There has been much ado about an article by lawprofs Amy Wax (University of Pennsylvania) and Larry Alexander (University of San Diego), “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture” (The Inquirer, August 9, 2017). Wax and Alexander say this:
Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.
The causes of these phenomena 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.
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. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.
Did everyone abide by those precepts? Of course not. There are always rebels — and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Even the deviants rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations….
… The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.
This cultural script began to break down in the late 1960s. A combination of factors — prosperity, the Pill, the expansion of higher education, and the doubts surrounding the Vietnam War — encouraged an antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal — sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll — that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society….
And those adults with influence over the culture, for a variety of reasons, abandoned their role as advocates for respectability, civility, and adult values. As a consequence, the counterculture made great headway, particularly among the chattering classes — academics, writers, artists, actors, and journalists — who relished liberation from conventional constraints and turned condemning America and reviewing its crimes into a class marker of virtue and sophistication.
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….
… Among those who currently follow the old precepts, regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low. Those who live by the simple rules that most people used to accept may not end up rich or hold elite jobs, but their lives will go far better than they do now. All schools and neighborhoods would be much safer and more pleasant. More students from all walks of life would be educated for constructive employment and democratic participation.
But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.
There’s a nit-picky but not fundamentally damaging commentary here, which follows a positive commentary by Jonathan Haidt, whom I presume to be a neutral party given his political centrism and rigorous approach to the psychology of politics.
As for me, I am skeptical about the restoration of the hegemony of bourgeois culture. It’s my view that when constructive social norms (e.g., work rather than welfare, marriage before children) have been breached on a large scale (as in Charles Murray’s “Fishtown”), they can’t be put back together again. Not on a large scale among persons now living, at least.
It’s true that many aspiring escapees from “Fishtown” (and its equivalents among blacks and Hispanics) will emulate the social norms of the middle and upper-middle classes. Those who are steadfast in their emulation are more likely to escape their respective white, tan, and black “ghettos” than those who don’t try or give up.
But “ghettos” will persist for as long as government provides “freebies” to people for not working, for not marrying, and for having children out of wedlock. And I see no end to to the “freebies” because (a) there are a lot of votes in the “ghettos” and (b) there are too many members of the middle and upper-middle classes — mainly but not exclusively “progressives” — who would rather give a man a fish every day rather than teach him how to fish.
That said, the heated controversy about the Wax-Alexander piece stems from its perceived racism — perceived by the usual, hyper-sensitive suspects. How dare Wax and Alexander drag blacks and Hispanics into their discussion by referring to
- homicidal violence that plagues inner cities
- the fact that almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers
- the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks
- the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants
And how dare they assert (quite reasonably) that not all cultures are equal.
So the condemnation began. The thrust of it, of course, is the Wax and Alexander are “racist”.
For her sins, Wax was the target of an open letter of condemnation signed by 33 of her law school colleagues at UPenn. And for his sins, Alexander was singled out for criticism by the dean of USD’s law school.
Turnabout is fair play — or it will be as long as there are vestiges of free speech on college campuses. Tom Smith, a lawprof at USD who blogs at The Right Coast, is mightily miffed about his dean’s response to the Wax-Alexander piece. Smith and seven other USD lawprofs signed a letter which reads, in part:
Yesterday, Stephen Ferruolo, dean of the University of San Diego School of Law, sent to the entire law school community a lengthy email message entitled “Our Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.” The message began by thanking those who have “expressed their concerns” about an op-ed written by our colleague Larry Alexander and University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and published last month in the Philadelphia Inquirer…. While acknowledging that Professor Alexander has a right to his views, the dean then declared, “I personally do not agree with those views, nor do I believe that they are representative of the views of our law school community.”…
The dean did not describe the contents of the Alexander-Wax op-ed, and he offered no specifics about what he disagreed with. In the context of the overall message, readers of the dean’s statement will inevitably infer that, at least in the dean’s view, Professor Alexander’s op-ed was in some sense supportive of exclusion or “racial discrimination or cultural subordination.” In effect, the dean adopted the extraordinary measure of singling out a colleague, by name, for a kind of public shaming through unsupported insinuation.
As colleagues of Professor Alexander, we write in response for two principal reasons.
First, the law school community and the interested public should know that Professor Alexander is an honorable, honest man who is not in any way racist…. Just last May, Dean Ferruolo along with the deans of the Yale Law School and the University of Illinois Law School praised Professor Alexander effusively at a conference convened at Yale Law School specifically to discuss and commemorate Professor Alexander’s scholarly contributions in a variety of fields. Considering this distinguished career and unparalleled contribution to the law school, we believe it is unconscionable for a law school dean to subject Professor Alexander to this sort of public shaming.
Second, we are concerned about the harmful effects of the dean’s message for the law school community. A law school and a university should be places where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged, not inhibited…. We have been grateful to study, teach, and write at USD, where in our experience civility and a commitment to freedom of discussion have prevailed. But this commitment is seriously undermined if faculty or students come to perceive that their expression of views disfavored by some may cause them to be singled out for public disapproval by university officials.
We understand that there are limits to the freedom of expression. Anyone, including colleagues and deans, should of course feel free to challenge on the merits the views expressed by other members of the community. As noted, Dean Ferruolo’s email made no attempt to do this. In addition, a member of the university who is shown to promote racist or bigoted views or practices may deserve public censure. However, we challenge the dean or other critics to identify anything in Professor Alexander’s op-ed that expresses or endorses bigotry or “racial discrimination or cultural subordination.”…
Smith continues, in his inimitable style:
I signed onto the letter and I’m grateful to find my name in such distinguished company. More emails and no doubt facebook posts, tweets, blog posts and so forth will no doubt issue in response to these letters. I am breaching my usual dirty bird principle (from the adage, “it’s a dirty bird who fouls his (or her!) own nest”) because this controversy sounds so directly on matters I blog about, sometimes humorously and usually carefully…. [A] man or woman should be entitled to express him or herself in the public prints without having a Dean rain down a ton of politically correct nonsense on his head, for heaven’s sake…. And also, I just have to say, what Larry is calling for (get up in the morning, go to your job, don’t take drugs, don’t have kids out of wedlock, etc., etc.) is rather in line with traditional Catholic teaching, is it not? So if someone says something that is “loudly dogma[tic]”, to coin a phrase, in a newspaper, or at least is consistent with that dogma, he runs the risk of being shamed by the administration of a nominally Catholic law school? That just ain’t rat. Larry of course is not Catholic, he’s a secular Jew, but he’s advocating things that are absolutely in line with what a good or even just sort of good Catholic person would do or practice.
I must say, I feel just a teensy bit neglected myself here. Have I not said things at least as politically incorrect as Larry? What am I, chopped liver? Or whatever the WASP equivalent of chopped liver is? Bologna and mayonnaise perhaps? Celery with peanut butter? Alas, we are but a small blog. But no matter. All in all, this is just a hellova way to thank Larry, who is nearing the end of his career and has given all of it to a small law school when, at least by professional lights, he should have been at a top ten school. And I don’t see how the situation can really be put right at this point. But who knows, perhaps somehow it will be. Meanwhile, the weather finally is beautiful again here today, for what that’s worth.
As for the “racist” label that has been so freely flung at Wax and Alexander, I’ll tell you what’s racist. It’s people like Dean Steve (which is as much of an honorific as he deserves) who assert that it’s racist to advise anyone (of any race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or whatever other identifying characteristics seem to matter these days) to get a job, stick to it, work hard at it, and take responsibility for yourself.
There are lots of blacks — undoubtedly a majority of them (and many of whom I worked with) — who don’t think such attitudes are racist. But Dean Steve and his ilk seem to believe that such attitudes are racist. Which means that Dean Steve and his ilk are racists, because they believe that all blacks either (a) don’t work hard, etc., and/or (b) are affronted by the idea that hard work, etc., are virtues. How racist can you get?