Wax, Franklin, and the meaning of whiteness

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Isaac Chotiner, "A Penn Law Professor Wants to Make America White Again", The New Yorker 8/23/2019:

Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, is the academic who perhaps best represents the ideology of the Trump Administration’s immigration restrictionists. Wax, who began her professional life as a neurologist, and who served in the Solicitor General’s office in the late eighties and early nineties, has become known in recent years for her belief in the superiority of “Anglo-Protestant culture.” […]

Last month, in a speech at the National Conservatism Conference, in Washington, D.C., Wax promoted the idea of “cultural-distance nationalism,” or the belief that “we are better off if our country is dominated numerically, demographically, politically, at least in fact if not formally, by people from the first world, from the West, than by people from countries that had failed to advance.” She went on, “Let us be candid. Europe and the first world, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white, for now; and the third world, although mixed, contains a lot of non-white people. Embracing cultural distance, cultural-distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites." […]

During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Wax expounded on her beliefs that people of Western origin are more scrupulous, empirical, and orderly than people of non-Western origin, and that women are less intellectual than men. She described these views as the outcome of rigorous and realistic thinking, while offering evidence that ranged from two studies by a eugenicist to personal anecdotes, several of which concerned her conviction that white people litter less than people of color.

According to an article in the Daily Pennsylvanian (Ashley Ahn, "Students protest Amy Wax racist remarks", 8/23/2019):

Days after Penn Law professor Amy Wax made inflammatory statements on immigration at a conference, students have created multiple petitions urging the University to take action. […]

The Latinx Law Students Association released a statement on July 18 calling on Penn Law to denounce Wax's statements and relieve her of all teaching duties, "as they serve to further her platform and lend her legitimacy." […]

LALSA's statement is supported by five other Penn Law student associations including the Muslim Law Students Association, South Asian Law Students Association, Black Law Students Association, Asian Pacific Law Students Association, and Penn Law Lambda.

[FWIW, here's a transcript of Wax's National Conservatism presentation.]

As I noted a couple of years ago ("Palatine boors swarming into our settlements", 2/4/2017), Penn's founder Benjamin Franklin expressed similar (though even more narrowly exclusionary) preferences for "white" immigration restrictions, in his 1751 pamphlet Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind:

24. Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.

What was it that led Franklin to "add one Remark"? Ironically, it was an argument for excluding Donald Trump's grandfather:

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Though Friedrich Trump was not conventionally "nordic" looking, it's odd that Franklin states that "in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted". He doesn't mention Jews, from whatever part of the world, but it's pretty clear that they're not going to come out any whiter than the Germans, French, Russians, and Swedes. Maybe for Franklin (as for many others), "white" means "people I approve of"?

There's been a fair amount of other negative reaction to "National Conservatism", from across the political spectrum, including from different flavors of conservatives. Thus George Will wrote in the Washington Post ("‘National conservative’ policies are full of oxymorons", 8/9/2019):

Regimes, however intellectually disreputable, rarely are unable to attract intellectuals eager to rationalize the regimes’ behavior. America’s current administration has “national conservatives.” They advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. They call themselves conservatives, perhaps because they loathe progressives, although they seem to not remember why.

The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning” — because “market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors.” So, government, he says, must create the proper “composition” of the economy by rescuing “vital sectors” from “underinvestment.”

Will, who doesn't normally resist the temptation to sling factually-challenged mud, somehow fails to make the obvious terminological step from "National Conservatism" to "National Socialism" — perhaps because … OK, never mind, I'm going to resist that temptation.



  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 24, 2019 @ 5:02 pm

    Remind me never to pick up the phone to Isaac Chotiner.

    The. guy appears to just ask simple, polite questions, but every single time, by some ju-jitsu, his interviewees willingly announce their worst stupidities, absurdities and vanities.

  2. AntC said,

    August 24, 2019 @ 7:11 pm

    Wax expounded on her beliefs that people of Western origin are more scrupulous, empirical, and orderly than people of non-Western origin,

    Trump compared to Obama?

  3. eub said,

    August 24, 2019 @ 11:39 pm

    Has George Will always been happy to split the infinitive, or did he learn?

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 12:44 am

    What eub said. I was very surprised to see this.

  5. Rose Eneri said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 10:32 am

    Another quote from the 8/9/19 WaPo article by George Will: "Manufacturing jobs, Cass’s preoccupation, are, however, only 8 percent of U.S. employment."

    Is this a record number of commas per word in a single sentence?

    Good for Penn for not censoring one of their professors. Good for the students for expressing their disagreement with the professor's comments. Not good to demand professor's removal. We must maintain freedom of speech, however abhorrent we find that speech.

  6. Aelfric said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 11:30 am

    I run across this same passage every few years, and I always have the same reaction (after remembering that smart people can harbor very stupid ideas): Swedes are/were 'swarthy?'

  7. Trogluddite said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 2:13 pm

    @Rose Eneri
    Terminating a person's employment does *not* prevent them from exercising their right to express themselves in public free from state interference, which is *all* that the right to free speech protects. Whether it is ethical or not to remove them from office in reaction to what they utter is an entirely different matter, and freedom from such consequences is *not* an inalienable right. I have the legal right to shout expletives at my professional clients whenever I please, but I would not expect to keep my job for very long if I did!

    It is certainly possible that the person in question performs their duties such that they do not allow their personal beliefs to harm anybody, and I would always favour due process rather than a knee-jerk reaction. However, it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that such beliefs may affect outcomes for certain of their students and/or colleagues, and I would expect such possibilities to be investigated.

    Freedom of speech laws are not, nor are they intended to be, means for avoiding any and all undesired consequences of one's utterances – but I see this fallacy implied so often these days that I brace myself for it every time I read of a case such as the one in question. Whatever the ending of this sorry tale, and regardless of whether we find the outcome to be ethical or not, the person in question will retain exactly the same right to free speech as they had when expressing the opinions which led to this controversy – no more and no less.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 2:24 pm

    It seems funny that a promoter of "Anglo-Protestant culture" is the daughter of East European Jews. What's more, she clerked for Judge Abner Mikva, has won awards named for A. Leo Levin and Harvey Levin, and holds a chair named for Robert Mundheim — all Jews.

  9. david said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 3:20 pm

    I think it does Franklin a disservice to quote him out of context. When I first read the quote it seemed as if might even be ironic, for example to shade all Europeans, Saxons excepted. The 2017 version had several comments that seem to agree. (the link was broken, it is https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=30834 )

    Following the link you provided I see that Franklin was objecting to the British Iron Act of 1750 prohibiting additional steel mills in the colonies and he was suggesting other countries would build them. With that motive the whole quote could be seen as an attempt to cajole the Brits not to cut off investment in the colonies. Poor taste, perhaps by today's standards, but something that some British government people might recognize as a good reason to not prohibit development activity.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 4:09 pm

    I am clearly even more naïve than I thought, since it was only on reading the comments to the Palatinate {boers|boors} thread that I discovered that when Franklin spoke of "increasing the lovely White and Red", he was not referring to the native population in the latter part of the phrase.

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    The person you were replying to said 'freedom of speech', _not_ 'freedom of speech laws'. There's a big difference. The idea of free speech does not exist because of laws or constitutions saying so; rather, the laws and constitutions exist because of the idea. And surely, if you are practically unable to express your opinion, it does not matter whether it is a government that is responsible for it.

    For the purpose of free speech is to protect the expression of one's opinions, especially those with political implications – not the uttering of random expletives, which is a complete red herring here. And you even showed you understand that speech directly part of one's job (which has to be unfree to some extent) differs from unrelated 'private' speech.

    I'm actually surprised to see you make this mistake, as it's normally seen from Americans (due to the wording of the First Amendment) or from those trying to justify suppressing the speech. To say or imply that losing one's job is not a punishment is absurd; anything that people avoid as if it were a punishment should be regarded as one (provided, of course, that it's actually inflicted by persons). Don't buy the Libertarian deception!

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

    (I already expressed my view on the Franklin quote in the earlier thread linked to. And I choose to not now address the political content beginning this post.)

  12. Ken said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 7:51 pm

    @Rose Eneri: The Red Dwarf episode "Waiting For God" had a line with one more comma:

    Rimmer: After intensive investigation, comma, of the markings on the alien pod, comma, it has become clear, comma, to me, comma, that we are dealing, comma, with a species of awesome intellect, colon.

    Of course that was the setup for a joke:

    Holly: Good. Perhaps they might be able to give you a hand with your punctuation.

  13. Ken said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 7:56 pm

    @Pflaumbaum, @Coby Lubliner: There's also this:

    "…and that women are less intellectual than men. She described these views as the outcome of rigorous and realistic thinking…"

    I have to think Chotiner crafted that juxtaposition with tongue firmly in cheek.

  14. Bloix said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 9:15 pm

    I don't see any oxymorons in the Will piece. And "to not remember" is an example of a split infinitive that would be better unsplit.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 25, 2019 @ 9:44 pm

    Coby Lubliner: I'm going to guess that Wax thinks that some other cultures, at least after contact with the magic dirt, are almost as good as Anglo-Protestant.

  16. Phillip Helbig said,

    August 26, 2019 @ 2:42 am

    Die Menge an Tar, die Sie inhalieren, variert, je nach dem, wie sie Ihre Zigarette rauche. OK, German, but still. (Translation: the amount of tar you inhale depends on how you smoke your cigarette. This is a standard disclaimer on tobacco ads which quote the amount of tar, nicotine, etc.)

  17. loonquawl said,

    August 26, 2019 @ 3:32 am

    Can somebody explain what Franklin alluded to with "White and Red" ? As he exluded Native Americans was that a reference to sunburn (it was around his lifetime that the Red/White rethoric came to be, so it would be possible that he used it either in a knowing-wink kind of way, or hadn't yet caught up to the new term)?

  18. Trogluddite said,

    August 26, 2019 @ 8:19 am

    @Andrew Usher
    Fair comment (particularly about the expletives "red herring" – yes, that was way wide of the mark!)

    However, I did not say or imply that losing one's job was not punishment (I've lost enough jobs to be well aware of that), and I did indicate that, however distasteful we might find the words, they are insufficient for us to judge the ethics of how we should act in response. Concentrating on the legal definition of "free speech" was, in hindsight, a poor choice, but I'm not sure that a wider definition would change my feelings about the issue significantly – when one's soap-box is being propped up by professional credentials, I still find it perfectly reasonable that professional bodies consider the degree to which they are implicitly supporting the views which are expressed.

    In any case, and most importantly, my sincere apologies to Rose Eneri. It was certainly hypocritical of me to complain of knee-jerk reactions when I had allowed previous frustrations with such arguments to colour my reading, as the light of a new day has made clear that I surely did.

  19. Peter Erwin said,

    August 26, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

    I think it does Franklin a disservice to quote him out of context. When I first read the quote it seemed as if might even be ironic, for example to shade all Europeans, Saxons excepted.

    I suspect the "Saxons excepted" bit was an attempt to avoid any possible suggestion of lese majeste, since at the time the royal family of Britain was Saxon in origin (and King George II was actually born in Hanover.)

    Some of the context for this, as I understand it, was Franklin's fear that the Germans would vote with the Quakers (as fellow pacifists) against authorizing military spending to defend against what he felt was the growing French threat to the west.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2019 @ 11:02 pm

    looquawl: In the thread on the Franklin excerpt, people provided evidence that Franklin's "White and the Red" meant white skin with rosy cheeks, etc.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    August 27, 2019 @ 1:56 am

    Had Franklin actually written "White and the Red", I would still have viewed that evidence with considerable suspicion, but if the transcript to which this thread is linked is to be believed, then he did not. He wrote instead "the lovely White and Red", not "the lovely White and the Red". Had there been a second "the", then I think it almost certain that he would have been referring to two different races; as there was not, I now think that he was referring only to one, those "blessed" with a strawberries-and-cream complexion.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2019 @ 7:52 am

    Sorry about my careless extra "the".

  23. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    August 27, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    I find it interesting that Franklin lumps even Germans, Russians and Swedes into the "swarthy" group. Apparently racial blinders can be easily narrowed to the specific ethnicity of the viewer, even among the greatest proponents of freedom. (I know, i know, "product of his time" and all… sigh)

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 27, 2019 @ 9:02 am

    In the greater NYC area where I live the primary source of recent non-Hispanic white immigrants is the former Soviet Union. They tend to be neither Protestants nor L1 Anglophones. We also have plenty of recent Anglophone Protestant immigrants – the single largest source country for them is Jamaica. (Also lots of recent immigrants from Trinidad and Guyana but the ultimate-South-Asian-ancestry subset of those groups is much less likely to be Protestant.) I tend to think Jamaica has a stronger claim to be a "Western" country than most of the fragments (arguably all the fragments outside the Baltics) of the former USSR do.

  25. Rodger C said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 6:54 am

    I wonder if Franklin's notion of what Swedes looked like was based on the remnants of Swedish colonization in the Delaware Valley. These were largely Saavolaiset, if that makes any difference. (And possibly with Native admixture by that time.)

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