In Defense of Amy Wax

Peter Wood

University of Pennsylvania Professor of Law Amy Wax was subjected to a smear campaign following her remarks at the National Conservatism Conference on July 15, 2019. A writer for the website Vox, Zach Beauchamp, characterized Wax’s statements on immigration as ‘an outright argument for white supremacy.’ The founder of the conference, Yoram Hazony, quickly denied Beauchamp’s allegation. Hazony tweeted, ‘In fact she made no such argument.’ Beauchamp held his ground and offered what he said was a transcript of part of Wax’s remarks.

Others, such as David Marcus, Rod Dreher, Jeremiah Poff, Steve Sailer, Mark Pulliam, and Steven Hayward pointed out that Beauchamp had completely mischaracterized Wax’s remarks. Wax had argued for a merit-based immigration system to the United States that takes account of shared cultural values. She emphatically did not call for race-based immigration policies. Rather, she acknowledged that cultural-alignment policies could be attacked for producing disparate racial results, and that this is a hurdle that advocates of cultural-alignment policies must expect to meet.

The National Association of Scholars, for which I speak, strongly defends Professor Wax’s right to present and publish her views. She is a member of the NAS board of directors and I know her well. Last year we bestowed on Professor Wax the Peter Shaw Memorial Award for Academic Courage. We stand by what we said then:

‘You have stood tall against the gale-force winds of demagogy that now blow through the academy. You have spoken the truth without fear or favor when others have cowered. You have braved the calumnies of those who, unable to answer your arguments, have resorted to unrelenting personal attack. Under fire, you have neither retreated nor flinched, but walked calmly forward. Nor have you given in to the temptation to answer vituperation with more vituperation, but instead modeled for all to see how a calm demeanor deflects the arrows and blunts the swords of those who would replace civil debate with menace and intimidation. However shallow the safeguards of tenure may be in an age of academic casuistry, however unfaithful the university stewards may be to the standards they are pledged to uphold, and however fearful honest colleagues may be as they sense the fanaticism of the mob, you have shown that clarity of purpose for which there is only one proper word: courage.’

That award was presented in the wake of the attacks on Wax by her dean and many of her faculty colleagues at the Pennsylvania Law School, as well as by students. They had taken umbrage at her writing in August 2017 in the Philadelphia Inquirer in praise of ‘bourgeois values’ and later mentioning in a podcast with Glenn Loury that she was not aware of any black students who had graduated in the top quarter of the University of Pennsylvania Law School during her time there.

Wax’s opinion on the need for bourgeois values was not ‘controversial’ in the larger sense of flying in the face of civilized standards of public speech. She didn’t endorse cannibalism, human sacrifice, or cigarette smoking, for example. Her observation about black students in the Law School came in the context of considering the question of how racial preferences for black students in law school admissions work out over the long term. Her statement easily could have been checked against the factual record as completely true, mostly true, or false. But her dean decided instead that it was an outrageous declaration and unworthy of examination on its merits. He ruled that she would no longer be permitted to teach first-year law students.

This background bears on the new attack on Wax by Zach Beauchamp. Wax is now a permanent target of the racial-grievance-minded academic left. Collectively, the students at Penn who are dedicated to such grievance-mongering have marked her out for further attack. They were disappointed that the Law School under Dean Ted Ruger had not succeeded in stripping her of tenure and firing her from the faculty. Dean Ruger is plainly sympathetic to their cause and has done all that he can to blight Wax’s professional career. He is limited, however, by the facts. Wax has committed no egregious acts. She has merely expressed views that are roundly disliked by the progressive left in the academy.

Beauchamp plainly thought he had found the ultimate weapon — or something just as good: Wax in her own words championing something that could, with a little twisting, be made to sound like racism. He knew his audience. Within days, thousands of students were repeating the canard and the mainstream press had taken it up as well. This occurred without a transcript of her actual remarks, which became available only on July 26. We should be grateful to The Federalist for publishing it promptly. Her text should put an end to the current smear campaign. I say ‘should’ because it probably won’t. Too many foolish people have too much invested in believing the worst about Wax, and too many others are afraid that to speak up against the accusation mob is to risk having the mob turn on them.

What exactly did Wax say on July 15? Little that she hadn’t said before. Last year Wax published in The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy an article, ‘Debating Immigration Restriction: The Case for Low and Slow.‘ Her remarks on July 15 recapitulated the law review article. She observed in her speech that ‘social scientists today don’t want to really confront the significance of cultural differences between the West and the rest, their stickiness, and their implications for immigration, yet these issues have commanded the attention of the rare, brave politician and a number of scholars.’ She cites among others Larry Mead who ‘in his new book The Burdens of Freedom has argued that individualism, a key source of Western and American order, dynamism, and strength, is a distinctly First World attribute that is difficult to impart to outsiders and that it is key to maintaining our freedoms and prosperity.’

Wax presents herself and her argument as part of ‘the culturalist approach,’ currently ‘marginalized in academia,’ but essential to understanding the dynamics of immigration. But then come the sentences with which Zach Beauchamp attempted to garrote Wax:

‘Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites. Well, that is the result anyway. So even if our immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns, doesn’t rely on race at all, and no matter how many times we repeat the mantra that correlation is not causation, these racial dimensions are enough to spook conservatives.’

Out of context, this can sound as though it is or is close to an endorsement of restricting immigration by race. Beauchamp, a senior correspondent with Vox, which had been invited to cover the event, must have been giddy with delight, though he had sat through the whole lecture and knew full well that Wax was issuing a warning, not an endorsement. His accusation was shameful and irresponsible.

Beauchamp’s attack on Wax also drew on one of her answers to a member of the audience (‘Audience Member 7’ in the transcript). Asked what she thought was ‘likely to happen’ with immigration, Wax said that America is going ‘to sink back significantly into Third Worldism.’ She illustrated this by citing the difference in public cleanliness between Stockbridge, Mass., ‘Yankee territory,’ and ‘more diverse’ places, where she implied public space has a lot more litter. She continued:

‘I think Adam Garfinkle did a piece in The American Interest, where he talks about this — about noise levels, about the public space, about people’s deportment in public spaces, about respect for other people’s privacy, about things like heckling and, you know, sexual harassment. I mean all of this stuff sounds really silly, but when you add it up, these cultural habits, you know, make a difference to our environment.’

For these off-the-cuff observations, Wax has taken heat even from conservatives who should know better. It may be impolite to notice these things, but anyone who moves around much in the United States can hardly help seeing the realities to which Wax refers. New York City, where I live, has strict environmental regulations, which are taken to heart in some neighborhoods and all but ignored in others. In the subways, the streets, and the parks, Wax’s remark rings mostly true. In Vermont, where I also spend considerable time, picking up debris left by heedless visitors is an informal obligation on everyone. We have annual ‘green up’ days. I will say that those heedless visitors are not generally immigrants from Third World countries, but home-grown fools. Diversity explains some, but not all of the problem, but it explains enough that I take Wax’s basic point. Mindful care of public space is a virtue that resides more in some segments of the population than others. We shouldn’t be averse to teaching this virtue to those who are, as yet, indifferent to it.

Wax was speaking about difficult realities in an earnest and constructive way. To have her words turned against her like this is all too common these days — and yet another demonstration of why we need strong protections for academic freedom and free speech.

I have one further comment on this matter, which has to do with the rhetoric of Beauchamp’s attack. Abusive language changes over the generations. As an anthropologist, I once collected what stood as examples of the most damning insults in other cultures, as well as the changes in our own. Once, not so long ago, the direst insults that could be hurled at an enemy had to do with his parentage. Illegitimacy was a stigma. Now we can barely register the concept. Once to accuse a woman of promiscuity was extreme obloquy, and this sometimes applied to men as well. The idea has evaporated in contemporary sexual license. Accusing an individual of same sex attraction once was an act of scurrility. LGBTQ identity is now a badge of ‘pride.’

Clearly today the all-purpose insults meant to disqualify the target from any further role in respectable society is to call the person a ‘racist.’ The term lends itself to some variations, such as the innuendo, ‘I’m not saying he is a racist…’ But in effect the accusation of racism is the gun with which the Left attempts to shoot anyone who ventures opinions that progressives disagree with. Using that gun saves the trouble of having to weigh the arguments, consider the evidence, and come up with countervailing arguments and evidence.

These days, I instantly discount an accusation of ‘racism’ unless it is backed up by solid evidence — which is seldom the case. I am taking this latest attack on Amy Wax as the occasion to begin my own campaign to discredit the Left’s all-purpose use of racism. It is the lazy social justice warrior’s opprobrium of choice, and typically it means nothing at all as a label on the recipient. Mostly it means that the person who attempts to pin it on someone else has contempt for the ability of other people to sort things out. It is the vocabulary of the incipient lynch mob.

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