Amy Wax and Larry Alexander make a powerful case that America is America is paying a heavy price for the steady breakdown of our country’s bourgeois culture (Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com)
In this post, I will explain their argument and then show how they have been viciously attacked for it, culminating in a petition that their universities investigate them.
Professors Wax and Alexander begin by listing some of our country’s most difficult problems, from opioid abuse to low labor-participation rates. Lawyers call them a “parade of horribles,” and both Wax and Alexander are distinguished legal scholars.
But this is not a legal article. Rather, it’s a thoughtful meditation on the deeper sources of our country’s problems and is intended for a general audience.
The problems Wax and Alexander mention are well known. What’s important is that they argue that these problems are rooted in a breakdown in “bourgeois values,” once revered in the US but now ignored or damned in public discourse.
The contribution “bourgeois values” to American life–
And the breakdown of those values
To quote Wax and Alexander:
The causes of these [bad outcomes] are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.
That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: 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. –Wax and Alexander in Philly.com
These ethical precepts and social guidelines were widespread, broadly endorsed, and were not limited by race, income, or religion.
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. –Wax and Alexander
They do not excuse the racism, anti-Semitism, and other black marks of that period. They mention them by name, before adding two significant points:
- Those stains on our culture were being steadily remedied during that era, and
- The remedies work best when they accompany bourgeois culture rather than condemn it.
Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture. Quite the opposite. –Wax and Alexander
Their bottom line is powerful–and, naturally, has irritated the very people who are hell-bent on destroying bourgeois culture.
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all. –Wax and Alexander
They conclude by urging Hollywood, the media, and cultural arbiters to return to celebrating the values that ultimately opened American society to upward mobility and integration and made our country so successful.
Their argument broadly tracks two of the most important social theorists writing today, Deirdre McCloskey (writing on bourgeois virtue) and Charles Murray (writing on the social breakdown of lower classes).
The Left Hates these Bourgeois Values
So They Hurl Invectives at Wax and Alexander
“Racist, Sexist, Patriarchal, Hetero-normative” ⇒ “White Supremacist”
54 Students and Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where Wax teaches, write a scathing denunciation of her (Daily Pennsylvanian, student paper at UPenn)
Their op-ed is a self-parody of academic-leftist clichés, ad hominem argumentation, and virtue shaming. It is sliming, not thinking coherently, and is virtually untethered to the argument they are purportedly rebutting.
[Wax and Alexander] extol the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.
–Guest Column by 54 Penn students & alumni
They don’t just disagree with Wax. They explicitly attack her as a fellow traveler of the KKK and neo-Nazis: “it has come time to challenge the weak foundations of white supremacist rhetoric like Wax’s on cultural grounds.” Oh, and Wax and Alexander are sexist, too. Due to some oversight, they neglected to call them Zionists, imperialists, and capitalists.
But they conclude with a chilling proposal, that the University of Pennsylvania investigate Wax so they can put a stop once and for all to her thinking.
The letter by the 54 (almost all from the anthropology and education departments) illustrates a point made by Norman Podhoretz:
Our culture is ill-equipped to assert the bourgeois values which would be the salvation of the under-class, because we have lost those values ourselves. –Norman Podhoretz (Daily Mail, November 1989)
Ironically, though many upper-middle class progressives will not defend these bourgeois values, they actually live their own lives by them and raise their children to respect them (even as they feel guilty about their achievements).
This same hypocrisy applies, I am sure, to many of those who signed the letter condemning Wax and Alexander.
- How many of those PhD students and professors have children out of wedlock (much less while they were teenagers)?
- How many aspire to live in stable domestic situations, whatever their gender orientation?
- How many are postponing families until they can afford to raise them well?
- How many will move to a good school district and encourage their children to develop strong work habits so they can enter the white-collar workforce?
The answer, I’m sure, is that nearly all these signers demonstrate their true regard for bourgeois values by living their lives that way–valuing hard work and education, postponing gratification, waiting to have children until they can raise them in stable environments.
What, pray tell, is wrong with asserting that those values make sense if you want to succeed in the modern world? What’s wrong with defending those values?
Comment: My views on this should be clear.
- The 54 are slinging mud, not making arguments. They are certainly not making sustained, rational arguments.
- The 54 are doing their best to stifle reasonable debate on major issues, first by shaming, then by trying to get Wax investigated and perhaps fired
- The 54 are engaged in mass bullying, pure and simple.
- The 54’s letter bears no rational relationship to the argument they are sliming.
- The issues raised by Wax, Alexander, McCloskey, Murray are others are crucially important and deserve open, reasonable debate. The arguments should ultimately be logical and empirically-based, not virtue signalling.