Opinion: Don’t punish obnoxious prof — refute her speech instead
University of Pennsylvania Professor Amy Wax has no patience for victimhood complaints. Asked whether she considers mid-20th century British politician Enoch Powell (whose writing she assigned and who gained fame for his “rivers of blood” anti-immigration speech) was a racist, Wax was indignant:
“Can you define racism for me? Is so-and-so a racist? Where are we getting with that? Define racist. I have no idea what you mean. It is a bludgeon that is a promiscuous term. You define what a racist is, and I will spend two seconds addressing that question because it is sterile.”
And yet, Wax herself is competing for victim status by upping the ante on obnoxious public remarks and almost daring the law school at which she teaches to punish her.
In 2017, Wax offended progressives with an op-ed praising bourgeois virtues. “All cultures are not equal,” she proclaimed. At the time, I observed that her aghast critics, who objected to talk of cultural superiority and inferiority, must agree with her at least somewhat: “They obviously believe that Alabama’s culture, circa 1952, was inferior to that of Philadelphia in 2017.”
But I’m getting the impression that Wax is not so much interested in persuasion as in pugnacity.
Wax rhapsodizes about the accomplishments and virtues of the West, particularly its reliance on empiricism. Citing a Malaysian investigation into an airplane crash, she told The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner that “There was no attempt to get to the bottom of what really happened, no rigor, no scrupulosity, no care for the actual event. … Now, I don’t think you would want a team from Malaysia, their investigative team, coming over and taking charge of an accident in which a dear one, a loved one, died of yours.”
Three cheers for the Enlightenment. But, honestly, the whole world’s aviation systems operate on the same principles. If they didn’t, planes would be falling out of the sky all the time. For someone so supposedly dedicated to empiricism, Wax shows little rigor herself on matters of ethnicity, race and culture. She asserts that people from Europe are less likely to litter than others. (Tucker Carlson has echoed this “dirty” immigrant theme.) The evidence? Her own travel experiences. Such rigor! But Europeans themselves differ tremendously. The Swiss and Germans think the Italians are slobs. Wax states confidently that the propensity for low corruption is a “northern European and Anglo phenomenon,” but Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong rank among the world’s least corrupt nations.
Speaking of which, addressing the National Conservatism Conference in 2019, Wax branched out from her hostility to Third World immigrants to include Asians as well:
“We are better off if our country is dominated numerically, demographically, politically, at least in fact if not formally, by people from the First World, from the West, than by people from countries that had failed to advance. … Let us be candid. Europe and the First World, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white, for now.”
Can Asians be counted among those who have failed to advance? The “Four Tigers” — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan — were able to create massive wealth in record time, tripling (at least) their GDP per capita between 1950 and 1980. But apparently it’s not all about economic success for Wax. She has some unflattering generalizations to offer:
“We can speculate (and, yes, generalize) about Asians’ desire to please the elite, single-minded focus on self-advancement, conformity and obsequiousness, lack of deep post-Enlightenment conviction, timidity toward centralized authority (however unreasoned), indifference to liberty, lack of thoughtful and audacious individualism, and excessive tolerance for bossy, mindless social engineering.”
Regarding indifference to liberty, Wax has apparently failed to notice that support for the greatest threat to constitutional government in the United States today comes almost exclusively from the ranks of European Americans. The people who sacked the Capitol and attempted to thwart the peaceful transfer of power were not immigrants or African Americans or “obsequious” Asians. They were the people whose cultural heritage should have, according to Wax, immunized them against authoritarianism.
Leading with her chin, Wax seems to welcome martyrdom, but that’s not the only reason to withhold it. The University of Pennsylvania law school dean is requesting that the faculty senate consider a “major sanction,” which many have interpreted as firing her, despite tenure. The last time the University of Pennsylvania fired a tenured faculty member, it was because he had murdered his wife.
The best reason to refrain from the punitive impulse is that the sword cuts both ways. If Wax is fired for repellent sentiments alone, the protections of tenure will be badly weakened. As Alex Morey of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression put it, “Academic freedom has to protect the Amy Waxes of the academic world, so that it can be there for the Galileos of the academic world.”
Don’t punish her speech — refute it.
— Mona Charen, policy editor of The Bulwark, is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.