Commentary Magazine


A Tiger Mother in a Legal World on Fire

I don’t know much about parenting, so I’m not going to comment on the merits of Amy Chua’s much-discussed book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. What strikes me about the uproar is entirely unrelated to her Stakhanovite views on how to raise children: she’s a tenured professor at Yale Law School.

Now I, of course, acknowledge that faculty members have the right to write what they want, and that law professors, like anyone else, may have valuable things to say on any subject under the sun. Certainly, Professor Chua has not been shy about availing herself of this freedom. For my part, I do have some difficulty reconciling her views about the merits of (supposedly) Chinese parenting with those she expressed in her previous book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. One might argue that Chua’s own views about American parenting aren’t exactly a model of tolerance. But one could also argue that the world would be a dull place if opinion writers were forced to be completely consistent.

What her work is not, though, is any contribution to the study or practice of law. Like many Americans, I began with the belief that the law matters, and that professors at a school of law are under the professional obligation to advance its study and practice. I therefore believed that what they wrote — regardless of the forum in which their work appeared — was a serious statement of academically well-informed views. I regarded the Constitution as a charter meant to be read and understood by all, not as a document meant only for experts. I had never heard of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s belief that law, instead of expressing principles of justice, or at least being restrained and guided in the United States by the Constitution, was simply about “the felt needs of the time” — but if I had heard of this belief, I would have regarded it as nonsensical.

My recognition that law-school faculty doesn’t share any of my beliefs, and indeed regards them as naïve, was a long time in coming, and it wasn’t caused by Chua. But her work nicely illustrates the conclusion I finally reached: law professors are just like everyone else, except more so. By that I mean, outside narrow fields where expertise is genuinely relevant, what they do when they write is to express their own opinions, which are no more valuable than those of anyone else. The only difference is that, because they are professors of law, their opinions receive respect, or at least attention, that they do not obviously merit. Chua’s latest book has the merit of making this pretension to expertise crystal clear.

As I noted earlier this month, I had — indeed, I still have — the idea that being a member of a profession entails having a sense of professional responsibility and that it’s possible to separate one’s grasp of these responsibilities from one’s political beliefs. But that, it appears, is an antiquated point of view. I’ve just finished reading Steven Mosher and Thomas W. Fuller’s Climategate: The Crutape Letters, which makes it clear that the scientists at the center of that scandal had no problem with rigging the peer-review process, hiding data, and destroying e-mails to ensure that their “enemies” couldn’t find fault with their work on climate change. The dominance of the scientific and technological elite — understanding that term broadly — that so worried Eisenhower is upon us, and they’re not shy about using the prestige we’ve given them to advance views on subjects that are, in reality, profoundly political.

Why does this matter to someone who focuses, in his professional life, on U.S. foreign policy and sovereignty? Because the law professors are all over these subjects as well. When I first read Yale Law dean Harold Koh’s argument that the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should compel us to support human-rights treaties, I didn’t know what to make of it. Surely the document that declared America’s sovereign independence does not require us to ratify treaties or give judges the power to force their provisions on us without our consent. And then I realized what was going on: it was just an old Jedi mind trick. Dean Koh — now legal adviser to the State Department — wasn’t expressing a legal opinion. Though cloaked in legal garb, his words simply expressed his preferences. They were no different, no more valuable, than Chua’s sentiments about the free market, democracy, or parenting.

Maybe this is all about Yale Law, but I doubt it. The rot is more widespread. And rot it is. The obvious danger is that the views of the scientific and technological elite embody the Progressive beliefs from which belief in the elite sprang in the first place. The more subtle danger is to the concept of professionalism. If professionals aren’t willing to uphold it, they will lose (as indeed they already are losing) the respect of the people. They will deserve to lose it, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be better off for having given up on the idea that knowledge and duty have an existence that is independent from politics.

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