In 1915, the University of Pennsylvania fired economist Scott Nearing. He had supported a law barring child labor, which got him on the bad side of several businessmen on the university’s Board of Trustees. But his biggest transgression was writing an open letter to evangelist Billy Sunday, urging Sunday to rail against “the railroad interests” and other corporate wrongdoers rather than against drunkenness, blasphemy and idolatry.
Penn waited to dismiss Nearing until the summer, when faculty and students had gone on vacation. But they spoke up on his behalf, anyway, especially after Nearing’s case made national news. Students noted that Nearing was a skilled and dedicated teacher. And faculty said that if anybody could be fired for what they said, then nobody was safe.
“I don’t give a damn for Nearing,” declared Lightner Witmer, head of Penn’s psychology department. “He and I disagree on almost everything, but this is my fight. If they can do that to him, they can do it to any of us.”
True enough. And that brings us to Penn law professor Amy Wax, who has recently become the target of an angry, no-holds-barred shaming campaign on my campus. (Full disclosure: although I work at the same institution as Wax and have exchanged emails with her, I have never met her.) Her sin was writing an op-ed that students and faculty members have condemned as racist, the most damaging charge you can level in 2017. It's our own version of blasphemy, rendering the accused into a pariah forever.
But it's also a conversation stopper. And that's very bad news for free discussion, and -- most of all -- for a free university. Just as Lightner Witmer disagreed with Scott Nearing, I think a lot of what Amy Wax says is wrong. But, like Witmer, I also think it's my duty to defend her right to say it, and to plead for a more honest and fair debate about it.
The controversy began Aug. 9, when Wax and a colleague published a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer attributing poverty and other social problems to a breakdown of “bourgeois culture” in the United States since the 1950s. Before then, they wrote, Americans abided by a shared set of social norms around two-parent families, delayed gratification and hard work. But those values have allegedly come apart in the modern era, spawning a catastrophe of idleness, illegitimacy and addiction.
As an historian, I think a lot of these claims are incorrect. They exaggerate the degree of social cohesion in the alleged good old days, which were hardly the happy picnic that Wax imagines. And, most of all, her column understates the many ways that her favored golden era was marred by America’s original sins: racism and sexism.
Wax’s op-ed nodded to the issue, acknowledging “racial discrimination” and “limited sex roles” before the 1960s. But her piece ignored how American middle-class prosperity actually rested on the systematic exclusion of large populations from it. To take the most obvious example, blacks were mostly barred from home-mortgage assistance programs that allowed millions of whites to own property.
Now, I’m sure that Wax has her own responses to these objections. But here’s what really worries me: many of her critics don’t want to hear them. And most of all, they don’t want the rest of us to discuss her claims, either.
With the start of classes, the internet began to buzz with tweets and posts blasting Wax as racist, homophobic and a threat to people of color. Several students have already asked me if I've heard about "the racist law professor." But almost nobody was asking what she actually wrote, or what she meant; those questions, apparently, had been asked and answered.
What's to discuss, really? Witness a recent statement signed by 54 Penn students and alumni, which called on Penn’s leaders to denounce Wax’s op-ed as “racist and white supremacist.” It also demanded a university investigation into Wax’s “advocacy for white supremacy.” The goal here isn't to foster an honest discussion of Wax’s argument; instead, it’s to foreclose that possibility.
A statement signed by 33 Penn law professors struck a more temperate chord, affirming Wax’s right to express her opinions. So did several other posts by concerned faculty, who carefully critiqued Wax's argument instead of simply demonizing her. But the statement by the law professors concluded by encouraging students to complain if they encounter “bias or stereotype” in their classrooms, which sounded more like an invitation to report Wax than to engage in real debate with her. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from an earlier version to clarify the authorship of the letter.)
And debate should be our shared goal, no matter where we stand. Even though she got her history wrong, Amy Wax’s column touched on some of the most important and contested questions in contemporary American politics and social science. Is poverty caused by structural or cultural factors? How do family patterns affect life outcomes? And what is the role of racism in limiting opportunities for people of color?
It’s not enough to assert that Wax should have a right to say what she thinks about these subjects (although of course, she should). Instead, we should want everyone to hear what she says, so that they can come to their own educated conclusions. And the more we vilify her as beyond the moral pale, the less likely that becomes.
To be sure, as the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., reminded us, some attitudes and opinions are simply so reprehensible that decent people must denounce them out of hand. If a colleague wrote a column praising neo-Nazis, I wouldn't be pleading for an honest discussion of it. I'd be storming the barricades with everyone else, demanding that she be purged from our intellectual and moral community.
But to connect what Amy Wax wrote with the hate on display in Charlottesville -- as some of her critics have done -- is reprehensible, too. It turns white supremacy into a rhetorical weapon, which you can turn against anyone or anything that angers, offends or repels you. And it creates a culture of fear, which is anathema to the free exchange of ideas. You can't make things right when everyone is looking over their shoulder, wondering if they said the wrong thing.
A century ago, Scott Nearing got fired for his comments about Billy Sunday. Amy Wax now stands accused of violating a different kind of religion, the faith of liberal academe. Its articles include a belief in racism and sexism as the central forces in American history, and the need for state intervention to challenge and counteract them. I share that liberal faith, as much as Wax's critics do, but I also believe that every single part of it should be subject to debate and discussion. Indeed, that is -- or used to be -- a central premise of liberalism itself.
And if you still think that Wax should be read out of our community, watch out! One day you might find yourself on the receiving end of a similar campaign, as Lightner Witmer warned in his defense of Scott Nearing. If it can happen to Amy Wax, it can happen to any of us. This isn’t just her fight. It’s yours.