Salvo 04.25.2022 15 minutes

Don’t Say It: An Interview with Amy Wax

Gagged woman, close-up, blurred

American campuses have become the last place to find open debate about controversial matters.

Editors’ Note

Last December, Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, raised hackles on the Left when she appeared on Glenn Loury’s podcast to discuss the topic of American identity in an age of mass immigration from non-Western countries. Professor Wax’s comments prompted a round of denunciations and demands that she be suspended from her duties at the University of Pennsylvania. The following is a lightly-edited transcript of a conversation between Amy Wax and Alexander Riley from February of this year.


Alexander Riley: There is much going on in the current effort to cancel you at Penn Law. As is clear from the facts of the case here and in previous situations where you’ve faced pressure from your institution for perfectly defensible statements, important questions about tenure and academic freedom are at issue here. What does freedom of academic inquiry mean, and what does tenure protect, if a professor cannot present cases that might make someone somewhere unhappy? 

Amy Wax: Nobody wants to talk about what’s most interesting about this. I did a podcast recently with Gad Saad and we discussed some of this on a meta-level. We were talking about how academia operates. I think there is a growing divide between academia—where less and less real intellectual life takes place—and what’s happening extra-academically, in think tanks and in online sites such as podcasts and Substack. There are now all sorts of fora and places of contact in which there’s a real exchange of ideas and you can talk about things like what I was talking about with Glenn Loury on his podcast.

We have a very large number of Asians who are capable, whose families are strong and who are pretty traditional in their personal conduct, but whose values are totally non-Judeo-Christian, completely foreign to us. At what point do we become South Asia? At what point do we become India, which is a failed state, by the way. Nobody wants to ask, “Why do Asians vote Democratic?” People have emailed me to say “Well, why do Jews?” That’s a good question too!

The one place where people have tried to engage the substance of what I said, in good faith if not always successfully, is in some of the emails I’ve gotten. There is a lot of interesting traffic going on. They’ll agree with me or disagree with me or somewhere in between. I’ve gotten the usual hate mail, but some will say, “You’re right about their lack of creativity, the Japanese would never have come up with all the innovations that Europeans have if they were left to their own devices.” And others defend them and try to explain why they vote for Democrats. Some make the argument that if you’re an immigrant, you can’t be anti-immigrant. That’s just simple-minded. We’re talking about a different group of people, a different time, a different era, a different economy, a different ecosystem, a different educational system, a different attitude towards assimilation. It’s just apples and oranges.

You’re trying to intervene on a policy argument at a particular point in time. That doesn’t mean that you say, “Let’s throw everyone out of the country.” This is not a blanket statement that all immigrants are bad and they all have to go.

Alexander Riley: When I saw what you’d actually said with Glenn, it reminded me of an exchange the Japanese nationalist writer Yukio Mishima had somewhere on the question of Western influence in Japan. Someone asked him “Why do you hate the West so much?” And Mishima’s response was along the lines “I don’t hate the West! I just don’t want Japan to become the West.”

Amy Wax: What’s fascinating about the Japanese, who are unique in many ways, is they have been the only culture, perhaps with the exception of the Koreans, to create this hybrid of adopting Western strengths and maintaining their own distinctive culture. They have really done a very good job of it. The other interesting thing about the Japanese is that people give them a pass on this issue. If you ask “Do you think the Japanese should be forced to let people from the Middle East or Africa into their country until they make up 20 or 30 percent of the population, and if they don’t, are they bigots and racists?” the same people who are outraged about what I said don’t have anything to say.

People aren’t rational about this. They aren’t rational about, for example, the French desire to maintain their own distinct culture. When you talk to Jews about Israel, they get all confused. Other people are perfectly willing to call Jews supremacists and say they don’t think Jews have any right to a Jewish state. There’s a YouTube clip of a glib Israeli journalist interviewing Jared Taylor and Taylor asks him, “What about you? Are you willing to have open borders, let in every person from every culture, and if not, why not? Why do we have to play by that rule, but you don’t?” There’s not a very good answer to that.

It’s not as if people get into the weeds of these very hard questions. They’re difficult. One is confounded by what empirical evidence is most relevant to resolving some of these issues.  

I was at a conference in San Diego not long ago. It was organized by my friend Larry Alexander and the theme was “Borders: Open or Restricted?” It was hosted by the USD School of Law Institute on Law and Philosophy, and there were a lot of philosophers there. Philosophers are now going all woke and some are getting soft in the head, but by and large they’re better than most because their stock in trade is controversy and disagreement. I was one of the few real restrictionists there, so I was carrying a lot of water. One of the things I said had to do with the issue of why the West pulled ahead of everybody else. I have read a fair amount on the issue, and I readily concede that there was a period where we were kind of neck-and-neck with other cultures in terms of advancement and technological prowess. But then—Bingo! Europe just forged ahead. I don’t think we really appreciate the extent to which we pulled ahead. It goes back to medieval times with incremental developments and then once you get into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it’s just unbelievable.

So I asked others at the conference “Why did that happen?” I have never heard a satisfactory explanation. Colonialism is a non-starter. That’s not the reason why sub-Saharan Africa basically never developed written language. Europeans didn’t have anything to do with Africa until essentially the mid-nineteenth century. This whole materialist, geography argument made by Jared Diamond has a million holes in it.

Another recent effort at explanation argues that Europe advanced politically, financially, economically because they had these rival small city-states and that required them to engage in competition and innovation to beat each other out. But American Indian tribes were small political units that were constantly competing with each other, and they didn’t innovate. They were flatlined for thousands of years, and they basically pillaged each other in what Steven Pinker would call an eternal zero-sum game. I gave them a disquisition on how every explanation I’ve heard collapses of its own weight.

So what is the explanation? Well, you need to be able to ask the question honestly and explore all the possible answers. That’s becoming impossible in universities. It really helps to think of this as a culture war with an emphasis on the word “war.” Because then you are a combatant, and then the other side’s tactics against you, the destructive and unscrupulous tactics start to make sense. That’s how people behave in a war. They try to destroy the enemy. They’re trying to win.

I say this to my students, who are often sympathetic to my arguments, but they also have their lives, and as students, they’re totally unprotected. I tell them “You don’t have to be a combatant, you don’t have to be roadkill, you’re trying to make your way in the professional world, but you should remember what Trotsky said: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’” So young people may be drawn into this, and then they have to decide what side they’re on. If you can stay out of trouble, good for you, but you may not be able to stay out of trouble. And staying out of trouble may mean that you’re not participating in trying to keep awful things from happening in the future.

If they eviscerate tenure—and some of the things they want to do to me would punch a hole in tenure—that is enormous. It will go right to the heart of it. To say that professors who upset students, who supposedly make some students feel “undesired” and “unwelcome,” must be punished, that just strikes at the very heart of what academic freedom is. There is no way around it. It will gut tenure. Of course, the purpose is to purge the academy.

Alexander Riley: There’s been a cultural sea change in how we think about the professor as a figure. It used to be that the task of the professor was understood as presenting facts, leading an inquiry into the truth, and it might collide with your preconceptions or hurt your feelings to do this, but that’s what we’re here to do. Now there’s a new model of professor as therapist, whose job is to make sure that you don’t feel harmed in any way, to hold your hand.

Amy Wax: This performance of “I’m hurt, I’m offended, I’m traumatized,” has been created by the Left as a cynical connivance, as a way to silence people. There’s no way to refute it because it’s completely self-confirming. It’s an incredibly clever connivance. It’s totally made up, of course. When we were in college, it would never have occurred to us to say these things. The idea of being offended is odd. “Frustrated,” “puzzled,” “convinced that must be wrong,” these were the ideas that would go through my head as a student if the professor said something with which I disagreed. But “offended”?

I once made the mistake of taking a course on the great novels. The professor had this hobby horse. He was a “Push-pin is as good as poetry” guy. There’s no such thing as high art; the distinction between George Eliot and television is illusory. I just sat there listening, thinking “That can’t be right.” I’m 19 years old, thinking “I have to find a way to refute that!” It turned out to be very hard. I learned a lot just by trying to make good on that conviction. But for me to say “This is offensive! This is traumatic! This strikes at the heart of my soul!” would have been rightly considered utterly ridiculous. But this is what we’re dealing with today.

Are they actually convinced that they’re hurt and traumatized? Or has a fence been built around their brain such that they’re unable even to imagine a position that is not politically correct? That is very constricting. I see it in the way they write their papers. I think that there has been a significant decline in quality over 20 years partly due to these constraints.

One way to think about what’s happening is feminization. Female priorities of harmony, of acceptance, of nurturance now hold sway over the so-called traditionally male priorities of truth-seeking, rationality, and evidence-based argumentation which was conducted with sportsmanlike civility, almost as in a game. You would argue, mix it up, and then you’d go have a beer. There was this whole social context in academia that was considered masculine in which this this discourse would take place. Women fit very uneasily into that.

Kenneth Minogue wrote an essay about this that’s very insightful. He says women just never quite fit into these male hierarchies, these male sub-societies. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some women who fit into them. They’re always have been women who accept all those rules, feel comfortable with them, believe in them, but by and large most women don’t. You can see this with surveys. Ask women, even women within universities, “Do you think it’s more important that vulnerable people feel comfortable and safe, accepted, nurtured, included, or do you think it’s more important that people have free speech, untrammeled debate for the purpose of truth-seeking?” Twice as many women will say that the first priority trumps the second. With men, it’s absolutely the reverse. You can see in universities, especially in the parts of the universities that have become dominated demographically by female faculty, the shift in the priorities. Now it’s even happening in the sciences, which is really disturbing.

You would think that men would push back hard against this. That is one of the things I don’t understand. Why aren’t men pushing back and saying “I’m sorry, female priorities have their place, but they don’t belong in academia, and we have spent hundreds and hundreds of years building this culture and we are not going to allow you to come in and turn it all upside down”?

Alexander Riley: Many men have gone along with that program. There are dozens of male faculty members at my university that talk the feminist language on that shift. They go on and on about how important it is for universities to work according to this new “coddle” model.

Amy Wax: And they do it extremely well and very aggressively, in a male fashion! Very aggressive, testosterone-laced arguments about the need for nurturance.

Alexander Riley: Right! Amy, it’s been great to talk with you. Thanks so much for making time to talk with me today.

Amy Wax: Great to see you!

Suggested reading from the editors

to the newsletter