As some readers of First Things may already know, Amy Wax, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and contributor to our magazine, has angered her law school colleagues. The statement they have written appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian under the title “Open letter to the University of Pennsylvania community.”
The opening reads,
We write to condemn recent statements our colleague Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at Penn Law School, has made in popular media pieces.
The infinitive in this sentence is telling. Professor Wax has made some pointed remarks, but the 33 respondents don't wish to disprove, dispute, or disagree with them. They condemn them. We know from the start, in other words, that we are not to witness an academic debate. The trial is over, the verdict is in. We are now in the sentencing phase.
It all began with Wax's op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 9th. Professor Larry Alexander of University of San Diego School of Law was the coauthor of the column, which bore the title “Paying the price for the breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture.”
The thesis was simple. The social dysfunction in America—opioid abuse, inner-city homicides, low male labor-force participation, single motherhood—has “multiple and complex” causes, they say. But one main root of them is “the breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture.”
By “bourgeois culture,” Wax and Alexander mean a set of behaviors that include getting married before having children, avoiding idleness, serving the country, shunning coarse language, acting charitably, and respecting authority. Those rules, however, broke down over the course of the second half of the 20th century, which has given us identity politics, a vulgar public square, and “antisocial habits” such as rap thuggishness and anti-assimilation ideas among immigrants.
The outcomes prove the authors' premise that “All cultures are not equal.” Instead of “bashing the bourgeois culture,” a popular pastime among multiculturalists, Hollywood liberals, and academics out to show their enlightened attitudes, people should “return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.”
Now, you may think that these points are debatable, that Wax and Alexander overlook some historical facts, or that they fail to appreciate the downsides of bourgeois life. I agree with them all the way, but I'm open to criticisms.
But that's not what the 33 Penn profs did. If you read their brief statement in full—it's only a few paragraphs long—you won't find any disconfirming facts and exposures of invalidity. The authors of the letter don't bother with refutation. The first and last aim is, as noted above, condemnation.
The letter recapitulates a few assertions in the op-ed plus some strong utterances from a follow-up interview Wax gave to The Daily Pennsylvanian. (The latter included, “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”) The 33 acknowledge her right to speak and note that she has tenure and can't be fired. But they also say that her rights do not “insulate her from criticism.”
No criticism follows, however. The next paragraph reads in full:
We categorically reject Wax's claims.
That is all—a flat rejection, a blunt “No.”
The 33 close their letter by telling Penn students that if their “experience” on campus “falls substantially short” of academic freedom and a bias-free atmosphere, “we want to know about it.”
It's amazing, but all too customary in higher education. One person argues for an entirely commonplace set of behavioral norms, and 33 people down the hall gather to denounce her. Call it a big pile-on. Ideas don't matter, facts don't count, logic is immaterial. The numbers speak for themselves: 33 to 1. With that kind of imbalance, why bother with debate?
I can imagine Wax's colleagues putting this response together. They feed upon one another's indignation, reiterate how outrageous were her remarks, smile as they collect each signatory and the gang swells, never thinking about disputation, only about junking a renegade to the land of the condemned. The more people they could get to sign the statement, the more they could prove that Wax stood alone, an outlier, someone beyond the range of professional conduct.
This is the act of cowards. And they aggravate their cowardice by trying to enlist students, too, into the project. “Be a tattletale,” they urge, “take offense and bring it to us. We'll carry it from there.”
The implication isn't so subtle. If a student in Professor Wax's class doesn't like what he hears, perhaps we can find something actionable in it. She has tenure, yes, but if we can find a complainant to raise a discrimination or harassment charge, then we can move against her.
That's what they hope, but it won't ever happen. Professor Wax is not a discriminator or a harasser. And this letter is so substance-free and bilious that it's only success lies in how it intimidates the target. But Professor Wax isn't easily intimidated, either.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.