Last week I strove manfully not to be too hard on Amy Wax’s recent WSJ op-ed, in which she claimed to have been victimized for doing something so anodyne as standing up for “bourgeois values.” In particular, Wax was outraged by an open letter, signed by 33 of her Penn Law School colleagues, condemning an op-ed she co-authored last August with Larry Alexander. I gave Wax credit for at least gesturing at the fact — a fact that somewhat awkwardly undermined the rest of her article — that two of the letter’s signers, including its original organizer, had published searching critiques of her original op-ed.
To wit, Wax’s WSJ piece contained this sentence:
Two signers of the open letter, Jonathan Klick and Jonah Gelbach, responded to Dr. Haidt’s post by writing pieces for Heterodox Academy that challenged the substance of the op-ed, with the latter adding a defense of the open letter’s condemnation of my views.
This is an awkward admission, given that the rest of the op-ed is a standard issue right-wing diatribe about how in today’s PC academic climate simple truths such as those she is putting forward are met with derision and name-calling, rather than reasoned debate. (The op-ed is titled “What Can’t Be Debated on Campus.” I realize op-ed authors generally don’t pick their titles, but this one is a fair reflection of the piece’s central claim).
Well it turns out this stylistic and substantive awkwardness has a very interesting source. Jonah Gelbach:
In the Evidence class I’m teaching, we’ve just finished discussing “impeachment” — how to challenge a witness’s credibility. Sometimes a trial lawyer may ask a witness about past conduct, because reasonable jurors may doubt a witness’s truthfulness today if they determine the witness has behaved deceitfully in the past.
That came to mind Tuesday when The Daily Pennsylvanian asked me to write a guest column about Professor Amy Wax’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Back in August, Professor Wax published a co-authored op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer and soon after did an interview with the DP. I assume most people around Penn are familiar with the controversy that ensued, including the open letter published in response by 33 of Professor Wax’s colleagues, which I organized.
Professor Wax’s WSJ op-ed characterizes conversations with several colleagues — and the Dean, who she claims caved to “pressure” to “banish” her by asking her “to take a leave of absence.” A news article in the DP quotes the law school’s spokesperson stating the Dean discussed Professor Wax’s regular sabbatical leave, which is one form of leave of absence under Penn’s policies.
First, in the initial version of her WSJ op-ed, Professor Wax neglected to tell readers about two detailed substantive rebuttals of her Philadelphia Inquirer claims — each published by an open letter signer. Here’s Professor Jon Klick’s, at the Heterodox Academy website. And here’s mine, at the same place.
Professor Wax’s omission was a serious one. It induced the WSJ to tweet the falsehood that Professor Wax’s “colleagues were eager to banish her but not to discuss the issues.”Only after I pointed out the falseness of this promotional tweet did the WSJ update the online version of her op-ed, inserting links to the critiques Professor Wax failed to acknowledge.
Second, Professor Wax has not responded in substance to either Professor Klick’s critique or mine. That’s inconsistent with her claim that she believes in reasoned debate.
Note that Gelbach is a colleague of Wax’s, and he took the time to generate a 15,000-word critique of her claims. His reward for these efforts to promote intellectual engagement was to be more or less libeled in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, where, until he forced the paper to correct her account, Wax was claiming that none of the 33 Penn law professors who signed the open letter condemning her op-ed were willing to do anything but hurl typical PC SJW insults at an innocent defender of traditional values.
As Gelbach says, this level of — to put it as delicately as possible — disingenuousness ought to cast grave doubt on Wax’s claims that she’s suffered some sort of persecution from Penn’s administration because she dared to defy PC orthodoxy.
Summing up, the Wax kerfuffle is almost a platonic ideal of specious right wing complaints about how conservatives are supposedly discriminated against in the contemporary university.
Step one is to compose (for instance) a paean to how great America was in the 1950s, and how we ought to make America great again. Be sure to insert a few other-than-that-how-was-the-play-Mrs.-Lincoln caveats about how it wasn’t so great for women, non-whites, non-Christians, etc., thus demonstrating the subtlety and fair-mindedness of your analysis.
Step two is to make facially preposterous causal claims without the benefit of any evidence, such as the homicide rate increased by 133% between 1963 and 1980 in large part because college professors and other thought leaders didn’t do enough to promote genteel diction, respect for authority, not murdering people etc. (If you think I’m parodying Wax’s views, read her original editorial).
Step three is to be as shocked as Capt. Renault discovering there is gambling in Casablanca when people get upset by evidence-free crypto-encomia to the current triumph of reactionary politics in the United States. This will allow you to pose as a victim of censorious academic orthodoxy, thus providing yet more high-profile and potentially profitable opportunities for incinerating various academic strawmen, while indulging in the rhetorical pleasures of defending “free speech.”