Bourgeois is the New White

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, but my fellow academics Amy Wax and Larry Alexander beat me to it.

I’m sure you’ve heard. On August 9, Professors Wax and Alexander published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which they argued (shock! horror!) that in order to have a successful life, it might be prudent to live virtuously. Okay, no, that is not quite what they said, but it’s close.

In their words:
Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. 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.
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. 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.
Strong stuff, right? Professors Wax and Alexander were careful – they thought – to insist that what they were talking about was culture, not race, but of course it didn’t matter. They had committed the cardinal sin of claiming that (horror of horrors!) “All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” As if being “productive in an advanced economy” were a good thing – the nerve!

You know what happened next. Thirty-three (I only got twenty-nine!) of Professor Wax’s colleagues at the UPenn Law School signed an open letter in which they “categorically [rejected] Wax’s claims.”
We believe that the ideal of equal opportunity to succeed in education is best achieved by a combination of academic freedom, open debate [unless you are Professor Wax] and a commitment by all participants to respect one another without bias or stereotype [ditto]. To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal [which they have not actually explained how differs from Wax’s own], something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it.
The National Lawyers Guild has since called for Professor Wax to be barred from teaching one of the school’s required first-year courses because she is so bigoted as to suggest that there might be values at stake. Okay, no, that is not quite what they said either, but it’s close.

In their words:
Professor Wax’s statements amount to an explicit and implicit endorsement of white supremacy... Professor Wax’s rants are also a textbook example of how white supremacy and cultural elitism are used to denigrate the poor and sustain and justify the gross wealth inequality that defines American capitalism. This script dates back to before the founding of our country and has long served the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
Never mind that what Professor Wax is calling for is a path out of poverty by way of virtuous activity. She is a bigot, a white supremacist, and a segregationist – for suggesting that those particularly at risk might be given better schooling – and must be shamed.

Her colleagues in the National Lawyers Guild are right that this is an old, old script. What they do not seem to realize is the part that they are playing. Why, exactly, is it bigoted to claim that certain kinds of behavior might give the poor a better chance at improving their lives? Because, of course, the clerisy – like Professor Wax’s colleagues – don’t want people to get rich, at least not through the kind of work that Professor Wax values. (I wonder how many signatures my next letter is going to get!)

Let’s put it as bluntly as possible: the culture that Professors Wax and Alexander are championing is not white, but bourgeois. It has to do with habits of mind and behavior, not skin color. Look again at what Wax and Alexander actually said it involved:
Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. 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.
Who wouldn’t want to live according to these values? As Heather MacDonald put it, in Wax and Alexander’s defense:
Were Wax and Alexander wrong that the virtues of self-restraint, deferred gratification, and future orientation are key for economic and personal progress, and that an anti-achievement, anti-authority culture of drug use and a detachment from the work force is inimical to advancement?
According to GET-UP, the UPenn graduate students’ union, apparently, yes:
GET-UP is a community of graduate workers at the University of Pennsylvania. We are children of single mothers, we have benefitted from welfare, we are immigrants and children of immigrants, we are people of color, we are from inner cities, we are not Protestant. We are all the things that Wax says should lead to failure, yet we are at the top of our field.
So how did they get there? They do not say.

They do not say, “We worked harder than everybody else in our class,” although they must have.

They do not say, “Our mothers and/or fathers did everything they could to make sure we got to school,” although they must have.

They do not say, “We worked jobs at night to fund our studies,” although many of them most certainly did.

They do not say, “We went to church at least once a month,” although if they are African-American or Latino, they probably did.

Here, in fact, I agree with them. Professors Wax and Alexander are wrong to insist that the culture which they idealize is particularly Anglo-Protestant or even that it belongs quintessentially to the 1950s. But the students are wrong to claim that they, successful as they are, do not live by it.

“We are from inner cities,” they say. Where else would they be from? “Bourgeois” means “of the city.” Okay, again, not quite, but “citizen” does.

“We are immigrants,” they say, “and children of immigrants.” But there is nothing in the culture of the city that says they shouldn’t be. Quite the reverse. Cities depend on immigration from the countryside for their populations, given that those living in the city typically have fewer children and have since there were cities, although back in the Middle Ages, it was also because those living in cities were more likely to die of plague or other diseases. But the point of immigration, even in the Middle Ages, was to become citizens.


How did one become a citizen, back in the day? There were a number of ways. You might be born there and become a citizen because your father had been. You might move there as a bride and become a citizen because your husband was. You might come there as a journeyman or apprentice and work your way up to earning a place as a master in one of the guilds. Or you might simply live there supporting yourself for a year and a day. “Stadtluft macht frei,” as the Germans would say. “Urban air makes you free.”

Not everyone liked the burghers of the medieval towns, particularly if they had been granted a charter by the local lord or the king. Charters exempted burghers from all sorts of taxes and tolls, as well as giving them privileges in land holding, mortgages, holding markets, and making good on their debts. Towns governed by guilds might be particularly envied, both for the wealth that they generated and for the barriers that they placed on entry into the guilds. But the big question then as now was how, exactly, wealth worked. Why was it that the people in the towns got so rich?

In the Middle Ages as today, some of those people were Jews, so one theory was that they made pacts with the devil, like the Jewish magician who helped Theophilus get his stewardship back. (Think Faust.) But most (at least in Europe) were Christians, some of them even good Christians who gave generous alms and yet still became rich, much to the chagrin of the clergy, a.k.a. academics, who while they depended on the towns for support, were often at odds with the whole exercise of money-making. Or so the preachers would have it. The conflict is with us to this day.

Academics, even law professors, like to think of themselves as above all that money-grubbing, even as they grovel before public (tax-supported) and private (philanthropist-supported) funding bodies for fellowships and stipends to support their research. In this role, they are heirs to the clergy of the medieval universities, dependent as often as not on benefices (read, taxes) to support them while they inquired into the mysteries of the trivium (a.k.a. the humanities), the quadrivium (a.k.a. the sciences), law, medicine, and theology (two out of three isn’t bad). In a word, it’s humiliating, and academics, if they are nothing else, are proud. (Trust me on this, I’m one of them.)

It’s all there in Bourdieu. Teachers in higher education place a great store on cultural capital, even as they command almost no economic capital, while despising those who command economic capital for their terrible taste. Conversely, those who command great economic capital (think, for example, President Trump) often share tastes with those who command relatively little economic capital and look down on those who claim great cultural capital as horrible snobs. And they’re right. The clerisy (to use economic historian Deirdre McCloskey’s piquant term) are horrible snobs. It’s the only capital they have.

The only sin Professor Wax – herself a member of the academic clerisy and therefore a traitor to her class – has committed is to have called a spade a spade. If you want to succeed in the terms that the culture of the towns has set, you have children only after you get married, and you get married only after you have set yourself up in life to be able to support a family. You support your family through your own labor, whether working in a craft or using some practical skill. You give generously in alms – by the by supporting the clerisy, whose role in the town is to remind you about how sinful you are (plus ça change) – while also taking care to provide for your family. You value education for the skills it imparts as well as for prayer (medieval Christians learned to read above all in order to pray the psalms) and you employ artists to make ornaments for your businesses and your home. What you do not do is expect to live off the public purse because that would be dishonorable, even a bit gauche. (“Gauche” – if you don’t speak French – means “left.” I’m a redneck, I had to look it up.)

And for your pains, the clerisy will look down on you. Because they despise the fact that they cannot live without you even as they have convinced themselves that they have better taste and so know better what to do with the money you have earned. Marx was a member of the clerisy, the intelligentsia who do not work. And so are all my colleagues who cannot see that when they spit the word bourgeois, what they are really doing is declaring their contempt for the culture of the town, not to mention the inner cities in which many of them live. Inner cities like Chicago where what the inhabitants want most is not to live off the fat of the land like aristocrats or priests, but to make their living as bourgeoisie were meant to do – through skilled labor and honest, hard work – if only the clerisy would get out of their way.

Images: Nuremberg, from Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum, illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493); Bear shows off her good taste; Trump International, Washington, D.C.

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