Last month, two law professors named Amy Wax and Larry Alexander published a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer praising ‘bourgeois’ values. They argued that many of the social problems afflicting the American working class, such as the opioid epidemic, are partly due to the decline of these values and that reviving them might go some way to help. They summarised them as follows: ‘Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighbourly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.’
That is a fairly uncontroversial set of precepts and it’s hard to deny that those who follow them are more likely to lead happy, productive lives. The authors pointed out that most successful Americans, including those academics, writers, artists, actors and journalists who preach the gospel of personal liberation, tend to live by these values themselves. They accused the chattering classes of hypocrisy: they espouse an anti–bourgeois, hedonistic philosophy in public, while practising fidelity, abstinence, hard work etc, in private. It’s do as I say, not as I do, which is odd because the liberal intelligentsia claim to care about the least well-off. If they want to help them, why not recommend the values that serve them and their middle-class friends so well?
Wax and Alexander were careful not to link these values with any religious or ethnic group. They condemned the rap culture of inner-city blacks, the anti-assimilationist attitude of some Hispanics and the bad habits of some working-class whites, particularly having children out of wedlock. Their point was that all Americans had suffered from rejecting bourgeois values, just as all had gained from embracing them in the past. They praised ‘the old precepts’ as the glue that bound the American people together, and linked the emergence of identity politics and cultural atomisation to their decline.
Much of this is also true of Britain, and similar pieces have appeared in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail — I’ve written some of them myself. But such articles don’t cause much of a stir here, whereas in America this piece has ignited a firestorm. At the Pennsylvania Law School, 33 of Amy Wax’s academic colleagues wrote an open letter to ‘categorically reject her claims’. The Law School’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild condemned her views as ‘an explicit and implicit endorsement of white supremacy’ and said she shouldn’t be allowed to teach a mandatory first-year course since it would mean ‘students of colour and members of the LGBTQIA community’ being ‘exposed to bigotry’. And 18 law professors from other Pennsylvania universities accused her of ‘moral toxicity’ and ‘intellectual bankruptcy’.
It seems extraordinary that there is so little tolerance of a pretty standard conservative argument in Pennsylvania’s universities. But, of course, this liberal McCarthyism isn’t confined to just one state. The political scientist Charles Murray, who expressed similar views in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, had to have a police escort to speak at Harvard last week. The evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein is in the process of suing Evergreen State College in Washington for failing to protect him from left-wing activists when he refused to leave the campus at the behest of black students who were expelling the university’s white population to make a political point.
Perhaps the most absurd example is a decision by the University of California, Berkeley, to offer students ‘counselling’ to help them recover from a forthcoming talk by the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. ‘We are deeply concerned about the impact some speakers may have on individuals’ sense of safety and belonging,’ it said.
Luckily, things haven’t reached this point here, but we shouldn’t be complacent. Last week, Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson got into trouble when she said she didn’t take seriously those students who complain about dons with anti-homosexual views. If free speech is to survive on our campuses, we need to do everything we can to defend it.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.