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Waxing Obnoxious

The law professor’s bigotry is odious, but punishing her isn’t worth the cost.
March 14, 2023
Waxing Obnoxious
Fog Bell at Angel Island Immigration Station in California, better known as "Ellis Island of the West." Between 1910 and 1940, nearly 175,000 Chinese immigrants passed through the immigration station. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

University of Pennsylvania Professor Amy Wax has no patience for victimhood complaints. Asked whether she considers mid–twentieth 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. Bourgeois cultural values, she urged, like hard work, marriage, avoiding idleness, being neighborly, civic-mindedness, and charity are important to a well-functioning society. 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:

The conviction that not all cultures are equal is the heart of their worldview. They obviously believe that Alabama’s culture, circa 1952, was inferior to that of Philadelphia in 2017. If pushed, they might even concede that Afghanistan’s cultural practices vis-a-vis women and minorities are inferior . . . to Belgium’s.

I’m with Wax on the importance of culture. There is a great deal I would change about ours if I could wave a magic wand—starting with restoring a sense of duty and obligation among parents. I authored a chapter in the book How to Educate an American urging that we teach high school students the “success sequence,” i.e. finishing high school, getting a job, and waiting until age 21 to marry and have children (in that order). Copious data suggests that a large majority of people who follow this life script live comfortable middle-class lives (or better).

But I’m getting the impression that Wax is not so much interested in persuasion as in pugnacity. She loves to elicit outrage by saying things like “women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men.” There is polling to support that. Of course, women are also more law-abiding, more responsible, and more reliable employees than men. But she likes to poke the bear, and offering observations about women’s virtues wouldn’t provoke outrage.

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 it was a “total sham” and a “hideous mess.” This is the big difference, she declared, between “the West and the rest.”

There was no attempt to get to the bottom of what really happened, no rigor, no scrupulosity, no care for the actual event. It was performance art, useless, completely useless . . . 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 supposedly so 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; and the third world, although mixed, contains a lot of non-white people. 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.

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.

Besides, she noted, they tend to vote Democratic, so we should admit fewer of them. As for south Asians, she worries that they will change the culture. She demands, “Does the spirit of liberty beat in their breast?”

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

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].