Claims About Cultural Superiority (including guest post by Mollie Gerver)


[note: this is introductory material; Dr. Gerver’s post begins below the line.]

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script—which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach—cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

One lesson here is in effective rhetoric.

Look at the first two sentences of that paragraph. Start with a claim that in a literal or straightforward way is both undeniably true and something readers will interpret in a flattering way: “All cultures are not equal.” Who would disagree? Who would want to? Then take your actual thesis and wedge it into that undeniable claim, like a pill you get your dog to swallow by pushing it into a piece of cheese: “Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” Distract your readers from your slide from platitude to oddly specific causal thesis about something very complicated (culture) by asking them to take sides in an artificial and simplistic binary conflict between two factions depicted in emotional and moral terms as evil (“antisocial,” anti-this, anti-that, etc.) and good (“viable democracy,” “reciprocity,” etc.). Finally, accuse your potential critics of a moral failing (say, hypocrisy), so we don’t even have to hear them out.

The second lesson is: if you are an academic who is planning on writing some evidence-free, bias confirming, post hoc ergo propter hoc-ing editorial in a public venue, expect to be called out for it by your colleagues, both on your substantive claims (see the guest post, below) and also for the general impression of causing institutional and disciplinary embarrassment.

The paragraph quoted at the top of the page is from an op-ed, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture,”  by law professor Amy Wax (University of Pennsylvania) and philosophy and law professor Larry Alexander (University of San Diego). It has been circulating widely since its publication in The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month.

What follows is a guest post* responding to Wax and Alexander by Mollie Gerver, assistant professor in international politics at Newcastle University.


Romare Bearden, “The Dove”

A Closer Look At Bourgeois Culture: a Response to Amy Wax and Larry Alexander
by Mollie Gerver

Law professor Amy Wax and philosopher Larry Alexander have co-authored a widely circulated op-ed. In it they argue that the loss of bourgeois culture prevalent in the 1950s has lead to a general decline in society and “impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups”. The op-ed has already been roundly criticizedbut it is worth taking a closer look at their claims to see how the piece goes wrong

  1. ‘Bourgeois culture…laid out the script we were all supposed to follow… Be neighbourly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public… Be respectful of authority… These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.’

These cultural precepts did not exactly reign from the late 1940s to mid-1960s. Throughout Jim Crow South, whites were far from neighbourly, civic-minded and charitable to their segregated black neighbours, not only using ‘course language in public’ against blacks failing to follow Jim Crow, but threatening to murder them as well. Nor was it just segregation and violence that were prevalent. As Isabel Wilkerson outlines in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, white landowners required that black sharecroppers produce a specified profit in order to end their tenancy agreements, and called the police if sharecroppers left the farm before such profits were reached. To make matters worse, white landowners often lied about the profits black families produced. As a result, nearly all black farmers were forced to farm at risk of imprisonment or death, living in virtual slavery. This practice ended with the civil rights movement, a movement coinciding with the end of “bourgeois culture.”

  1. ‘Did everyone abide by [the precepts of Bourgeois culture]? Of course not. There are always rebels and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.’

I do not know what they mean by this saying. Perhaps they mean, ‘doing the bad things and professing to do good things reinforces how good the good things are.’ If this is what they mean, it seems false. If a priest is a paedophile, this does not reinforce how good not being a paedophile is.

Regardless, Wax and Alexander seem to imply that only rebels and hypocrites were those who failed to abide by the precepts they describe. In reality, it was not just rebels and hypocrites; disrespecting women, blacks, Jews and immigrants was the norm. Just ask my grandmother, who was denied a room to stay in because she was Jewish in 1940s New York, when anti-Semitism was on the rise. Or ask the millions of black families in Chicago, New York, and LA, who risked murder if they attempted to live in a white neighbourhood.

Perhaps Wax and Alexander merely mean that individuals acted with more ‘neighbourliness, charity, civic-mindedness’ in general, even if limited to members of their own ethnicity. But there is little evidence of this either. The non-profit sector has increased dramatically since the 1960s and individuals give roughly the same percentage of their income to charity today as they did in the 1950s. And while it is true that people spend less time with their neighbours today, this is likely because they can leave their neighbourhoods more easily, given the increase in car ownership since the 1950s.

  1. ‘A combination of factors—prosperity, the Pill, the expansion of higher education, and the doubts surrounding the Vietnam War—encouraged an antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfilment ideal—sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll—that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society.’

This sentence is difficult to follow, but this is how I understand it: contraceptives, higher education, and opposition to the Vietnam War encouraged antiauthoritarianism and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and all four were incompatible with prosperity.

There is no evidence that expanded education contributed to antiauthoritarianism, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and young people today have less sex than they did in the 1950s. While voluntary drug use has increased, involuntary drug use has decreased: The CIA no longer kidnaps people and drugs them with LSD against their will. Which also doesn’t seem very neighbourly.

As for the Pill: This has allowed women to who have fewer children, associated with lower poverty levels, rather than lower prosperity.

  1. ‘This era saw the beginnings of an identity politics that inverted the color-blind aspirations of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into an obsession with race, ethnicity, gender, and now sexual preference.’

It is not clear what is meant by ‘an obsession with race’. Clearly they do not mean a strong commitment to improving the rights of racial minorities, because that would mean Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also obsessed with race, and they do not think he was. Perhaps they mean that, today, individuals speak about race too much. This is unlikely, given that black men are being wrongfully convicted and facing prison at significantly greater rates, and society has yet to address this. The same can be said about sexuality and gender, given the prevalence of discrimination against sexual minorities, and gender-based discrimination against both women and men.

  1. ‘Among those who currently follow the old precepts… poverty rates are low.’

No evidence is provided to demonstrate this claim. Even if it were true, it would not establish whether bourgeois attitudes contribute to reductions in poverty, or reductions in poverty simply contribute to increases in bourgeois attitudes. Of course, it might be true that bourgeois attitudes contribute to reductions in poverty. A carefully crafted study, that controlled for confounding variables, would be worthwhile.

As of now, we do have studies demonstrating that other properties contribute to poverty, such as racism in the criminal justice system, an election system that disenfranchises the poor, and an education system that underfunds minority children. Changing these policies will require us to stop romanticizing the past, and work towards ending poverty in the present.

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