January 24, 2020

Ben Franklin, College Hall, Penn

Ben Franklin, College Hall, Penn

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“To be great is to be misunderstood.” —Emerson

Alfred Lubrano, in an article published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 14, 2017, noted that in 2016,

Philadelphia retained its unenviable designation as the poorest of the 10 most populous cities in America, recording the highest rate of deep poverty—people living at 50 percent of the poverty line or less—among big cities.

Philadelphia’s 2016 poverty and deep-poverty rates were statistically the same as in 2015—25.7 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, more than 37 percent of the city’s children were living in poverty.

At the same time, the city defied another national trend: Its median household income—$41,449—dropped a bit between 2015 and 2016, even as America as a whole saw incomes recovering from the recession and rising from $57,230 to $59,039.

For many of us who live here in Philly, none of this was news. Nor, alas, have things gotten much better since.

About a month earlier, on Aug. 9, 2017, two law professors, Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego, had published in the same newspaper what quickly became a scandalous op-ed. What was the big deal? That Wax and Alexander had dared to stress the special value of what they called “the bourgeois script.” Here is the script itself:

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.

So much good sense, this, it seems to me. You might also call it behaviors that promote achievement and human flourishing generally.

According to Wax and Alexander,

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Despite the many gross misrepresentations of their op-ed, Wax and Alexander did not make the 1950s out to have been some utopia. On the contrary, in their words,

there was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism [my emphasis]. 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. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.

One need not agree with Wax and Alexander on all this, but anyway, it’s clear, as I’ve said, that they didn’t suggest the 1950s were devoid of “discrimination” or other social evils.

“Nobody understands the absurd hypocrisy of progressive moralism better than Wax herself.”

Implicit in this passage is their fundamental ideological disagreement with their overwhelmingly progressive colleagues. For Wax and Alexander, two conservative thinkers, when it comes to understanding quality of life, the most important thing is human behavior, namely, the choices people make according to their values and interests. Progressives, by contrast, tend to assign primacy to external structures—to “poverty,” “systemic racism,” and so forth—although, as I will demonstrate shortly, they are by no means consistent in this but rather hypocrites.

For now, let me simply observe that while, again, nobody is obliged to agree with Wax and Alexander on what they think are the causes of America’s social decline, one would have thought that the University of Pennsylvania—an elite and influential institution that purports to value “diversity”—would at least have been willing to consider their point of view. This is, after all, the City of Brotherly Love, that is to say, “the poorest of the 10 most populous cities in America,” as Lubrano wrote, and as a short walk from Penn’s West Philly campus indicates. Wax and Alexander are distinguished scholars; and if, as the university takes every opportunity to signal, Penn cares about those who aren’t doing very well, isn’t it worth listening to two people who have given serious thought to how Philly and America generally could be improved?

In the event, the Penn crowd, students and professors alike, condemned Wax for promoting “racism,” “white supremacy,” and so forth. On Aug. 30, 2017, 33 members of the Penn Law faculty sent an open letter to The Daily Pennsylvanian. Denouncing her views in moralistic terms, instead of arguing on the merits, Wax’s colleagues set an awful example for their students, because if there’s anybody who needs to learn that others needn’t share your views and premises, it’s future lawyers.

In March 2018, Wax, an award-winning teacher, was removed from teaching required first-year courses at Penn Law. The reason: Some mischievous busybody had dug up a September 2017 video discussion with Brown University economist Glenn Loury in which Wax had said: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely in the top half.” And she added, “I can think of one or two students who’ve graduated in the top half of my required first-year course,” out of about 90 students per year. She also remarked that the University of Pennsylvania Law Review has a racial diversity mandate and suggested that some black students shouldn’t go to college, as they’d probably be better served by pursuing a course that is more consistent with their preparation and abilities. These days, of course, such an opinion coming from a white woman is sure to be offensive to many. For decades, however, Thomas Sowell, a black man and very accomplished scholar, has been making precisely the same point.

Predictably, Wax’s comments were taken out of context and denounced by the touchy types at Penn and elsewhere. In the context of the conversation, it’s clear that, for Wax, affirmative action (of which Loury, a black man, is no fan himself) is an inadequate remedy for the cultural dysfunction that continues to hinder blacks, so that, on various measures (including performance in elite law schools), they underperform relative to other racial groups. Once again, one need not agree with Wax that external interventions à la affirmative action cannot solve what she takes to be the underlying problem—namely, the skills and behavior deficits that beset blacks (a view that is supported by abundant data)—but it simply won’t do to smear her as a racist, let alone to effectively punish her for failing to practice groupthink.

And the latter, alas, is just what Ted Ruger, Dean of the Penn Law School, elected to do. Wax’s comments regarding the performance of black students at Penn Law were false, Ruger claimed, and black students may reasonably question her ability to teach them without bias. And yet, Ruger didn’t come forth with the data (which he surely has) that, if he’s right, could have proved his case and disproved hers. Plainly, then, Ruger’s was mere pseudo-moral point scoring on the cheap. For all that, the man may well feel proud of his cowardly show, but it’s obvious that he’s just not serious.

Whatever they may think about themselves, Wax’s critics at Penn are not doing blacks or anyone else whom they regard as members of “victim groups” any favors. Such progressives have, in fact, a very condescending view of the non-elite. Several generations of Asians and of Jews have risen from rags to riches in this country. Although they are the poorest racial group in New York City, Asians (on average) nevertheless outperform all other racial groups there academically. But, progressives insist, poverty causes academic underperformance, crime, drug addiction, and everything else negative under the sun. Ours is a “systemically racist society,” founded on and sustained by “white supremacy.” Hence why some groups are struggling more than others.

It is revealing, however, that these dogmatic talking points are only ever applied to blacks and Hispanics, not coincidentally, the two major racial groups that, on various measures, are doing worse than the other ones. More than the others, these groups are in need of Wax’s “bourgeois script.” Somehow, though, in the eyes of progressives, it’s as if they really don’t have moral agency. Noble savages in the fantastic manner of Rousseau, they are simply passive objects, products of their environment altogether determined by external forces. But notice: Nobody ever says this stuff about whites, even though both Asians and Jews have higher median incomes than they do, just as (on average) those groups outperform whites academically.

Nobody understands the absurd hypocrisy of progressive moralism better than Wax herself. As she put it colorfully in an email to the Washington Beacon,

[I]f, indeed, bourgeois values are so racist, the progressive critics should be out there in the street demonstrating against them, stripping them from their own lives, and forbidding their children to practice them. They should be chanting, ‘No more work, more crime, more out of wedlock babies, forget thrift, let’s get high!’ … Of course, there’s little chance we’re going to see anything like that, which shows the hollowness, indeed the silliness, of the critiques.

Here is a perfect example of why Wax is loved by the right but hated by the left. She not only sees through progressive nonsense; she does so in a way that makes her critics appear quite foolish.

In truth, her academic critics surely know that, as Wax has written,

among those who currently follow the old precepts, regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low. Those who live by the simple rules that most people used to accept may not end up rich or hold elite jobs, but their lives will go far better than they do now.

Unlike Wax herself, her Penn critics lack what she calls “the courage to moralize.” They are, as it were, limousine liberals. Conveniently removed from working-class life, of which few have had any direct experience, they brand Wax as a bad person for offering well-meant criticism to those who most need it. They advocate policies whose destructive effects they won’t experience. Yes, North Philly, much of West Philly, and Southwest Philly remain terrible places to live, desperately in need of responsible behaviors that all the government aid in the world or cant about racism cannot provide. But of course, the Penn crowd has no skin in this game, living as they do in Rittenhouse Square, Lower Merion, Gladwyne, and the like pleasant places. Taking no risks themselves, they are puffed up on their “virtue,” while ostracizing the best among them. Their message to their students is: “This is how the game works, so if you want to get ahead, you’d better join in our shameless prostitution.” To that end, Dean Ted Ruger, hollowest of men, may wish to affix a big plaque atop the building that houses the Penn Law School, one that reads: “Abandon all integrity, ye who enter here.”

Last July, at the National Conservatism Conference, Wax made a case for “cultural distance nationalism,” a position that she thinks merits more consideration than it has received. As ever, the woman was fearless about opposing politically correct orthodoxy, and as ever, she was deemed a racist by the Penn prigs. As I write, it’s unclear when Wax will be allowed to return to teaching, and even whether she will be allowed to keep her job as a professor at Penn Law, as students and others have repeatedly called for her to be fired. Neither Dean Ted Ruger nor the Penn administration has offered any kind of assurances that she will not be punished for her statements, and indeed Ruger, in a secret meeting closed to faculty, encouraged students to file complaints about her.

What Wax’s Penn critics don’t understand is that progressive moralism obscures individual and group differences in behavior and performance, things that do a lot more to account for the struggles of blacks and other so-called victim groups than vague claims about “structural oppression” and “systemic racism.” Needless to say, to be underprivileged relative to others doesn’t mean you don’t have moral agency, even though you may have to work harder and overcome more than others. (Such challenges, to be sure, are not necessarily altogether bad; rather, they can make for a disciplined and tough-minded character.) Nor does not having the advantages that some do absolve you from the obligation to make the most of your circumstances.

From my earliest years I’ve seen people who don’t go to elite universities like Penn choosing to engage in detrimental behaviors. Knowing firsthand about the vices that plague so many working-class people, when I discovered Amy Wax’s writing I found truths that resonated with me in a deep way. Contra progressives, it is not condescending, sentimental excuses but rather virtuous habits and an exacting expectation of accountability that many of our fellow citizens most need. A simple but vital truth, indeed yesterday’s common sense. How ironic it is that, for all their collective intelligence and air of being socially conscious, the Penn crowd are the last people whom we should expect to say it.


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