Who Carries The Pitchforks And Torches At Penn

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?

[18] Law professors argue colleagues’ ‘bourgeois’ ideal is racist and classist

Guest Column by five Penn Law professors | Notions of ‘bourgeois’ cultural superiority are based on bad history

Guest Column by 54 Penn students & alumni | Statement on Amy Wax and Charlottesville

Guest Column by 33 Penn Law faculty members | Open letter to the University of Pennsylvania community

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.

25 thoughts on “Who Carries The Pitchforks And Torches At Penn

  1. Richard Kopf


    Having sentenced many (perhaps several hundred) young black men raised in single parent homes (the word “homes” is a nicety), what is truly depressing is that those who would burn the witch are, far more importantly, condemning the next generation of young black men to the same fate as the fathers these kids will never have known. I have given up.

    All the best.


  2. Jake

    “This is hardly a new idea, but it flies in the face of current values of non-traditional parenting.”

    You genuinely believe that all people have a choice in how all things turn out in life, don’t you?

    1. SHG Post author

      Not at all, but that doesn’t make all outcomes equal. Being a single parent is an unfortunate circumstances for both parent and child (yes, I know about domestic abuse, but the tail doesn’t wag the dog no matter what anyone says). Trying to pretend it’s just as good for a child as married, two-parent families is lying to oneself. We shouldn’t condemn them for it, but it’s far from optimal. It is not an equal (or preferable) lifestyle choice when it comes to children.

      The problem is that extolling suboptimal alternatives is a lie.

      1. Jake

        Agreed. This is where I go on about getting to the roots of the problem and you call me a naive idealist.

        Something else changed when women started working…US Manufacturing jobs started to disappear while US manufacturing productivity and US exports continued to improve at the same rate as it was before women started working. Meanwhile, wages flat-lined across all income levels except one: The fabulously wealthy. A cohort who also saw their effective tax rate continue to go down, as it has since the last period of rational taxation when we paid for WWII.

        All around us infrastructure crumbles and society slides into the worst period of real nihilism we’ve ever seen in the US while the precious few benefactors of all these changes occasionally stick their heads out the window of their beautiful homes in perfectly manicured, gated communities and say: Why don’t those ______________ just go to church and get a job?!?

          1. Jake

            Forgive my backslide. The Mrs. and I are packing up all our stuff to move to a bigger apartment with a better view of the ocean in our gated, perfectly manicured community. I hate change. It makes me quite cross.

        1. Jake

          Naturally, as long as you’re not allergic to cats.

          PS- In my comment ‘benefactors’ should be ‘beneficiaries’. Jeez…How much are you paying your comment proof reader?

        2. Patrick Maupin

          Unless you believe that the middle class should tax the rich to pay for the poor, there are two separate problems. The problem you discuss, about the very wealthy, is true, but all their money distributed to everybody else wouldn’t last very long.

          The other problem is the octomom problem. Nobody wants to see octomom’s kids in dire straits, and sure, somebody ought to do something, but seriously, it goes against evolution and human nature to say that I shouldn’t be able to work hard and provide my own kids a leg up in life. That’s an age-old conundrum that won’t be solved either by soaking the rich or by the next French Revolution.

          1. Jake

            “The problem you discuss, about the very wealthy, is true, but all their money distributed to everybody else wouldn’t last very long.”

            Of course not. But all the money they are hoarding or spending on luxury nonsense reinvested into society would create more jobs than we’d know what to do with. And severing their access to world leaders would remove a bug in the system that seeks to categorize energy, health care, communications, and transportation infrastructure as for profit endeavors.

            1. PseudonymousKid

              That bug you’re talking about is a feature, friend. Obviously, the wealthy deserve to rule over the rest of us like kings. God, er I mean the market, er I mean intellectual honesty, requires it. There’s more important things to deal with. I mean, did you hear the most recent thing Trump said? OMG, can you believe it?

              Some people really like to kneel.

      2. Grum

        “The problem is that extolling suboptimal alternatives is a lie.”
        And therein lies the problem; you would think that these people are smart enough to figure that not using peoples circumstances to beat them as morally inferior is a good thing whilst not being gung-ho about embracing them as a “good” lifestyle choice might be a reasonably progressive view. My great aunt had twins with a (subsequently repatriated) Italian prisoner of war who she never saw again. She and they were loved and supported but I doubt that anyone thought the situation as anything other than suboptimal even though they did the right thing and I’m ridiculously proud of them for that. They apparently did not give a damn about current values.
        In comparison to that, writing an open letter is wank. Big fucking deal. I worry about people who are more concerned about saying the right thing than doing the right thing, especially when the “right thing” is specious crap. Also I would be a buyer if you do a tee-shirt with “The problem is that extolling suboptimal alternatives is a lie.” It covers a lot of ground.

          1. el purrp

            This is bigger than t-shirts. That right there is your band name and your first Rolling Stone review rolled up in one.

    1. phv3773

      McCarthy was accusing people of treason, not loose living. More like the Benghazi hearings, or if you prefer, the hearings on the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. I would say the howling about family values and political correctness was pretty high-decibel on both sides.

  3. B. McLeod

    If they won’t get a job, it would be nice for them to at least refrain from rattling their stick-like bodies against the metal of the gate. The tumult detracts from proper enjoyment of my tea and crumpets.

  4. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Way hey, blow the man down!
    Who’ll sign righteous letters to shame wrongthinkmen?
    Give me some time to blow the man down!

    I knew a professor, so smart and so wise
    Of a colleague’s contentions he was well apprised

    His fellow enlightened believed them a mess
    Too vile and exhausting to calmly address

    Their righteous high dudgeon compelled them to write
    A great condemnation, so wise and upright

    Now our fine professor was known as a guy
    Who faced up to debate without bothering to cry

    ‘Twas said that his love of American sport
    Far outweighed his love of Derrida and port

    Then one night he realized, with concussive force
    That the TBI scandal meant it’s run its course

    Deprived of his hobby, he sought out his friends
    Who told him it wasn’t too late for amends

    With pangs of regret that he chose not to heed
    He scribbled his signature under their screed

    They say our professor’s now easy to see
    At faculty parties, a-nibbling on Brie

    So I give you fair warning before we belay
    Don’t ever take heed of what heretics say

    Debating and football won’t make you a star
    Blind denunciation works better by far

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