L'affaire Wax

Notes & Comments April 2018

Fahrenheit 451 updated

What took them so long? That was our first question when we heard the latest news about the distinguished University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax. Last summer, Professor Wax created a minor disturbance in the force of politically correct groupthink when she co-authored an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer titled “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”

What, a college professor arguing in favor of “bourgeois” values? Mirabile dictu, yes. Professor Wax and her co-author, Professor Larry Alexander from the University of San Diego, argued not only that the “bourgeois” values regnant in American society in the 1950s were beneficial to society as a whole, but also that they were potent aides to disadvantaged individuals seeking to better themselves economically and socially. “Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake,” Professors Wax and Alexander advised.

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.

Such homely advice rankled, of course. Imagine telling the professoriate to be patriotic, to work hard, to be civic-minded or charitable. Quelle horreur!

Wax and Alexander were roundly condemned by their university colleagues. Thirty-three of Wax’s fellow law professors at Penn signed an “Open Letter” condemning her op-ed. “We categorically reject Wax’s claims,” they thundered.

What they found especially egregious was Wax and Alexander’s observation that “All cultures are not equal.” That hissing noise you hear is the sharp intake of breath at the utterance of such a sentiment. The tort was compounded by Wax’s later statements in an interview that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans” because “Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.”

Can you believe it? Professor Wax actually had the temerity to utter this plain, irrefragable, impolitic truth. Everyone knows this to be the case. As William Henry argued back in the 1990s in his undeservedly neglected book In Defense of Elitism, “the simple fact [is] that some people are better than others—smarter, harder working, more learned, more productive, harder to replace.” Moreover, Henry continued, “Some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal.” And it follows, he concluded, that “Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study. Every corner of the human race may have something to contribute. That does not mean that all contributions are equal. . . . It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.”

True, too true. But in a pusillanimous society terrified by its own shadow, it is one thing to know the truth, quite another to utter it in public.

For his part, Theodore Ruger, the Dean of Penn Law School, tried to have it both ways. He didn’t, on that occasion, discipline Professor Wax or seek to revoke her tenure. But he hastened to disparage her observation as “divisive, even noxious,” and to “state my own personal view that as a scholar and educator I reject emphatically any claim that a single cultural tradition is better than all others.”

What a brave man is Ted Ruger. Uriah Heep would have been proud.

There were other efflorescences of outrage directed at Professors Wax and Alexander last autumn. But since the metabolism of outrage and victimhood is voracious as well as predatory, fresh objects of obloquy were soon discovered. Attention drifted away from Amy Wax.

Until a few weeks ago, that is. At some point in March, a social justice vigilante came across an internet video of a conversation between Glenn Loury, a black, anti–affirmative action economics professor at Brown University, and Professor Wax. Titled “The Downside to Social Uplift,” the conversation, which was posted in September, revolved around some of the issues that Professor Wax had raised in her op-ed for the Inquirer. Towards the end of the interview, the painful subject of unintended consequences came up. The very practice of affirmative action, Professor Loury pointed out, entails that those benefitting from its dispensation will be, in aggregate, less qualified than those who do not qualify for special treatment. That’s what the practice of affirmative action means: that people who are less qualified will be given preference over people who are more qualified because of some extrinsic consideration—race, say, or sex or ethnic origin.

Professor Wax agreed and noted that one consequence of this was that those admitted to academic programs through affirmative action often struggle to compete. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class,” Professor Wax said, “and rarely, rarely in the top half.” Professor Wax also observed that the Penn Law Review had an unpublicized racial diversity mandate.

Uh-oh. It took several months for the censors to get around to absorbing this comment. But last month they finally did and the result was mass hysteria. From Ghana to Tokyo to Israel, students associated with Penn Law School were furiously trading emails, tweets, and other social media bulletins about Amy Wax. The university’s Black Law Students Association, whose president, Nick Hall, was instrumental in publicizing the video, went into a swivet. What, they demanded of Dean Ruger, was he going to do about Professor Wax’s outrageous comments?

In a word, capitulate. Then preen. Dean Ruger announced that Professor Wax would henceforth be barred from teaching any mandatory first-year courses. “It is imperative for me as dean to state,” he thundered, “that . . . black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn Law, and the Law Review does not have a diversity mandate.” Did he offer any data to back that up? No. Perhaps Penn doesn’t keep track. But Dean Ruger may wish to consult a study published in the Stanford Law Review in 2004 which showed that in the most elite law schools, 52 percent of first-year black students pooled in the bottom tenth of their class, compared to 6 percent of whites. Only 8 percent of first-year black students were in the top half of their class.

Lack of data, however, is no impediment to declaring one’s higher virtue while simultaneously caving in to the atavistic forces of political correctness. Amy Wax, intoned Dean Ruger, is “protected by Penn’s policies of free and open expression as well as academic freedom.” Nevertheless, she will be treated as a toxic personality, too dangerous for Penn’s tender shoots embarking on a career in law. “In light of Professor Wax’s statements,” Dean Ruger wrote in a community-wide email,

black students assigned to her class . . . may reasonably wonder whether their professor has already come to a conclusion about their presence, performance, and potential for success in law school and thereafter. They may legitimately question whether the inaccurate and belittling statements she has made may adversely affect their learning environment and career prospects. . . . More broadly, this dynamic may negatively affect the classroom experience for all students regardless of race or background.

As Jason Richwine noted in a column for National Review, Dean Ruger’s protest is “almost Orwellian in its blame-shifting.” All of the issues he lists “are the direct result of Penn’s affirmative-action policies. Those policies generate a racial skills gap in Penn’s first-year law class, and Professor Wax has merely voiced what every rational observer already knows.” Moreover, grading of first-year students at Penn is blind: professors do not know which grade is assigned to which student.

Doubtless Dean Ruger hoped that by scapegoating Amy Wax he would effectively mollify the beast of political correctness. Not likely. As could have been predicted, his capitulation and nauseating Two-Minutes-Hate display of politically correct grandiosity merely sharpened the appetite of the racial grievance mongers. Dean Ruger publicly castigated and in effect demoted Amy Wax. But that was not enough for Asa Khalif, a leader of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, who is demanding that she be fired outright. Indeed, he told The Philadelphia Tribune that Penn has one week to comply. “None of what this racist is doing is new to anyone familiar with her,” Khalif said. “Many people have known about her for years. Not just black and brown people, but people who don’t believe she can fairly grade or teach people who don’t look like her. . . . We are unwavering in our one demand that she be fired.”

As we write, L’affaire Wax is still unfolding. Who knows to what lengths Mr. Khalif and his Black Lives Matter thugs are willing to go? Who knows what ecstasies of groveling condemnation Dean Ruger or other Penn administrators may indulge? One thing, however, is clear. The truth is a dispensable commodity at our elite colleges and universities. When it clashes with the imperatives of political correctness, the truth loses. Like the firemen in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, most of those populating the higher education establishment are busy destroying the very things they had, once upon a time, been trained to cherish and protect.

A Quiet Hero

The Quiet Rescue of America’s Forgotten Fruit

One man is responsible for roughly half of the country’s stone fruit collection.

The Quiet Rescue of America’s Forgotten Fruit
C. Todd Kennedy examines sloe plums.C. Todd Kennedy examines sloe plums. COURTESY OF DAVID KARP

THE EPICENTER OF AMERICA’S TECH industry was once orchards as far as the eye can see. California’s Silicon Valley, as it happens, used to be known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, a slogan that often accompanied illustrations of sunshine and fruit trees.

The campuses of Google, Facebook, and other businesses have pushed out most fruit growers. But some are left: C. Todd Kennedy is one of California’s premier fruit experts, collectors, and growers. As a co-founder of the Arboreum Company, he distributes rare and vintage fruit trees that produce prickly pears and little-known peaches. But his four-decade dedication to fruit has been remarkably important in another respect: preserving and adding to America’s agricultural legacy. In 2010, horticulturist Clay Weeks estimated that half of the national collection of old stone fruit cultivars come from Kennedy. When asked, Kennedy makes only a slight correction. “Half of the named varieties in the national collection come from me,” he says.

Kennedy’s contribution is the result of a long partnership. The U.S. National Plant Germplasm System has repositories across America, each focused on preserving and researching different types of food plants. The genetic diversity they house may hold the key to overcoming devastating plant diseases (such as the citrus greening currently devastating Florida’s orange crop) or developing fruit cultivars that can withstand climate change.

But these important endeavors can be overlooked and underfunded. In the late eighties and early nineties, Kennedy says, many federal repositories lacked the money or space to receive new genetic material. According to Thomas Gradziel, a University of California, Davis professor and plant breeder, knowledgeable fruit growers (Kennedy chief among them) saved many fruit varieties from disappearing forever.

White apricots, "Mesch Mesch Amra" plumcots, pitangas, "Beauty" plums, and "Shakar Pareh" plumcots from Kennedy's collection.White apricots, “Mesch Mesch Amra” plumcots, pitangas, “Beauty” plums, and “Shakar Pareh” plumcots from Kennedy’s collection. COURTESY OF C. TODD KENNEDY

In a way, fruit is Kennedy’s heritage. “My parents had a large property in Atherton,” Kennedy says. “My father had been raised on a prune and apricot ranch in Los Gatos in the 20’s and 30’s.” (Both towns are in Silicon Valley.) In the 1980s, Kennedy’s father wanted to plant old fruit trees that he remembered from his youth during the Valley of Heart’s Delight days, and he asked Kennedy to help.

But Kennedy wasn’t a horticulturist. He’s an agricultural lawyer who works with farmers on employment and land-use issues. So he turned to state research stations to find his father’s fruits. Many were at what he calls “land-grant” universities established on government land, such as the many campuses of the University of California.

Research stations had maintained collections of fruit trees since the 1880s, but time was short. “I discovered that these land-grant universities were shutting down their orchards,” Kennedy says. He had to work fast to collect the varieties he wanted; others simply vanished. “I got a lot more varieties than was really intended,” he notes. “So I saved them.” Kennedy started collecting cultivars he found to be interesting or “famous old fruits.” That choice turned out to be monumental.

When funding was once again allocated to federal repositories, representatives came to collect twigs and bud sticks from Kennedy. This genetic material is referred to by growers as “germplasm,” and it allows new trees to be propagated and preserved. Kennedy’s contributions helped these institutions fill out their collections.

“I’ve been slowly feeding these varieties to their appropriate repositories,” Kennedy says. Currently, the tally of his donations is 689. He’s donated even more on behalf of members of the California Rare Fruit Growers group, a vast organization of hobbyists. Kennedy says he used to correspond via typewriter with fruit enthusiasts around the country to accumulate interesting cultivars. ‘”Most people are pretty generous,” he says. According to Gradziel, Kennedy is the crucial link between national fruit collections and hobbyist growers.

A week's worth of summer fruit from the Arboreum Company orchard.A week’s worth of summer fruit from the Arboreum Company orchard. COURTESY OF C. TODD KENNEDY

Occasionally, Kennedy even finds rare fruit on the street.

The Santa Clara Valley, despite its current tech focus, is still one of the best fruit-tree growing climates in the world. As a result, a lot of yard fruit goes uneaten and piles up on lawns and sidewalks. Kennedy had long been looking for a tejocote, a type of tree native to Mexico. (Importing its fruit was illegal until recently.) While driving one day, he caught sight of tejocote fruit in a gutter.

“I just followed the line of [tejocote fruit], kind of like Hansel and Gretel,” Kennedy says. With material from that tree, he grew his own tejocote.

Kennedy is no longer a hobbyist. He lives in San Francisco, and the Arboreum Company orchard is two hours south, in Morgan Hill. Now that it’s spring, he’s busy sending saplings to gardeners who want what he calls “older and better fruits.” While Kennedy says his trees come from all over, the greatest number come from the American west. Kennedy’s knowledge of fruit trees and how they grow in California, Gradziel tells me, is just as momentous as the germplasm he’s collected. Kennedy is often referred to for his expertise.

There are challenges to growing rare fruit. “Unfortunately, fruit quality is also connected to other, not-so-good qualities,” Kennedy says. Some fruits with beautiful flavors or interesting stories are more susceptible to disease or less productive than varieties found in grocery stores. And locally adapted fruits don’t grow as well or taste as good elsewhere. The Arboreum Company describes its “Santa Barbara” peach as “designed for those southern Californian areas experiencing a minimum of winter: at the beach and upon the coastal plain.”

The "Beauty" plum in the Arboreum Company orchard.The “Beauty” plum in the Arboreum Company orchard. COURTESY OF C. TODD KENNEDY

The health of Kennedy’s and other private groves is increasingly important, because the federal repositories are once again in trouble. Kennedy believes the current political climate means deep funding cuts are inevitable, while Gradziel describes the Davis branch, which is dedicated to tree fruit, nuts, and grapes, as “in a dire situation right now.” They both believe more money and land is desperately needed to care for and store incoming plants (either as planted trees, cryogenically frozen buds, or preserved seeds).

The trees maintained by Kennedy and other fruit growers serve as “backup collections,” Gradziel says. It’s a matter with international implications. “One of the projects with the Davis repository now is repatriating germplasm that originally came from Afghanistan.” Preserving genetic variety can make all the difference when crops are wiped out by war or disease.

Cherry row at the Arboreum Company orchard.Cherry row at the Arboreum Company orchard. COURTESY OF C. TODD KENNEDY

Even at the Arboreum Company orchard, it’s infeasible to propagate all the trees every year. Instead, Kennedy chooses only a handful. Available fruit trees on the website have poetic descriptions beyond what you’d see in a typical nursery catalog, providing historical and even artistic context. For the Roundel cherry, the description goes:

A variety perhaps as old as the cherry itself. Roundel received its name as the only truly round-fruited sweet cherry, and it remains the prototype cherry of slot machine and cough drop packet … it is figured as “Tondella” in the 1699 oil painting by Bartolomeo Bimbi of cherries grown at the Medici court at Villa di Castello, Tuscany.

The detail is deliberate. Kennedy grows fruit for qualities such as juiciness and taste, but also for their history. “They have a story to be told,” he says. While Kennedy reckons that the Arboreum Company orchard is heavy on customer-favorite peaches at the moment, he doesn’t play favorites. “They’re all equally valuable to me,” he says.

But when pressed, Kennedy name-drops the Imperiale Epineuse prune and Rio Oso Gem peach as particularly special. On the Arboreum Company’s site, the latter is described as “the finest fruit of California.”