mouth it is because it names a prime bourgeois value—one of those “Anglo-Protestant values” that Samuel Huntington extolled in his 2004 book Who Are We?

Back in 2004, Huntington was roundly criticized for advocating such retrograde ideas, even though (or maybe it was because) he pointed out, “Throughout American history people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefitted them and the country.”

Surely, committed as we are now to the values of multicultural egalitarianism, we have progressed beyond the quaint ideas Huntington outlined?

To a large extent, the answer is “Yes.” We have, as a culture, gone beyond those ideas, though whether that distance marks “progress” or the opposite is an open question.

Or, to tell the truth, the question is not open at all. Our elite culture—the regnant culture of our universities and their emissaries in the media, the “helping professions,” and the ideological architects of corporate conformity—all reflexively reject the “Anglo-Protestant” bourgeois values that Huntington advocated. But the result has been an intellectual, moral, and social disaster.

This is something that two distinguished law professors, Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander from University of San Diego, argued with gimlet-eyed clarity in “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture,” a much discussed op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month.

Wax and Alexander begin by rehearsing some of the many signposts of our current cultural decay. “Too few Americans,” they note, “are qualified for the jobs available.”

Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

Doubtless, as Wax and Alexander acknowledge, there are many reasons for these pathologies. But a key culprit “in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”

You know, or have at least heard about, what that “bourgeois culture” entails. Wax and Alexander provide a partial summary:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

All this used to be accounted common sense. But these days, common sense, especially in our elite universities, is a most uncommon commodity.

Wax and Alexander were roundly condemned by their university colleagues. Nearly half of Wax’s fellow law professors at Penn signed an “Open Letter” condemning her op-ed. “We categorically reject Wax’s claims,” they thundered. What they found especially egregious was Wax and Alexander’s observation that “All cultures are not equal” and Wax’s later statements in an interview that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans” because “Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.”

Heather Mac Donald provided a round-up of the (inadvertently) hilarious outrage that greeted Wax and Alexander’s op-ed and Wax’s subsequent statements. As an exhibition of moral smugness underwritten by logical incapacity, it is hard to beat. I think my favorite moment came in “An Open Letter to the University of Pennsylvania Regarding Hate Speech in Our Community” from an organization representing “marginalized” graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. “Prior to teaching at Penn,” these poor darlings wail, “Wax was a professor at the University of Virginia Law School. 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.”

How’s that for guilt by association? Because Amy Wax used to teach at the University of Virginia, therefore she is somehow implicated in the racially fired events in Charlottesville in August. The authors of that embarrassing document really are “marginalized,” from elementary candidness, basic logical hygiene, or both.

But let’s return to Wax and Alexander’s Huntingtonian claim that Anglo-Protestant, a.k.a. “bourgeois” values are superior to the multi-culty alternatives. Do you doubt it? I don’t. As William Henry argued back in the 1990s in his undeservedly neglected book In Defense of Elitism, “the simple fact that some people are better than others—smarter, harder working, more learned, more productive, harder to replace.”

Moreover, “Some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal.” And it follows that

Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study. Every corner of the human race may have something to contribute. That does not mean that all contributions are equal…. It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.

William Henry was a classical American liberal. He was a registered Democrat. He was a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. He had collected numerous awards from black, homosexual, and religious organizations for writing about civil-rights issues. He gave money to various Left-wing causes. But he also understood that the preservation of what is valuable in liberal culture is “the willingness to assert unyieldingly that one idea, contribution or attainment is better than another.”

This is exactly what Professors Wax and Alexander argue in their disabused and forthright op-ed. The fact that they were met with hysterical calumny and abuse from their Lilliputian colleagues and the media is a testament to the accuracy of their diagnosis.

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About the Author:

Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball lectures widely and has appeared on national radio and television programs as well as the BBC. He is represented by Writers' Representatives, who can provide details about booking him. Mr. Kimball's latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press, 2012). He is also the author of The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee). Other titles by Mr. Kimball include The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter) and Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee). Mr. Kimball is also the author ofTenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (HarperCollins). A new edition of Tenured Radicals, revised and expanded, was published by Ivan R. Dee in 2008. Mr. Kimball is a frequent contributor to many publications here and in England, including The New Criterion, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The National Interest.