In Defense of Bourgeois Culture—and Professor Amy Wax

Reading Amy Wax’s CV is a profoundly humbling experience. Wax graduated summa cum laude from Yale College with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Then she did a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford before earning a medical degree from Harvard. She also gained admission to Harvard Law School, and ultimately received her J.D. from Columbia, where she served as editor of the Columbia Law Review. Between 1988 and 1994, she worked in the U.S. solicitor general’s office. Today, she’s a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has been honored with the A. Leo Levin Award for Excellence in an Introductory Course and the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

And yet, despite those credentials, Professor Wax is now being condemned as a know-nothing racist and white supremacist. Her crime? Publishing an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that called for a revival of “bourgeois culture.” Apparently that’s now considered hate speech. Such is the madness of our current moment.

In her article, which she co-authored with University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander, Wax argued that the collapse of bourgeois norms among large segments of the U.S. population has fueled or exacerbated a host of problems—ranging from reduced labor-force participation among working-age men, to opioid abuse, inner-city violence, nonmarital childbearing, and educational failure.

Wax and Alexander acknowledged that these problems have “multiple and complex” causes, but they noted that a common factor is the breakdown of certain social mores that prevailed “from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.” During that period, Americans widely followed what Wax and Alexander called “the bourgeois cultural script”:

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.

To be sure, the postwar years were also a time of “racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism,” as Wax and Alexander explicitly conceded in their op-ed. The question is whether discarding bigotry and correcting historical injustices required a simultaneous assault on bourgeois values; or, alternatively, whether bourgeois values were—and are—the key to upward mobility for all Americans. Wax and Alexander take the latter view. “The loss of bourgeois habits,” they wrote, “seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups.”

That shouldn’t be a controversial argument. But in the age of moral and cultural relativism, it is. After all, if bourgeois culture is uniquely conducive to social and economic progress, that means other cultures are less conducive to social and economic progress. Wax and Alexander made precisely this point:

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.

Again, none of this should be particularly controversial. Wax and Alexander clearly observed that anti-bourgeois attitudes can be found among whites, blacks, and Hispanics alike. Millions of Americans share their belief that a revival of bourgeois values would be good for people of all races and ethnicities. Does that make them white supremacists?

Yes, according to the logic of Wax’s critics, who’ve been ferociously denouncing her ever since the op-ed appeared.

Those critics include the University of Pennsylvania graduate-student organization GET-UP, which blasted Wax’s “hateful and regressive views” as an “affront to both the values and the members of our community.”

In addition, a collection of Penn students and student groups published an open letter demanding that the school “take a public stand against rhetoric that harms, dehumanizes, and compromises the education of its vulnerable students.”

Not to be outdone, fifty-four Penn students and alumni called on university administrators and faculty “to push for an investigation into Wax’s advocacy for white supremacy.”

Meanwhile, a group of eighteen non-Penn law professors—from Temple, Drexel, Rutgers, and other schools—slammed the Wax-Alexander article as “racist and classist.”

And thirty-three Penn Law faculty members published their own open letter in order to “categorically reject Wax’s claims.”

Just to remind you, Penn is an Ivy League school—one of the most prestigious universities on the planet—where undergraduate tuition now exceeds $47,000 per year. (Total undergraduate attendance costs for the 2017–18 academic year—with room, board, and other fees included—are upwards of $68,000.) Yet it’s also a place, evidently, where a single professor can generate campus-wide “outrage” by making obvious, commonsense points about the cultural foundations of prosperity.

Professor Wax has not backed down—quite the opposite. In an interview with Penn’s student newspaper, she explained that, while bourgeois culture reflects Anglo-Protestant culture, it is not racially or ethnically exclusive. “Bourgeois values aren’t just for white people,” Wax said. “Bourgeois values can help minorities get ahead.”

People around the world seem to understand that. “Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” bourgeois values, Wax told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

That last statement was ill advised, because it distracted from her underlying argument. The question we should be asking is: Would America be better off if more people—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—embraced bourgeois culture?

Before answering that question, consider the following:

  • The labor-force-participation rate among men aged 25 to 54 is lower today than it was at any point in recorded history prior to the Obama years. “In 2015,” according to University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst, “22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months.”
  • Between 1999 and 2015, America’s age-adjusted rate of drug-overdose deaths nearly tripled. Around 52,400 people died of a drug overdose in 2015, and a New York Times analysis concluded that the overdose death toll in 2016 “most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States.”
  • While our nationwide murder rate remains quite low compared with the levels that prevailed from the 1970s through the 1990s, America’s overall violent-crime rate is still much higher today than it was during the 1960s. In addition, many large U.S. cities have seen murders increase dramatically since 2014.
  • In 2015, more than 40 percent of all U.S. births occurred out of wedlock, compared with only 4 percent in 1950. Back in 2012, the New York Times reported, “More than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”

All of these trends are at least partly a reflection of the long-term social and cultural shift that Wax and Alexander described in their op-ed. Pointing that out is not hate speech. It’s a basic—and much-needed—recognition of reality.

Image: YouTube/AEI

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  • hub 312

    …but…but…but…liberals say they’re for the “middle class”!

    • Tell me you’re my friend, and then kick me in the nuts repeatedly, and pretty soon I’m going to doubt your honesty and our ‘friendship’.

  • GarySweeten

    It looks like they read the ACE Research on the correlatjon of losing a parent and increased death, disease, drugs, drinking, etc. The New lifestyles are milling minority members.

  • Raptor Jesus

    Our culture has been dead for thirty years.

    • rocinante

      This culture has been under assault for 30 years. It has not died yet.

      Remember Hurricane Katrina, the riots, the looting, the theft and the violence. Why did it not occur in Houston, Texas? Good people doing good things without any prompting, any shepherding by the government.

      This culture will outlive the creeps that try and bring it down.

    • Daniel McGillicuddy Griswold

      It has been under assault for 50 years. The original mainstream American culture is now considered a transgressive counter-culture.

      • “Your grandchildren will live under communism.”
        – Nikita Khrushchev.

        • Quiet Desperation

          That would be a blessing compared to the dark age that’s coming. The Boomer generation that sold us all out to the ProgLeft will be cursed for millennia.

  • Shootist

    Much would be solved if society would just insist that immigrants, learn the language, learn the culture and learn to be Americans, in other words, assimilate , just as our forefathers did

    • Quiet Desperation

      And how does that happen?

      • JeffreyL

        Remove the welfare state.

        Its really quite simple. You have a choice. You can have one but not the other. Welfare state or open immigration. You choose ONE.

      • 415woman

        The way it has always happened in this country: no accomodations are made to make non assimilation easy. No multi language ballots, no “press one for English” etc. In the past, everyone strove to learn and use English. By the seconde generation, all spoke English, although they may have used their native language in the home. By the third, it was pretty much English only.

        • Unmutual One

          No more “Press 1 for English.”

      • Shootist

        Which? It happened for all of our history but the past 50 years. And still happens with some groups today. African and asian immigrants have done well assimilating, they desire to become Americans.

        That which man has achieved and forgotten, man can strive to achieve again.

  • Everyone who recognizes the wisdom and value of Dr. Wax’s tome needs to stand up to defend her and those values in every way possible. They are proven effective for anyone who tries them and there’s nothing wrong with them in the slightest.

  • Jeff H ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ comic genius

    New rules:

    1. If it makes sense to anybody outside of academia’s bubble, it’s “racist”, “Islamaphobic”, “homophobic” (kinda like all those Muslims who throw homosexuals off the roofs of buildings to their deaths), “fascist” (irony, thy name is “antiFa”), or whatever the “-ist” or “-phobe” du jour is.

    2. If it can be factually, irrefutably proven, it’s “racist”, “Islamaphobic”, “homophobic” (kinda like all those Muslims who throw homosexuals off the roofs of buildings to their deaths), “fascist” (irony, thy name is “antiFa”), or whatever the “-ist” or “-phobe” du jour is.

    3. If it’s in the Bible, it’s “racist”, “Islamaphobic”, “homophobic” (kinda like all those Muslims who throw homosexuals off the roofs of buildings to their deaths), “fascist” (irony, thy name is “antiFa”), or whatever the “-ist” or “-phobe” du jour is.

  • The truth, and reality, are not PC. One can favor PC, or the truth, but not both.

    Academia has been successfully discriminating against conservatives & Christians since Roe v Wade, even tho in theory it’s illegal. There should be hearings about such illegal discrimination and loss of Fed Funds & loans for those colleges which are found to be discriminatory in result based on political beliefs & creed.

  • Del_Varner

    There is a word for this “Assimilation”. Current “Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity” Theory (the “political” definition of that word, not the scientific) is completely against assimilation. It seeks to maximize differences, and not similarities.

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  • ‘Chesterton’s fence’ suggests that you shouldn’t dismantle a fence until you understand why it was there in the first place.

    In the 50s, 60s, and ’70s, a whole lot of cultural ‘fences’ got ripped to shreds. The repercussions of easily available hormonal birth control will likely take decades to settle out. I THINK adding the automobile to our culture is finally settling out – but it’s going to take a few more decades for the influence of smartphones to really become apparent.

    “Would America be better off if more people—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—embraced bourgeois culture?”

    That would depend on the definition of ‘better off’.

    • CruisingTroll

      hmmm, let’s see: Longer life spans. Better standard of living. Less likely to be a victim of crime. More liberty.

      I’d say that’s a pretty simple definition of “better off”. Do you have one you’d like to proffer?

  • Joshua Grabow

    No one is clinging to a rubber raft in the ocean to make it to Venezuela, or China, or Zimbabwe. Noticing this fact is racist.

  • Gringao

    Dr. Wax reduced her future critics to sputtering denunciations preemptively. It’s really the only way they can respond. Or is someone expecting them to leap to their feet to defend bastardy, idleness, ignorance, intoxication and profligacy?

  • Jim O’Neil

    Obviously critical thinking is not only not part of today’s curriculum, it also no longer allowed in today’s universities.

  • BozoerRebbe

    “Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” bourgeois values, Wax told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

    I think it’s interesting that nobody is mentioning how Dr. Wax is Jewish and is defending the positive aspects of European culture despite the historical reality of European Jew-hatred. The truth is the truth and it’s possible for a human brain to hold two truths simultaneously. Europe was pretty crappy to the Jews but Europe also created the foundation for the modern world. George Washington was a good and great man who changed the world for the better and also owned other human beings. One truth doesn’t make another truth a lie.

    Amy Wax is herself is an example of Jewish success in America (she must make her mom real proud, she graduated from med school before she decided on law). Even those Jews who choose to not assimilate into general American culture, like Chasidim, do pretty well here. That’s likely because traditional Jewish culture emphasizes many of the same “bourgeois” values that Wax associates with WASP culture. The same is true of other successful immigrant communities. The Indians and Chinese and west Africans and others who succeed here do so because individually or as families they have values that facilitate their success. In a world of reason and logic that fact alone should sufficiently refute the charge that Wax is racist, but the racialist essentialists of the identity politics left have somehow decided that culture is almost identical to race, so black conservatives aren’t really black and Hispanics must have bilingual education because expecting that they are smart enough to learn English is somehow racist.

    • cc

      Yes it is particularly interesting how successful Nigerian immigrants are in the US–proving that race and culture are not permanently linked (which is so racist if you think about it).

  • Dr. Wax has an impressive record and is a credit to UPenn. The rest of the faculty and student body, however, indicate that the school, along with Duke, Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford, are sliding in offering a great education. They’re only useful now for networking with powerful alumni.

  • sosumi idk

    This entire conversation makes a lot more sense when you realize that the groups and individuals calling Dr. Wax a white supremacist are the same groups who use the word “white” as if it meant “assimilated” (though for purely practical reasons they cannot break that final tie severing the word from its original skin color meaning, or we’d be overrun by Rachel Dolezals and Shaun Kings).

  • Mad Max

    Logic, common sense, and recognition of reality in higher education today….fuggedaboutit.

  • Mike55_Mahoney

    “Pointing that out is not hate speech. It’s a basic—and much-needed—recognition of reality”
    Reality has become too hard to do. The real fun part will be watching reality kick butt.

  • leoamery

    “Reading Amy Wax’s CV is a profoundly humbling experience.”

    Not any more, it isn’t. For all the academic firepower the CV shows, Wax showed a naivete that is astonishing in publishing the op-ed and being interviewed about it. How could she believe that this wasn’t the academic equivalent of chucking a hornet’s nest into a building’s air conditioning unit? She’s done at Penn. Her life will be a misery of nastiness with dam few defenders to cover her. Perhaps she did know and at 64, decided it was time to speak out honestly and show her colleagues (who, remember, have CVs that are in the same league as Wax’s) up as the mean, vicious, swine that they are. But this isn’t anywhere near a hard enough blow to cleanse Penn, let alone the academy in general, of it corrupt, liberal bigotry. I wish Professor Wax well, but I have to shake my head in astonishment at how long it took her to realize the mean-spirited conformity of the professional and academic world she has graced.

  • Nothing that Wax and Alexander wrote would come as a surprise to that longtime “white supremacist” Thomas Sowell.

    • Rick Caird

      Was that a knock on Sowell or an acknowledgment of his sound thinking and prescription for getting ahead in our society?

      I see now on rereading your post that the “white supremacist” was sarcasm. In that case, you are entirely correct.

  • Rick Caird

    All those Penn people writing letters should be forced to read Dierdre McClosky’s three books on Bourgeois culture and values showing their contributions to western culture and civilization. In fact, the people protesting Wax’s op ed are fools and should all be forced to leave Penn. They are unqualified and will never qualify and that includes, particularly the 33 law professors. Academia is becoming poison to sound thinking.

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  • Carolee Holmes

    Glad I read this and the comments. For years I have felt there was something wrong with our society, but couldn’t put it into words as elegantly as this paper. I realize that to some it’s so evident that the lack of the bourgeois culture is why our country is failing. What I don’t understand is why this truth is not lauded more. I can only hope and pray that more people read the paper, realize the truth of the subject, and begin to make suitable changes in our society so that we can again be a country of well-mannered thoughtful, hard-working , successful people.