An Open Letter to Professors Amy Waxer and Larry Alexander: Don’t Misrepresent Facts, Assert Controversial Positions, and Act Surprised When You Receive Aggressive Responses

By: Robert Bryson

Don’t Misrepresent Facts to Assert Controversial Positions

On August 9, 2017, Professors Amy Waxer of the University of the Pennsylvania, School of Law, and Larry Alexander, of the University of San Diego, School of Law (my alma mater), published a controversial article in the Philadelphia Inquirer “Paying the Price for Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture,” in which they essentially argued the United States’ relative[1] decline was due to a breakdown in “bourgeois culture.” The authors describe “bourgeois culture” as a shared “script” among all Americans. That essential culture is as follows:

  • Get married before having children and stay married;
  • Get an education;
  • Work hard;
  • Be neighborly;
  • Be respectful of authority; and
  • Avoid crime and substance abuse.

This article isn’t the appropriate forum to refute each and every one of these points, these positions could be discussed across dozens of academic studies at least two books. But, to exemplify the laughable simplicity these professors apply to their reasoning, here are a few issues the professors glossed over to anoint the homogenized culture of the past as the savior to America’s current woes:

  • Domestic violence in 1950 was referred as “therapy time” by doctors and scientists. Is the divorce rate because women hate being married and prefer to raise children alone? Or is it indicative of women asserting their right to be paired with a partner who loves and respects them?
  • In 2014, 88% of Americans attained a GED or high school diploma and 32% attained a bachelor’s degree. Conversely in 1950, only 50% of students finished high school or received a GED. Education might have been an aspiration, but it was out of reach for the majority.
  • Labor-force participation is actually up from 1950. Luckily, the authors technically covered themselves by clarifying “male” participation – rather than overall participation. However, the fact that the authors narrowed participation to males only, indicates that they knew their assertion was misleading. The decline in male participation could be attributed to a number of facts, including, men who choose to raise children and an aging population.
  • The authors don’t clarify by what they mean by “work hard” but we can take a few guesses. For example, we can measure hours worked per week in which case there has been a slight decline for male workers from 1950 to 2000. However, over the same period, there was a dramatic increase in hours worked by female workers. On another vein, 34% of the labor force is composed of “gig” economy workers or people who choose[2] to work more.
  • Finally, homicides are at historic lows.

You get the point. The authors asserted a position that, to put it mildly, is unsupported by the weight of history and scientific evidence. The authors overlook broad the controversial aspects of history – choosing to focus on 1950 while overlooking McCarthyism and its implicit anti-Semitic fervor. In fact, many of the values the authors cite are traceable to 1930 but that isn’t a convenient example for obvious reasons.

The authors pine for an America that never existed. In 1950 minorities were institutionally denied equal rights to purchase homes, apply for school, and even to join the military[3]. In 1950, women were sexually harassed and abused, excluded from work, and all the while were (and are) expected to smile. There never was a time when America was great in the sense the authors describe. Their article misstates the experience of Americans who don’t fit within their definition of “real” America – namely – those who are white, male, and middle-class while glossing ignoring the experiences of everyone else.  There are moments we can look back on to admire aspects of former society, but we should never forget our complex history.

America has always and will always have its share of problems. It isn’t a utopia, nor should we expect it to be. There always was and always will be something we can work on, something to achieve, to explore, to build, and to discover. In pining for the good ole’ days, the authors fundamentally misunderstand the continuing mission of the United States – to transform and transcend the dreams of its forebears.

Don’t Act Surprised When Your Controversial Positions Yield Controversial Opinions

Professors Amy Waxer and Larry Alexander’s article sparked a predictable fury of responses, including from their colleagues.  Professor Waxer took to the Wall Street Journal penning “What Can’t Be Debated on Campus,” to respond to the criticism. As Professor Waxer makes abundantly clear in the title, her argument will focus on the alleged chilling of free speech on American campuses.

As described above, Professors Waxer and Alexander posited several controversial positions, they omitted crucial facts that would have given context to their claim, and baldly asserted the superiority of European white culture. Predictably, these arguments were … poorly received. But, before we turn to responding to their positions, some context is required.

The first article was published August 17, 2017. One week prior to publication, white supremacists held the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia wherein protestors were supposedly marching to protect Confederate statutes but ended up chanting “blood and soil” while carrying torches[4]. “Blood and soil” or “Blut und Boden” is a Nazi phrase which stresses ethnic identity as being based on blood descent and territory. On the second day, a Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors injuring 19 and killing Heather D. Heyer.

Soon after a large Nazi rally was held on American soil, soon after a Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors – Professors Waxer and Alexander published their piece celebrating America’s 1950s as the best of times … but not the worst of times.

About six months after publishing the first article, Professor Waxer published the Wall Street Journal article to claim the moral high-ground as an academic, repressed by a society unwilling to entertain debate.  So, let’s begin addressing Professor Waxer’s assertions of why others’ communicating their disagreement with her MAGA-inspired ideology is evidence that people are unwilling to discuss ideas.

“Don’t Call Me Mean Names!”

Professor Waxer’s first gripe with a substantial portion of the criticism she received is that she expected her academic colleagues to refrain from engaging in “unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification, and mindless labeling.” She was mostly surprised that her arguments were rejected out of hand without addressing her underlying, very-deeply-buried, points. Professor Waxer published her article in the midst of an emotional, national conversation about white nationalism wherein the country was torn and scared. And into that inferno of dissonance, she threw a Molotov cocktail.

Professor Waxer does make some good points. I too think the country should encourage: (1) education and apprenticeships, (2) marriage and family planning (3) work (4) civic service and (5) provide drug treatment. However, she takes these positions and wraps them into a warped view of history, publishes them during a controversial moment for the country, and is surprised when she is criticized.

Professor Waxer’s article espoused a euro-centric (i.e. “white”) ideology that is routinely denounced by both Democrats and Republicans. Its most famous American supporter, the Ku Klux Klan, has risen and fallen no less than three times. Rather than engage in a nuanced discussion of the role of culture, race, education, et. al., and its impact on contemporary American society, Professor Waxer paints in broad brushstrokes a version of history that is controversial and praised an ideology that is offensive. She did all this and is surprised that her positions sparked a torrent of aggressive and angry denunciations.

Professor Waxer cannot spit hate from her academic pulpit and expect the First Amendment to shield her from name-calling and vilification. Professor Waxer had the ability to write a nuanced article, she chose not to. No one owed Professor Waxer a reasoned debate, and no one needed to refrain from insults. Professor Waxer invited the criticism, the same way anyone does who tattoos a swastika on their forehead. You can do it, of course, freedom of speech allows you. But we can also exclude and denounce you; common decency and freedom of speech demands it.

Controversial Positions … Controversial Responses

Professor Waxer cannot credibly claim that she accurately represented the context of her arguments – she didn’t. If she had, okay she probably would have been criticized the same, but she would have had more support – including mine. Instead, she takes a controversial position which sparked controversial responses.

In her response, she expressed surprise that her critics drew comparisons to Nazism and took the bold stance of “I don’t endorse Nazism.” She also argued drawing that inference was unfair because it leaves her with little room to respond.[5] However, given the moment she chose to publish this piece, I can’t believe she is surprised people drew the inferences. I read this piece months after it was published, and I saw the clear parallels between Nazism and white nationalism.

If anyone composed a movie, wrote a book, or published an article that advocated the (1) removal of all minorities (2) the repeal of the 19th Amendment and (3) declared the superiority of white culture – I took would expect the country and the world to condemn it and the author.

Should we strive to focus on the arguments and leave out the ad hominem attacks? Of course, but we are also emotional beings. Professor Waxer published a controversial article which many interpreted to be an endorsement of white nationalism, the same white nationalism that plowed a car into protestors one-week earlier.

It is disingenuous for Professor Waxer to cry foul for personal attacks when you consider the context in which she chose to publish her article. I do not agree with calling for her resignation, but I understand the people who do. In her response, she does not address the context of her article or even tries to understand her critics. Instead, she turtles-up and complains that she isn’t being treated fairly. Oddly, fairness is not something she was concerned with when praising 1950s culture.  In six months, Professor Waxer had time to process her article and its reaction.  With her Wall Street Journal article, she had a moment to express sympathy with her critics, acknowledge the shortcomings in her article, and rise above the din.  Instead, she attempted to martyrize herself for free speech rights while denouncing the free speech of others. 

[1] I say “relative” because the authors identify (1) more children born out of wedlock (2) more single moms (3) lower academic achievement compared to other countries (4) increased crime in urban areas (5) increased opioid abuse overall and (6) reduced working-age male labor force participation as examples of the decline of American culture. However, notably, many of these factors are comparisons between the United States and other countries. It also does not account for the overall improvement.

[2] Or are forced, depending on your perspective.

[3] President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the military but it would take many years for the military to open up officer positions to all servicemembers. See Directive 5120.36.

[4] They were Tiki Torches and while objectively hilarious and hypocritical it does not take away from the clear parallels the marchers were drawing.

[5] I would agree, if you are accused of defending Nazi positions – it is hard to come back from that. But, a simple solution exists, don’t endorse a white-centric ideology without providing nuance and context.

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