The Abnormal Danger of Waxing about Norms

Remember how, in the sit-com “Cheers,” every time Norm rumbled through the door of the Boston bar where everyone knew your name, everyone in fact would shout out “Norm”?  Well, “norm,” albeit of the lower-case variety, is about what a foursome of writers, one of the of the strange-bedfellow variety, shouted approval recently.

Going first were Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, who wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the headline, “Paying the Price for Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.”  Yes, I know you know how well this went over with assorted students and faculty at Penn.  Though evidently not as much in San Diego, as the beach was too enticing there.

Near the end of their piece Wax and Alexander argued, unquestionably accurately: “Would the re-embrace of bourgeois norms by ordinary American who have abandoned them significantly reduce society’s pathologies?  There is every reason to believe so.”

For which a motley bunch of Ivy Leaguers put their superior reasoning power to work and concluded that Wax somehow had something to do with supposedly “metastasizing KKK chapters of Pennsylvania.”  They also likened the two professors’ celebration of quite modest middle-class values to a “defense of Confederate statues that ignores their promotion of white supremacy.”

Next up was the prolific conservative writer Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, who on August 29 wrote one of her regularly brilliant critiques of such left-wing nuttiness, this time at Penn, and appearing in National Review Online.  Heather, who is friend, once again made perfect points, though I particularly enjoyed her response to the students’ charge that the “hate speech” allegedly waxed by Wax and Alexander “dehumanized” and “compromised” the ability of “vulnerable students” to get an education.  To which Mac Donald responded: “If a student’s ability to pursue his education can be ‘compromised’ by a single op-ed, perhaps he is not ready for advanced studies.”

And then, on August 30, this time in the Star Tribune, another prolific and exceptional writer had friendly things to say about norms: The afore-teased strange bedfellow, Garrison Keillor.  He never mentioned the bourgeois battle in Philadelphia, and his ultimate aim, made clear in his kicker, was swiftly kicking a certain POTUS.  But a few paragraphs before that, Keillor did write about the most fundamental of American precepts in a way with which only people who equate distinguished law professors with David Duke wannabes could disagree.  Here’s a key passage.

“Somehow,” the “cheerful stoicism” in the years of his early youth, “seemed to lose traction in the culture and we got bombarded by neurotic anger – the Beat poets, bad boys in movies, outlaw mythology, troubled rock stars, spectacular burnouts, wounded, bitter, addicted, nice middle-class kids trying to be tortured artists – which is all very interesting but still the norms of everyday society prevail.  Angry neurotics are more interesting at a distance; when you have one under your roof, it’s exhausting.”

Yes, Keillor is an outlier among the four in various ways.  But so be it, as the important point to appreciate is that all of them have had excellent things to say over the last month about the kinds of essential norms and values – solidly middle-class values – that silly people, often with high SAT scores, are fond of equating with every “ism” they can lip sync to.

What’s the big and brave deal you say?  What so tough about urging people to act responsibly?  Usually, it’s not tough at all; quite the opposite.  In Heather Mac Donald’s immediate world, for example, it would be problematic if she wrote anything anti-responsibility.  And since Garrison Keillor equipoised his salute to decent norms with a thumping of Trump, admonishing fans likely were neutralized.

But as witness campus reactions to Professor Wax and Professor Alexander’s on-target column about norms, values, and behavior, for a long time now it has been absurdly easy in certain reaches to be slandered as a bigoted excuse for a human being by some of the most educationally privileged young people anywhere.