In a healthy academic culture, the ethics of debate and argument include a commitment to civility and a courteous, professional demeanor. The ad hominem attack is seen as illicit, unscholarly, and dangerous, threatening the well-being of the university as a truth-seeking community.
How far we are from that now. A wokeist approach of personal attack based in name-calling and insults prevails today.
The case of Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law School offers the latest evidence. It seems every year or so Wax says something controversial but eminently defensible about a contentious topic, and woke cancel mobs assemble and bellow for her head. These campaigns often start in the universities, with caterwauling student Red Guards banging revolutionary drums, and soon leftist politicians and professional activists are holding press conferences demanding action. Then feckless college deans such as Theodore Ruger at Penn Law start mouthing the woke’s trusted ideological epithets (“racist!” “xenophobic!” “white supremacist!”), making ludicrous claims about the “reasonable belief” that some students have been or will be harmed by knowing about Wax’s ideas, though they provide no evidence that this is the case.
In the hubbub, the woke shriekers are confident no one will ask them for a case as to why what the offending individual said or wrote is “racist” or “white supremacist.” So they just continue to say the magic epithets.
The wokeist use of epithets repeated endlessly is what I call Wilding. As Oscar Wilde sardonically noted: “If you cannot answer a man’s argument, do not panic—you can always call him names.” Thus the frequent recourse to the career-killing charge that starts with “r.”
What, exactly, did Professor Wax say this time?
She said that a U.S. immigration policy concerned to maintain cultural allegiance to founding American principles would do well to limit the number of immigrants from cultures that are distant from those principles, because culture is sticky and it is harder to assimilate those folks. This concern suggests limiting immigration from countries with cultures that are not closely aligned with our principles. She went on to say that immigrants to the U.S. from Asian countries are disproportionately drawn into the economic and cultural elite in this country, owing to their high levels of formal education, and because of this influence, as a group, they lean politically in the direction of the woke left.
Evidence for the second claim is not at all hard to find. Moreover, it is ironic that Wax’s call for fewer Asians drew outcries, when that imperative is the all but official policy for Ivy League admissions. The larger claim about cultural compatibility is perfectly reasonable, and it has been argued by many other scholars. Harvard’s Samuel Huntington wrote an entire book based on the premise: Who Are We?: Challenges to America’s National Identity. (Of course, he was also charged with racism, although Wilding was not as pronounced when his book appeared in 2004.)
One can disagree with what Professor Wax argues, as her interlocutor Professor Glenn Loury does civilly and respectfully in the conversation in which she expressed her views. But to insist that what she said is racist is laughable. Her point about the general leftward trend of Asian-American political affiliation is true. Surely it is unsurprising that a conservative wants to keep left-leaning voters from becoming a still larger portion of the American population. Much evidence indicates that the portion of the American population that identifies with founding principles and traditional American culture is shrinking every year, and current immigration policy contributes to this trend.
I have experience watching Wilding at work. Several years ago, a student group I supervised at Bucknell University invited Wax to give a talk. Just prior to her visit, activists began howling over an op-ed she had written with a colleague, Larry Alexander. It argued for the advantages offered to those who learn cultural traits such as thrift, ascetic labor, sexual continence, and attention to social reciprocity instead of naked egoism. They called these cultural traits “bourgeois values.” “Racist!” cried the eternally outraged in the online media.
Within days of the announcement of her visit, some of my colleagues were posting vulgar insults of Wax to the faculty listserv. It was evident they had not read her work, yet they described it with obscenities and schoolyard language. After Wax had been to campus, the same people denounced a talk, which of course none of them attended, as white supremacist and racist. When I pointed out the need to engage ideas rather than attack persons, reasoned argument itself was derided as another element of white supremacy.
Demands were made that organizers of the talk should fund trauma counseling for these outraged faculty, who it seems were psychically harmed by Wax’s mere proximity on campus. The students that had organized the talk, along with their faculty supporters, were defamed as potentially violent fascists.
In all the sound and fury, not a single substantive charge was leveled against the lecture that could be documented or supported by something Wax had said or written. Note that those doing the Wilding were college professors. Rather than evidence and argument, they described Wax and her work with childish terms such as “BS,” “dumb,” and “f*ckery.”
I was the only faculty defender of Wax on my campus, and apparently the only one who had read her work. In short order I was denounced as a “white supremacist” for having the audacity to ask my colleagues to present evidence of their charges. One particularly shrill member of the Wilding mob accused me of threatening my colleagues, because I had written that it is impossible to take people seriously when they are throwing around unscholarly charges of racism and other crimes.
The entire episode was a revelation to me. I had known, of course, that wokeism existed in my place of employment, but I did not know previously how much it had infected my colleagues. It shook my confidence that reason and the traditional academic ethic of civil debate would prevail. I am now quite uncertain about how things will go, here at Bucknell and in higher ed generally.
Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.