March 16, 2023
In Diary Norman Finkelstein
LOCK HER OUT!
Amy Wax and Academic Freedom
by Norman G. Finkelstein
The New York Times recently ran a long story on Amy Wax, a law professor at University of Pennsylvania. Wax, who is a religious Jew, can lay claim to a brilliant academic pedigree. She is also an in-your-face racial supremacist and many have called for her to be sacked. It happens that I just published a book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom, that addresses many of the key questions posed by her case. The writer Glenn Greenwald recently asked my opinion in this matter. Herewith a slightly amended version of the reply I sent him.
Principles and parameters
I. Ideational speech versus mindless epithets. At the most general level, one can stake out two poles. On one end is speech possessing ideational content. However offensive the content might be, if it is susceptible to rational inquiry, it shouldn’t be censored. On the other end is speech that lacks ideational content: calling someone a kike, nigger, cunt. These epithets are verbal clubs, designed not to stimulate but, on the contrary, to preempt intellectual exchange. Pace the ACLU, I see no grounds for its toleration on a university campus. Before one crosses the university’s threshold, a tacit pact has been signed between the student and the institution: to pursue Veritas. It is not an obligation, however, to subject oneself to gratuitous humiliation—that is, speech the one and only purpose of which is to degrade. There’s also the consideration of what might be called “prudential pedagogy.” If an assigned text is rich in teachable content, then maybe a professor should forgo scrutinizing in class passages that will cause certain students huge discomfort. And then there are texts containing content that, try as one may, is simply unteachable in class (e.g., that colonial Americans were fascinated by the size of Black “progenitors”).
II. On campus versus off campus. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) makes out the distinction between what can be said in a professor’s “extramural hours”—i.e., outside university walls in their role as public citizens protected by the First Amendment—versus what can be said on campus and in the classroom wherein certain protocols of propriety apply. But as a practical matter, it often just doesn’t work. Is it possible for a professor to post on his personal blog that he fantasizes about the size of his female students’ breasts, and it not seep into his interactions with female students? (This sort of question came under acute scrutiny in the Bertrand Russell academic appointment at City College of New York due to Russell’s heterodox opinions on matters such as premarital sex and homosexuality. I do not believe that Russell’s reliance on the intramural-extramural distinction entirely held up.)
III. Civility. What speech obligations do professors have to each other and to students—insofar as a university is a community, often quite intimate, in which, for it to function, there has to be some degree of mutual respect or at least tolerance? An adjacent concern, which I do not discuss in my book, but that clearly arises in the Wax case is the professional responsibility of professors—indeed, it’s arguably their supreme responsibility—to nurture the best in students, to enable them to discover the inner resources and capacities hitherto dormant inside them, and in particular to encourage those students whose worth has been devalued by ten thousand factors outside their control. To discourage students, to demean their mental worth, is a sin and I, for one, have not the least reservation in booting that professor out of academia forthwith. If I did not elaborate on this point in my book, it’s because I consider such conduct so utterly sick, so depraved, that I couldn’t even imagine it being subject to debate.
Amy Wax case
Having laid out these considerations, where does Amy Wax stand? I will base myself on what I read in the Times article and the bill of indictment drawn up by U of P Law School Dean Theodore W. Roger (from which I will be quoting).
I. Many of the statements held against Wax fall under the rubric of containing ideational content and thus cannot reasonably be censored. Those offended have one of two options: answer or ignore them. A non-exhaustive list of academically defensible statements by Wax would include:
Telling Black student Ayana Lewis L’12, who asked whether Wax agreed with panelist John Derbyshire’s statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that “you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.”
Telling Jaime Gallen L’12 that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action
Emailing Gregory Berry L’10, a Black student, that “[i]f blacks really and sincerely wanted to be equal, they would make a lot of changes in their own conduct and communities.”
Stating in class that people of color needed to stop acting entitled to remedies, to stop getting pregnant, to get better jobs, and to be more focused on reciprocity.
Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children.
Inviting on campus Jared Taylor, one of the world’s most prominent white supremacists, for a mandatory lecture in her Law School course.
Telling Reid Hopkins L’18, who was part of a larger group of students invited to her home, that “Hispanic people don’t seem to mind…liv[ing] somewhere where people are loud.”
Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that “women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,” women are “less intellectual than men” and there is “some evidence” for the proposition that “men and women differ in cognitive ability.”
Stating that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”
Stating that Blacks have “different average IQs” than non-Blacks, could “not be evenly distributed through all occupations,” and that such a phenomenon would not be “due to racism.”
Stating that “groups have different levels of ability, demonstrated ability, different competencies,” and that there are “clear individual and group differences in talent, ability, and drive” between races.
Stating that low-income students may cause “reverse contagion,” infecting more “capable and sophisticated” students with their “delinquency and rule-breaking.”
Writing without valid support that some cultures are “not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy,” including . . . . . “the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks,” and “the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”
Stating that “given the realities of different rates of crime, different average IQs, people have to accept without apology that Blacks are not going to be evenly distributed through all occupations.”
Stating that it is “overly optimistic” to think that “Blacks would be in the same position as whites if we had not been a racist society.”
Stating no law professor can honestly say that “Blacks are evenly distributed throughout the class, top, middle, and bottom.”
Telling a Black faculty colleague, Anita Allen, that it is “rational to be afraid of Black men in elevators.”
Stating that “There are not too many Black people in prison, there are too few.”
Stating … that no one should have to live in a dorm with a gay roommate.”
Stating that “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”
In deeming the above statements legitimate objects of intellectual inquiry, I operate on three, perhaps naïve, assumptions: (a) Wax isn’t just speaking off the top of her head but, if challenged, can adduce evidence (not necessarily dispositive, of course) to support her claims. (b) Wax has not penalized students in their final grades on the basis of their ascribed characteristics. (c) Wax would not object if a professor in another class made statements (for which evidence can also be mustered) that Jews engage disproportionately in shady business practices; that Jews figure disproportionately in sexual predator cases; that Jews figure disproportionately in the pornography industry; that orthodox Jewish men disproportionately visit prostitutes; that Jewish men are disproportionately (dis-)endowed with micro penises; that rampant pedophilia in the orthodox Jewish community has been protected and covered up; that orthodox Jews emit a foul body odor; that Jews think they’re better than everyone one else; that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States; that religious Jewish women, however sterling their academic pedigrees, preserve the entrenched mindset of shtetl yentas; that, however sterling their academic pedigrees, it is rational for a law school to discriminate against hiring Jewish yentas; that non-Jewish students shouldn’t be forced to dorm with Jews; that Hitler killed not too many Jews but too few,[*] and that Germany is now better off with fewer Jews.
II. Certain of the statements by Wax fall within the category of gratuitous hurt devoid of redeeming intellectual value and which, designedly or not, will stifle and stunt a student’s belief in themselves and the discovery of their latent capacities. I find these statements so reprehensible that, in my opinion, they deserve the same response that Frederick Douglass meted out to Mr. Covey.
Telling Black student Lauren O’Garro Moore L’12 that she had only become a double Ivy “because of affirmative action.”
Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was “finally, an American” adding, “it’s a good thing, trust me.”
Stating “some of them shouldn’t” even go to college in reference to Black students who attend Penn Law and its peer schools.
Stating that “if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.”
On balance, I would ban this hateful bitch from the classroom but allow her to do scholarly research and would even support funding it. Maybe she’ll discover the JY (Jewish yenta) gene.
[*] I consider this statement no more offensive and no less defensible than saying “too few” Black people are immured behind prison walls.