Who would have guessed that an op-ed by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, with San Diego lawprof Larry Alexander, would have raised such a ruckus by extolling the virtues of traditional American norms?
Guest Column by five Penn Law professors | Notions of ‘bourgeois’ cultural superiority are based on bad history
It’s like a mad rush to get your name on an op-ed or letter demanding the witch be burned before it’s too late. After all, if you don’t sign on to the cries of racist and classist, you must be one, and nobody wants to be one. Not even Penn lawprof Jonathan Klick, whose name appears on the “open letter.”
We do not question those rights, or the important role that principles of academic freedom play at our University. But Wax’s right to express her opinions does not make her statements right, nor insulate her from criticism.
We categorically reject Wax’s claims.
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.
That Wax’s opinion is subject to criticism is beyond question. That the criticism is that it fails to “respect one another without bias or stereotype” is basic political correctness. And scroll down to find Klick’s name there, among the woke.
But Heterodox Academy,* which exists for the purpose of allowing dissenting opinions, offered a defense of Wax by Jonathan Haidt. It wasn’t that everything Wax wrote was perfect, but that norms, such as marriage and two-parent families, matter.
In other words, Wax was correct, based on the available evidence and expert opinion, to argue that “a strong pro-marriage norm” would reduce poverty and blunt or reverse the pernicious social trends she described at the beginning of her article.
This is hardly a new idea, but it flies in the face of current values of non-traditional parenting. Even if it’s true, and it is, and even if it’s critical to raise children out of poverty, it makes single-parent (read, -mothers) households feel inadequate. And that’s just not allowed. So Klick rushed in to defend the cause.
I was one of the 33 members of the University of Pennsylvania Law School faculty to sign a letter criticizing Amy Wax’s (joint with Larry Alexander) op-ed and subsequent comments regarding the decline of bourgeois culture and its role in America’s perceived social ills. Was this the predictable response of a morally squishy, politically correct, ivory tower academic lefty who is unwilling to endorse unspeakable truths for fear of being bounced from faculty cocktail parties? I can understand this presumption, but, in my case, I prefer going to my kids’ football games to chatting about Derrida over wine and cheese anyway.
As someone who has faced the left’s wrath for questioning the received wisdom that racial healthcare disparities are caused by racism, and who has been heckled during presentations for receiving money from the dastardly Koch Brothers (heck, I’m even a dyed in the wool George Mason public choice school economist, an intellectual tradition that apparently is responsible for the entire modern right-wing agenda), one might think I am a natural ally in Wax’s crusades against feel good academic nonsense that undermines American society. I am all for such crusades, but for someone about whom Heather MacDonald writes “No thinker in the law or social sciences is more rigorous,” Wax’s arguments come up lacking when judged by rigorous empirics.
Now that Klick got the prolix Gertruding out of the way, he finally gets to his point, that “I Don’t Care if Amy Wax Is Politically Incorrect; I Do Care that She’s Empirically Incorrect.” He then goes after two points in Wax’s op-ed, that not everyone wants to move to countries run by former white Europeans and that the introduction of the Pill was the downfall of the family. These are both fair challenges to Wax’s post, albeit tweaking the fringes while ignoring the core argument that normal family life was good for everyone, including (and especially) the poor and minorities when it came to providing them the opportunity to improve their lot in life.
But that was as far as Klick’s empirical response went.
The real world is a messy place. Broad claims that general cultural norms obviously are the key to the good life are bound to be problematic. That doesn’t mean that arguments shouldn’t be made; it doesn’t even mean that, perhaps, some cultures aren’t better than others as judged by a particular objective function. But it does mean these debates are far from settled, and claims like those made by Rod Dreher that Wax’s critics “lack the moral courage and the common sense to affirm what everyone knows” are patently silly.
The part notably missing was why Klick, no pointy-headed lefty he, signed on to an open letter, the best thing that ever happened to virtue signalling since Tumblr, that was solely directed toward the political incorrectness of Wax’s opinion. At HxA, Klick at least made an effort to offer a substantive basis to dispute Wax’s proposition, tepid and peripheral though it was. But the open letter? Haidt calls it out.
I have gone to great lengths to show that Wax’s central claim about culture is probably correct because the necessity of protecting dissent is clearest when the dissenter brings an important and neglected truth into the conversation. But the choice to denounce or not denounce should not really hinge on whether Wax was correct in this particular instance; it should hinge on whether she was making an argument in good faith using methods of argumentation that fall within the normal range of her part of the academy.
But there’s Klick’s name on the petition, and he’s holding the torch to burn the witch, just like the rest of them.
*Apparently, my invitation to join was lost in the mail.