Amy Wax on the Backlash Against ‘Bourgeois Culture’

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 September 13, 2017|
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American Greatness Senior Editor Seth Leibsohn interviews Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who—along with University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander—has become the object of controversy and sanction for simply stating the obvious in public. Wax and Alexander last month published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer extolling the benefits of “bourgeois values” such as avoiding pregnancy out of wedlock, staying married, showing up for work on time, working hard, and other simple virtues. For their trouble, Wax and Alexander have been called “racists,” “white supremacists,” and other names.

Seth Leibsohn: Oh, dear goodness. Welcome back to “The Seth and Chris Show.” Chris is cracking me up here. 602-508-0960 is our number. It’s September 12th. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser is going to join us at the bottom of the hour with his particular analysis, what we’ve gotten right and what we’ve gotten wrong since about this day 16 years ago. We’re going to be joined also by Professor Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania shortly.

You’ve heard me say from time to time that once upon a time not so long ago, a good op-ed would be written, perhaps in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps somewhere else, and be talked about for a while, like months.

Chris Buskirk: It would get faxed to people.

Leibsohn: Yeah, you’d fax it around. Usually, it would be written by an Irving Kristol or a Charles Murray or someone like that. Usually, it was the Wall Street Journal. That just doesn’t happen anymore, but there are a couple that have. Actually, the aforementioned website, amgreatness, American Greatness, we had one, “The Flight 93 Election,” that piece by now the person everyone knows is Michael Anton. That piece was talked about for a year.

This piece Amy Wax wrote with her colleague, a fellow law professor, she at the University of Pennsylvania, he at the University of San Diego, in the Philadelphia Enquirer they wrote a piece called “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture,” and, boy, the smack back and the pushback on this piece, and against her particularly, has been amazing. All they were saying is that there are a lot of problems in society, ranging from a shrinking male-working-age labor force, widespread drug use, plagued inner cities, out-of-wedlock births, college students lacking basic skills, social pathology basically, and that the fix for them would be a return to values we used to know before we had a lot of these problems we used to know. Get married. Get the education you need for gainful employment. Work hard. Avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot. Be neighborly, civic-minded, charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

Buskirk: We can’t have people just going around saying that.

Leibsohn: No, right? My goodness. It hit me this morning in a new way when I read a huge piece … not huge . . . when I read a well-placed piece in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed, “Straight Talk for College Women.” This is an op-ed written for college women, I suppose, and their parents, by a lawyer, advice for college women on how to stay safe in college. She does the right thing by killing that stupid statistic about 25 percent of college women are going to be sexually assaulted in their career. Just nonsense.

Buskirk: Not in their career. You mean in their career at college.

Leibsohn: At that college.

Buskirk: While at college.

Leibsohn: Yeah, yeah, yeah, at college. She says, “Don’t panic. Your parents do not just drop you and your belongings into a crime zone,” and then she goes through where that false statistic came from. Then she offers all this advice, and I’m thinking, “My gosh, are we at a place really where we need this advice?” Do not get drunk and go home with someone you don’t know. That’s italicized-

Buskirk: Hold on a second.

Leibsohn:  Yes. Yeah.

Buskirk: Really?

Leibsohn: Can you imagine?

Buskirk: Can you imagine? She’s encroaching on people’s individuality and their liberty, Seth. We just can’t have this.

Leibsohn: I mean, we’ve reached this point where … was it George Orwell … said we’ve reached the point where the restatement of the obvious is the most important thing that we have to do. That is what Amy Wax and her colleague, or I should say fellow law professor at a different school, Larry Alexander, did. We are delighted to have Professor Amy Wax with us. She is the Robert Mundheim Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor, welcome to the show.

Amy Wax: Thank you.

Leibsohn: I have interviewed Larry Alexander, Professor Alexander, and was delighted to do so, and was equally excited to have you. The question I asked him, a question that’s probably more pertinent for you, did you expect any kind of the pushback you received when you penned this piece?

Wax: I honestly say I didn’t. I wrote it, I agreed to sign onto it, and we wrote it together, and I forgot about it. I moved on to other projects.

Leibsohn: Now there’s this entire what seems to be cultural academic and cultural effort to censor and censure you.

Wax: Yes, from all sorts of quarters on all sorts of fronts, sort of raw mudslinging, slurs, and name-calling, to a letter from my colleagues saying we condemn Amy Wax’s statements, we categorically reject them, a sort of cut-and-paste job of a few things that I say, and no explanation, no argument, no justification, no refutation, nothing like that at all, which, of course, is what lawyers are supposed to do, and especially legal academics. That’s not seen as necessary in this case.

Leibsohn: : How long have you been teaching at law school?

Wax: I started teaching in 1994 at the University of Virginia and then I moved to Penn in 2001.

Leibsohn: Perfect, because I started my own law school degree … I went to law school, and I entered in the class of ’94, I guess graduated class of ’97. What I noticed then was a trend. I don’t know if you’ve seen it get worse. I thought it would be one of the great places to have Socratic dialogue and debate, and I found it was one of the most limiting, to be honest. It must be much worse now.

Wax: It’s very much worse, and it’s sinking by the minute. I think one of the points that has come out … and this has been a very interesting experience for me, and I’ve talked to a number of people, including colleagues who haven’t signed the letter and people outside of the law school … one of the interesting observations is that the climate has become so much more illiberal. Many of the understandings and conventions that we took for granted years ago, 10 years ago maybe, one being that you would never, ever write a letter like this calling out one of your colleagues in categorical terms without any argumentation or engaging that person on the merits … that wouldn’t happen … they are gone by the board. We see it all over.

There was an op-ed in the New York Times from someone taking the ACLU to task, saying that we have to reassess our commitment to free speech and that the objective of reducing hurt and bad feelings and denigration … I can’t even recite what these goals are because they’re so foreign to me, my understanding of what a deliberative society, democracy, demands, that we have to narrow the so-called Overton window of what is acceptable to say, the vocabulary that people may use, without being slurred and shamed and called a million names. All of these standards are now under assault and are being reassessed, and it didn’t use to be that way.

Leibsohn: One of the things I’ve been playing with … Well said, Professor Wax. One of the things I’ve been playing around with in my head lately is an old First Amendment ACLU-type trope where they would used to say, “Well, we have to defend the worst or the most egregious or the most extreme forms of speech to protect the rest of our speech.” It seems like the ACLU has no problem doing that. They’ve been defending extreme forms of speech, but, oddly enough, it hasn’t worked, has it? Oddly enough, the stuff that you wrote with your colleague, which is normal, gosh knows … Don’t do drugs, show up to work on time, stay married, not all cultures are equal … that’s the kind of speech that, oddly enough, has become less and less free to give, say, use.

Wax: That’s, to me, very strange. I just-

Leibsohn: We have not protected normal speech by defending extreme speech. We just haven’t.

Wax: No. Right. I think this op-ed would qualify as really kind of ho-hum in a way.

Leibsohn: Yes.

Wax: What’s ironic is that this sort of thing, these sorts of points, have been developed on both sides of the political spectrum, across the political spectrum. I point out to people that Isabel Sawhill at The Brookings Institution, with Ron Haskins, has developed data to show that if people just abide by three simple rules, a subset of the rules that we talked about, their chance of being in poverty is dramatically reduced.

Leibsohn: They’ve been doing it for years. They’ve been replicating this study for something like 20 years, if I’m not mistaken.

Wax: That’s right. These people are on the left side of the spectrum. This is not a right-wing idea, by any means.

Leibsohn: No.

Wax: I think to say that all cultures are not equal is considered to be-

Leibsohn: Was that the big one? Was that the one they were most offended by?

Wax: I don’t know.

Leibsohn: Can I come back? We’re going to a break. I know we have limited time with you. Can I hold that question and do that with you on the other side of this break? I would love to, if I could.

Wax: Yes, of course.

Leibsohn: That would be great. We’re talking to Professor Amy Wax, who is shaking up the legal and rest of the academy by writing common sense. I’m Seth Leibsohn. He’s Chris Buskirk. We’ll be right back.

Welcome back to The Seth and Chris Show. I’m Seth Leibsohn. He’s Chris Buskirk. Delighted to have with us Dr. Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. She, with a colleague, Larry Alexander, at USD School of Law, wrote an op-ed about maintaining, retaining, going back to emphasis on what could be called bourgeois values.

Professor Wax, one of the things I thought when I read your piece was … I think I read it … I’m pretty sure I read it before most of the controversy. I thought, meaning no offense, I didn’t see anything new here that I hadn’t been reading for the last 25 years, to be honest with you, whether it was the Sawhill stuff out of Brookings or whether it was some of the stuff Dr. Bill Bennett was writing, or others in the ’90s. To be honest with you, a good piece, but nothing raised my eyebrows. I hope you don’t take that offensively, but so much more the shock, given the pushback, yeah?

Wax: No, certainly I don’t take it offensively. Not at all. There was nothing particularly original about this op-ed. It was more bringing together a lot of different ideas that have been out there. There aren’t that many truly original ideas.

Leibsohn: Fair enough.

Wax: They have different instantiations and expressions, but I think what the reaction revealed, to me … I’m still trying to figure it out … is how bubble-wrapped elite academia is, and the professoriate in elite academia. They really have a set of ideas and values, and an outlook on life and society, that is quite insular and unique and forms a kind of echo chamber where they all believe basically the same thing. They reinforce their own views, and there’s very little contact with just your rank-and-file-type people out there in the great heartland, I guess what has been termed “the forgotten man.” Part of that is that, as Charles Murray has said very trenchantly, upper-middle-class people, of which elite Ivy League professors very much are part of that group, they live their own quite separate lives socially, geographically, educationally. They are in a world apart and rarely interact on any meaningful level.

Leibsohn: Right. They are what the art critic Harold Rosenberg once called a herd of independent minds in many respects, I think.

Wax: Yes.

Leibsohn: I do know the one piece that you wrote, the one utterance in your op-ed I think we all knew would get some pushback, and that’s this notion that not all cultures are created equal. That does ring a siren in many anthropologists’ and sociologists’ mind, or any modernist’s mind, I know, but it’s so easily refutable. I love the way Mona Charen put it. She said your critics must obviously believe, then, that Alabama’s culture in 1952 was superior to Philadelphia’s in 2017.

Wax: Well, right. I mean, it is so transparently true and correct that it’s not even worth bothering pointing out these examples. The most sort of normie of my students, the ones who don’t take on these controversial views, they will just immediately point out to you that a culture that believes in genital mutilation of women and keeping women under house arrest, to quote George Kennan, keeping them in purdah, and very strictly limiting what they can do and the roles they can take, that we are wont to make a judgment about those cultures, that they’re not as good or desirable as ours.

Of course, there’s so much voting with your feet. People don’t clamor, they don’t get on boats and risk their lives to go to Zimbabwe or Somalia or Mexico or a million other countries that we can think of. They risk their lives to go to Germany and Sweden and England. I think it’s manifestly untrue that all cultures are equal, but what more can you say? There’s not a whole lot more to say.

Leibsohn: Well, one of the things I was hoping I might get you to say, Professor Wax, because you’re, interestingly, credentialed with a medical degree as well, and the way the closing of the intellectual mind has gone on in the social sciences or at the law schools could not, I don’t think, be tolerated in the medical schools because you’re actually-

Wax: Oh, you are so wrong.

Leibsohn: Ohhhhh

Wax: You are so wrong about that.

Leibsohn: Gosh, well, tell me, tell me, tell me.

Wax: Once again, I will invoke … I have a number of relatives in academic medicine, and they tell me it is even worse-

Leibsohn: No kidding!

Wax: . . . in academic medicine because it is not a culture that is centered on presenting arguments and counterarguments. I mean, at least in a law school—until recently anyway—we are tempered by one of our purposes, which is to teach students how to present points of view and to marshal evidence and points against that point of view. That’s what we do. That’s our stock-in-trade.

Certainly, philosophy is oriented to that. It’s interesting that none of the philosophers on the faculty, the people with philosophical training, signed the letter condemning me. That is, to me, very telling and very heartening. In medicine, there is no such orientation or tradition, so the politically correct dogma, I am told, of structural racism and discrimination, of the kind of religion of diversity, even though, of course, diversity is lacking in medicine for all sort of pipeline reasons, that is sacrosanct, cannot be questioned in any way, shape, or form, or you’re in trouble.

Leibsohn: Well, then, we’re just lost. We’re just lost.

Wax: Well, I think we’re very lost, yes. The people like I and Larry Alexander, and there are other people too, and there are some wonderful-

Leibsohn: Me . . . and Chris and my listeners. You have friends in Phoenix, Professor Wax.

Wax: Thank you. There are some wonderful conservative intellectuals-

Leibsohn: Sure.

Wax:  . . . who are fighting the good fight. I would point to the Claremont Review, which I look forward to getting each issue.

Leibsohn: Good.

Wax: There are some very smart people writing for that. First Things. There are all sorts of sources outside the academy. The academy has become irrelevant, I think . . .

Leibsohn: The academy is now the problem.

Wax: . . . intellectual inquiry. It’s bankrupt. My last word is that I have really come to the conclusion that we should defund the Ivy League. They have enough money.

Leibsohn: Amen. Amen.

Wax: Selective institutions . . .

Leibsohn: No argument. You bet.

Wax:  . . . have more than enough.

Leibsohn: You bet.

Wax: I would love to see philanthropists’ money directed to something else.

Leibsohn: Yeah. How about poor inner-city schools that can’t make it and have to hold bake sales to educate?

Wax: Yeah, or rebuilding Florida and Houston.

Leibsohn: Fine. I’m onboard. Let’s do it. We’ll do it.

Wax: All right.

Leibsohn: Professor Wax, Godspeed. Check out another online journal you might like, amgreatness.com, American Greatness. You might like that one too. God bless you for what you’re doing, and thank you for your time here. We stand behind you. Love to talk to you again soon.

Wax: Thank you.

About the Author:

The Editors
  • Joel Mathis

    There’s a real chicken-and-egg question regarding “bourgeois culture” and economics – which gives rise to which.

    Latest from Pew: “For young adults who have never been married, not being financially stable and not being ready to settle down loom large as reasons why they are not married. Roughly half of never-married adults ages 18 to 29 (51%) say not being financially stable is a major reason they are not married, compared with 27% of those ages 30 to 49 and 29% of those 50 and older. … Nonwhite adults who have never been married are also more likely than whites to say a major reason they aren’t married is that they are not financially stable (48% vs. 33%).”

    Getting married doesn’t necessarily make it easier to have a decent-paying job. Getting a decent-paying job does, however,make i easier to get married.

    • Joel Mathis

      (In other words: Correlation is not causation.)

  • I can’ wait till the leftist bullies are being chased through the streets begging for forgiveness and we will forgive them there crimes after we hang em all.

  • Ib4N8R

    Yes, time for Harvard to spend its endowment on Education. They can start with the inner cities.

    • vb

      Or maybe the could start with their faculty.

  • barbaro70

    It sure looks like plain, honest, frank speaking is coming back in style after many years’ absence!!! Hooray for Wax and Alexander!

  • penrose22

    Kudos to Amy Wax for speaking out against the ideas and lifestyle choices being promoted by anti-American, anti-Christian, intolerant leftist ideologues. I’m surprised that she was surprised by the backlash. Truth published by such an intelligent individual, particularly in a center of “higher-learning”, will invariably create terror and anger in those seeking to destroy the principles on which the US was founded and by which prosperity for more citizens than seen in any other nation was produced. I was a freshman at Yale with Amy in 1971, but noticed the extreme intolerance and bigotry of so-called “liberal” classmates even then. As a Southerner, I was automatically considered persona non grata, particularly by the affluent Northeastern “preppies”, indicating that the indoctrination of intolerance had already begun in the left-leaning educational system. What is surprising is the inability of otherwise seemingly intelligent people to see the truth and use it to improve the lives of so many. But then, none are so blind as those who refuse to see.

  • Peter from Oz

    There is a sickness that has spread from America to the rest of the world. It is oikophobia, or the loathing of your own culture. This left wing affliction is characterised by several symptoms. One is ”conservatism by proxy”, which manifests itself in a deep admiration for traditional customs and beliefs of other cultures. Thus, a progressive will always wax lyrical about the fact that Auystralian Aborigines hae a culture that is 40,000 years old or about the ”spirituality” of Cambodian monks. They will then tell you how our own traditions are evil or how our churches are riddled with ”hate.” The next symptom is the zero sum fallacy, whereby the progressive believes that if one person is well off then in consequence another person has been made poor or disadvantaged. This flows onto another sympton, the idea that praising one’s own culture is somehow vulgar, or even worse code for denigrating another culture.
    I think this sickness stems from distortions of marxist thought (what I call folk-marxism), the ideal of chivalry and the concept of nobless oblige. Hence the need for so many on the left now not to be proletarian but bourgeois bohemians.
    The lack of logic in the progressive viewpoint is always to the fore. The fact is that the bourgeois culture praised by Professor Wax was not only the basis of an incredibly successful society, bt also led to improvements in that society such as the fight against the poor treatment of black people. MLK was bourgeois to his bootstraps and a good Christian. I think he would realise that much of the ”racism” so decied today by leftists is really ”culturalism”or political opposition to black activists’ own contant reference to race as the only problem worty of attention.