But the battles of ideas go on, and the Wax and Alexander essay on the value of bourgeois norms continues to take meaningful incoming. Start with Professor Wax's colleague at the Penn law school, Jonathan Klick. "I Don’t Care if Amy Wax Is Politically Incorrect; I Do Care that She’s Empirically Incorrect."
The real world is a messy place. Broad claims that general cultural norms obviously are the key to the good life are bound to be problematic. That doesn’t mean that arguments shouldn’t be made; it doesn’t even mean that, perhaps, some cultures aren’t better than others as judged by a particular objective function. But it does mean these debates are far from settled, and claims like those made by Rod Dreher that Wax’s critics “lack the moral courage and the common sense to affirm what everyone knows” are patently silly.Yes, let's weigh the evidence. But let's not smear the messenger, which, unfortunately, is what much of the reaction to the Wax and Alexander essay does. Yes, in social science, it is difficult to establish causation, even when casual empiricism suggests there's a correlation. But smearing the messenger has long been part of the academic establishment's tool box.
I don’t think Wax is a racist, and I don’t care if she’s not politically correct. But I do believe arguments that only take note of (or, worse yet, merely assume) convenient empirical facts while ignoring inconvenient ones deserve to be criticized. This is true when you disagree with someone’s underlying normative views, but it’s even more important when you don’t.
Ultimately, all of us, including [Brookings's Isabel] Sawhill and Wax, are building on the insights of sociologist (and later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his famous report on the state of black families, which he wrote while working for the Labor department during the Johnson administration. What is less widely known is that Moynihan wrote a private memo in a format suitable for his boss (Willard Wirtz, the Secretary of Labor) to give to President Johnson, underlining the absolute urgency of re-tooling federal policy to promote and not undermine marriage and family stability among African Americans. Moynihan argued that the decline of marriage was the “master problem,” the “principal cause” of the problems facing Black America, and he predicted that African Americans would not be able to attain equality if this problem was not addressed.I could add, on the more farcical side, vice president Dan Quayle and Candace Bergen's Murphy Brown: there too, logic and content came well after the mockery. But let's be precise about "all cultures are equal" serving as a distraction, whilst "packages of norms and practices that are likely to lead to success" is a call for a lot of hard work.
Unfortunately, Moynihan was roundly condemned as a racist for his analysis of the black family and the importance of marriage, and his advice was largely ignored. He was socially shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard. It wasn’t until several decades later that sociologists began saying (quietly) that he was probably right. Now Wax is being pilloried for broaching the same topic — for saying that marriage and culture really really matter, and that some norms, some cultures, are more conducive to success in modern America than others. Does anyone seriously believe that all cultures are equal–either morally (including the culture of Nazi Germany) or as packages of norms and practices that are likely to lead to success?
Glen "Insta Pundit" Reynolds jumps in, in his weekly USA Today column, noting that higher education's deconstruction of things bourgeois or hegemonic is more of a "focus on my arguments, not on what I do" activity.
And within the academy itself, the bourgeois virtues are seldom praised but often practiced. Nobody is better at deferring gratification than a graduate student or junior professor. In their own lives, most professors are quite temperate and hardworking. Their children are almost always encouraged to work hard, go to good schools, and get good jobs, and academic parents are inclined to brag when they do. (The original “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua, is herself a law professor.)Yes, the culture of higher education is one in which young people socialized to bourgeois norms will thrive, and the oppressive nature of that socialization is material for another post on another day.
These same behaviors, as spelled out by professors Wax and Alexander, are even more valuable to people whose social and economic status is poor. Upper middle class families have a lot of social and financial capital to draw on when a kid flunks out, loses a job, gets pregnant outside of marriage, or gets in trouble with the law. For people with less, these experiences are likely to be disastrous and life-ruining. To suggest otherwise is to engage in a monstrous and damaging deception.
But be careful about how you point out that the absence of bourgeois values wrecks life.
You can crack wise about mullets and moonshine and incest and snake-handling and stock-car racing and otherwise dip into the Sinclair Lewis - Garrison Keillor - Hillary Clinton phrasebook and pass as informed.
But say anything about lottery outlets and thirty year old grandmothers and tribal conflicts disguised as drug wars and rampant delinquency in the big cities, and at a minimum, you're likely to be denounced for "blaming the victim" and you might find yourself up on charges for "dog whistling" that becomes some imagined -ism or -phobia and grounds for sanctions up to banishment.
In a Vox interview (and by all means read and understand it in full) economist Glenn Loury calls for, well, sound social science.
We are conditioned by our environment and our genetic inheritance and our social context, and yet there's no possibility for morality unless we presume the possibility of agency. ... We have to assume that people, despite being socially conditioned, nevertheless exercise free will, albeit within constraints.Indeed so. Although hurling an insult like "blaming the victim" works as a virtue signal, or perhaps a privilege check, before that became a term of art, its invocation carries a subtext, which is the victim has no agency.
Then it becomes a practical question whether single-parent families, in which 70 percent of African-American children live, is rightly thought of as a social phenomenon over which we have control if it's thought of as the inheritance of Jim Crow slavery and American racism. Are the structures of African-American social life the derivative consequences of the political and economic history of African Americans, or are they subject to being reshaped and reformed and remade in an image that we will for ourselves and our progeny? The latter is the stance I'm taking. The alternative is a bleak moral landscape for me.
That cannot end well. Enter James Kunstler, on a race among the ruins.
That super-refined scholarly nation-within–a-nation is also mostly walled off from the more unappetizing realities of what an American-style First-World 21st Century Environment actually is. In fact, that very “environment” is mostly characterized by a breakdown of just about everything that might promote the formerly eternal verities. It has been accompanied move-for-move by a breakdown in economic relations that leaves a big chunk of the national demographic peon-ized, bereft of work that is either meaningful or pays enough to support a family, and places them at the mercy (actually, there is no mercy) of gigantic, dishonest, avaricious companies and public institutions driven by stupid crypto-religious ideologies.Mr Kunstler is reversing cause and effect. It was the virtues that supported the broadly shared prosperity, or so Professors Wax and Alexander appear to be suggesting, and it is their absence (with the connivance, as Mr Kunstler correctly notes, of the administrative hierophants and their appropriation of things third world, plus the entertainment-media complex going all in on the transgressions) that is leaving a lot of the national demographic peon-ized.
Oddly, the personal economic calamity represented by that trend is mirrored on the Ivy League campuses where a tiny elite cadre of tenured professors enjoys immunity from both impoverishment and real critical thinking, while an ever-expanding corps of serf-like adjunct teachers does all the heavy-lifting in the classrooms and struggles to pay the light bill — and a new breed of diversity deans and other administrative hierophants feeds gluttonously at the trough of the college loan racket.
The main criticism of Amy Wax’s prescription for cultural improvement is that it’s simply not possible to go back to the economically stable world of the 1950s that supported the roster of human virtues she wants to bring back online. It may be so, alas, but that still doesn’t obviate the basic value of behavioral norms. And deep down in their dark Gnostic hearts, the Social Justice Commissariat must agree. Otherwise, why would they be promoting so strenuously the exemplary earnest behavior of the DACA “Dreamers.”
And restoring the virtues that support the prosperity might be the next saecular task. David Brooks may be indulging in click-bait suggesting that Donald Trump and Abbie Hoffman have a few things in common, but dig into his thesis.
All that matters is that Trump is shredding the culture and ending the dominance of the meritocratic establishment."Multiculturalism" is a phony theology, and the fruits of the meritocratic establishment, or more precisely, the failures of their Grand Schemes are all around us. That might cause Mr Brooks to wet his well-creased trousers, but so be it.
He continually goes after racial matters in part because he’s a bigot but also in part because multiculturalism is the theology of the educated class and it’s the leverage point he can most effectively use to isolate the educated class from everyone else.
He is so destructive because his enemies help him. He ramps up the aggression. His enemies ramp it up more, to preserve their own dignity. But the ensuing cultural violence only serves Trump’s long-term destructive purpose. America is seeing nearly as much cultural conflict as it did in the late 1960s. It’s quite possible that after four years of this Trump will have effectively destroyed the prevailing culture. The reign of the meritocratic establishment will be just as over as the reign of the Protestant establishment now is.
Of course Donald Trump is a buffoon. Buffoonery is his most effective weapon. Because of him, a new culture will have to be built, new values promulgated and a new social fabric will have to be woven, one that brings the different planets back into relation with one another.Emergence is messy. Bet on the evolutionary stability.
That’s the work of the next 20 years.