The word “bourgeois” isn’t one most of us use regularly - if ever. But for a certain class of academic, it’s always on the tips of their tongues. Essentially, it means “conventionally middle class,” with negative connotations.
Imagine the horror of the academics when one of their own, Law Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania, suggested recently that many of our societal problems are a result of us abandoning bourgeois values?
“Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available,” she wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries. The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”
She reminds her readers - presumably others of like-mind - of just what that culture entailed.
“That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake,” Wax wrote. “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 neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”
Those values were rejected by the counterculture of the 1960s, she notes. And there was much to rebel against, she adds - hypocrisy, for example.
But those values worked, in a way that led to a better functioning society.
Yet here is Wax’s chief sin in the essay: she rejects the counterculture’s relativism.
“All cultures are not equal,” she wrote. “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.”
The backlash against her essay has been fierce. Some colleagues at Penn Law responded with an open letter: “We categorically reject Wax’s claims.”
Yet there was no refutation.
That could be because that bourgeois culture is also simple common sense.
Rod Dreher responded to the criticism of Wax in The American Conservative.
“Prof. Wax is right: her critics aren’t going to come out and endorse anti-bourgeois values, or live by them,” he wrote. “But they lack the moral courage and the common sense to affirm what everyone knows - or used to know - to be true.”
Those of us who live in the shadows of the East Texas pines - not the ivory towers - also know this to be true. It’s not reactionary; it’s reality.