I don’t know what possessed University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax to out-Jordan-Peterson Jordan Peterson, becoming the latest tenured professor to make headlines for anti-woke antics veering off into bigotry. She has tenure, which means that she can say what she likes—to a point—and her job will be protected, all in the name of the lofty ideal that is academic freedom. Does academic freedom extend to maligning one’s own students? It’s complicated, or so the New York Times coverage suggests.
I do not know what would make a Jewish woman (one is almost tempted to say nice Jewish woman but it’s a ridiculous expression in the best of times) identify as a “race realist” who, per the Times, “invited a white nationalist, Jared Taylor, to a class and then lunch with students.” Doesn’t she know how white nationalists feel about Jews? Is this a real-life twist on that old Chappelle Show skit, where the white supremacist leader turns out to be Black… and blind?
So I don’t know what motivates Wax to hold forth about why stereotypes of all racialized groups are actually true and isn’t she so, so brave for saying so. I also don’t know why people like zucchini or lacrosse. It’s a wide world and it takes all kinds.
The writer and policy director Ned Resnikoff argues that the so-called “wokeness” controversies are less about the ideas themselves than the current labour situation in “the academic, film, journalism, and publishing industries.” As disparities between haves and have-nots—a distinction at once identity-based and generational—increase, the have-nots get restless, the haves, defensive.
I have a slightly different theory about the relationship between labour and culture wars. Or maybe more of a yes-and. So you have, on the one side, as Resnikoff writes, “the people toiling away as underpaid adjuncts or freelancers while well-off (mostly older, mostly whiter) mediocrities enjoy the few remaining spoils in their chosen discipline.”
But who, then, is the anti-woke side made up of? Because you do not just have the winners, the privileged haves. You also have a different set of non-elite sorts, who for whatever reason identify with the beleaguered prof or cancelled billionaire in these scenarios, and not with the passed-over underlings. There are people who, despite not being bosses themselves, read about a story where young, social-justice-obsessed employees turn against their boss and identify with the boss.
And maybe they’re deluding themselves, like they used to say about working-class Americans who voted Republican against their interests, whatever this meant, since clearly they saw their votes as in their interests. Maybe they’re like the people who can barely make ends meet, yet worry that millionaires are being taxed at too-high rates, because what if one day they too become millionaires and wouldn’t it be sad if, after all that, they had to pay their taxes. Maybe they resent the culture-sector employees, who they see as having nothing major to complain about. Or maybe they’re put off by progressive sanctimony and ally with whoever else is as well. Maybe it’s something else entirely!
But the tenured-professor cases tap into something more primal. These are, in the public imagination, people who truly can say whatever pops into their head, and not only do they not get fired, they get celebrated for upholding academic freedom. I say “in the public imagination” because in the world of actual professors, even the tenured ones generally refrain from spewing hatred on loop for the same reasons most people do, namely not being hateful, or, bare minimum, not wanting to be reputed as such.
Because I really don’t think there are that many people committed to academic freedom, or versed in where its limits lie. There are, however, plenty of racists out there. There are even more people who are not overtly racist, but see something appealing about having such a high degree of job security that even if they were to go on an unhinged rant, their employers’ would continue sending them paycheques.