The Amy Wax/UPenn problem isn’t about academic freedom, it’s about unexamined privilege. And firing her won’t solve the problem.
The University of Pennsylvania and law professor Amy wax are embroiled in a controversy over a series of controversial comments, and many are calling for her firing. For instance:
Earlier this month, Wax yet again found herself in controversy over making racist remarks, this time speaking on a panel that was taking place during the Edmund Burke Foundation’s National Conservatism conference. According to Vox and other media outlets whose reporters were present while Wax was participating in a discussion on immigration, she stated that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites” and also described immigrants as being too loud and blaming them for an increase in “litter.”
There are plenty of other concerning statements by Wax – some involving direct, illegal and factually inaccurate attacks on Penn Law’s minority students.
Initially the central issue struck me as being about academic freedom, the hook upon which Penn is hanging its hat.
A spokesperson for Penn Law initially told The Legal Intelligencer that Wax is “free to express her opinions” under the school’s academic freedom and open expression policies, while adding that “it is also the case that views of individual faculty members do not represent the views of the institution, but rather their own personal beliefs.”
Accordingly, Penn has to date refused to fire her, although they have removed her from teaching required classes.
I’m a huge believer in academic freedom, and I suspect that position is the consensus among my S&R colleagues and our readership. At a glance, I didn’t believe the controversial things Wax said were protected by any reasonable code of academic or intellectual freedom. Some PhD associates I spoke with recently agreed.
Academic freedom must be a function of legitimately academic pursuits. That is to say, research, scientific or social. Deep intellectual analysis. Peer-review. Engagement with academic discourse. Contextualization within established scholarly traditions. Engagement with scholarly communities.
None of this seems to be happening with Wax. What we see instead appears to be someone using academic freedom and a position at Penn as a platform to repeat what we hear daily from the Hannitys, Carlsons, Lahrens, FOXes, Breitbarts and Trumps of the world. Does she offer legitimate research? Does she appear on panels at academic conferences? Has she authored monographs addressing historical or current scholarly thought on society and race?
Or is she Rush Limbaugh with a tweed jacket and elbow patches?
Academic freedom is a necessary shield for the pursuit of the genuinely academic and scholarly. It is not carte blanche to say any unsupported thing on any subject. The term means literally what it says: it’s about academic freedom. And the things Wax has said have no connection to actual academic work she or anyone else has done.
Then I dug deeper into Professor Wax’s record (because I don’t trust urban weeklies to grasp the nuances of academic controversies).
Are her pronouncements racist? Yes, although in a bit more complicated way than the Philadelphia piece lets on.
The op-ed mentioned in the previous quote is fascinating. And telling.
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.
What’s revealed here is a deeply conservative worldview, and I don’t mean conservative in the garden-variety Trump-rally yahoo sense of the word. Instead, Wax and her co-author are descendants of the William Buckley-esque intellectual tradition.
Dr. Wax brings a remarkable set of credentials to the conversation.
- BS from Yale in molecular biophysics and biochemistry (summa cum laude)
- Marshall Scholar in Philosophy, Physiology, and Psychology at Oxford
- MD from Harvard
- JD from Columbia (editor of the Columbia Law Review)
And yet, the same credentials that shed light on her innate intellectual horsepower also suggest why her views are so profoundly distressing to many of us.
In short: the problem with Dr. Wax isn’t academic freedom, it’s privilege.
The “all cultures aren’t equal” argument is as old as humanity itself. And if we accept its basic assumptions it’s a powerful argument. How hard is it to look around the world and tick off the ways “less developed” societies are inferior to the developed West?
The problem lies within those unexamined assumptions (and make no mistake, the Buckley crowd never critiques its own assumptions – although to be fair, very few people do, regardless of their ideological underpinnings).
- advanced free-market economy
- First World, 21st-century
- single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites
- anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks
- anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants
- viable democracy
- solidarity and reciprocity
What does “productive” mean? Oh, never mind – “advanced” = “free market” and it’s all about “economy.” So can you generate money? That’s the fundamental standard of human success and worth. She doesn’t talk about art, or humanity, or generosity of spirit or empathy (until she gets to “reciprocity,” which is circularly couched within those self-same middle-class values.
“Viable democracy” is where the utter absence of self-reflection gets too thick to bear. Which part of gerrymandering, subservient corporate media, bribery dressed up as “lobbying,” active race-based disenfranchisement, profit-obsessed mainstream media, violent racially-inflected police abuses, legalized bribery, partisan refusal by elected officials to abide by the Constitutional oaths they swore, obscene income disparity and this list could go on and on adds up to any definition of “viable democracy” to be found in any dictionary on the planet?
Let’s remind ourselves of Professor Wax’s educational background: Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Oxford. Three Ivies and Oxford. These aren’t just playgrounds for the privileged. They’re the playgrounds for the privileged. The wealthy. The connected. The trans-generationally powerful. Skull & Bones. Old money. The “right” people. The elite.
As a rule, people ask very few penetrating questions about what has worked for them, so the fact Wax is comfortable pontificating from a pedestal isn’t surprising. Why can’t all those other people simply work like she has so they, too, can live in her shiny, unlittered world?
And she seems especially unwilling to query the role her culture played in establishing and maintaining the poverty and inequity and lack of opportunity keeping all those lesser folks down.
Privilege, thy name is Amy Wax.
Of course, it’s never simple. Firing Wax would be hellishly hard because the views she espouses do lie within a well-established intellectual tradition. Flawed and unspeakably colonialist, but established and intellectual for a certain uncritical definition of intellectual. Which is shared by wide swaths of the nation’s political and economic leadership, some of whom perhaps donate generously to various Ivy League institutions.
She’s a symptom of a corrosive cancer that’s been gnawing at the soul of America for centuries, to be sure, but Penn showing her the door won’t cure the disease. And it might even inflame the infection.
What’s needed here is a full-throated reply from those of us who do think critically about assumptions and ideologies and the sorts of social dysfunctions which arise from racial and economic bias so deeply ingrained that its adherents aren’t even aware of it.
This isn’t a battle you win by firing her. This is a value you win by utterly discrediting her.