Category Archive 'WASPs'
06 Dec 2018
White Anglo-Saxon members of a certain society at Yale.
Ross Douthat comments intelligently on just how much the passing of George H.W. Bush makes Americans regret that times have changed and the Old American Establishment that George Bush was a part of no longer rules America. Its “diverse” and meritocratic replacement possesses neither the same kind of class nor the same legitimacy.
The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bushâ€™s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.
But two of the more critical takes on Bush nostalgia got closer to the heart of what was being mourned, in distant hindsight, with his death. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart described the elder Bush as the last president deemed â€œlegitimateâ€ by both of our countryâ€™s warring tribes â€” before the age of presidential sex scandals, plurality-winning and popular-vote-losing chief executives, and white resentment of the first black president. Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described â€œthe subtextâ€ of Bush nostalgia as a â€œfondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it werenâ€™t.â€
I think you can usefully combine these takes, and describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesnâ€™t really any more â€” a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.
Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs â€” because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well. …
However, one of the lessons of the age of meritocracy is that building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms. You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex … and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.
Not only that, but you even end up with an elite that literally uses the same strategy of exclusion that WASPs once used against Jews to preserve its particular definition of diversity from high-achieving Asians â€” with the only difference being that our elite is more determined to deceive itself about how and why itâ€™s discriminating.
So if some of the elder Bushâ€™s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishmentâ€™s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion â€” and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.
Those virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel going â€” a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way that it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and their country.
The WASP virtues also included a cosmopolitanism that was often more authentic than our own performative variety â€” a cosmopolitanism that coexisted with white manâ€™s burden racism but also sometimes transcended it, because for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of todayâ€™s shallow multiculturalists.
And somehow the combination of pious obligation joined to cosmopolitanism gave the old establishment a distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship â€” one that from the late-19th century through the middle of the 1960s was arguably unmatched among the various imperial elites with whom our establishment contended, and that certainly hasnâ€™t been matched by our feckless leaders in the years since George H.W. Bush went down to political defeat.
So as an American in the old dispensation, you didnâ€™t have to like the establishment â€” and certainly its members were often eminently hateable â€” to prefer their leadership to many of the possible alternatives. And as an American today, you donâ€™t have to miss everything about the WASPs, or particularly like their remaining heirs, to feel nostalgic for their competence.
26 Nov 2018
In the American Conservative, Robert W. Merry has a thoughtful essay contrasting the original American WASP elite with its contemporary successors.
Today we look back on that old elite, if we look back on it at all, as a relic of the distant past. But this developmentâ€”the old eliteâ€™s slow loss of self-confidence after World War II and then its obliteration as a cultural forceâ€”represents a profound transformation in Americaâ€™s social history. What emerged was a new country with a new elite.
In place of the old-school folkways and legends and values of the Anglo-Saxons, we have what is known as a meritocratic system dominated by a class of strivers who have managed to scope out the new system and rise to the top. …
[A]s far back as 1995, social commentator Christopher Lasch, in a book entitled The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (published posthumously), excoriated what he called Americaâ€™s â€œnew aristocracy of brains.â€ He wrote: â€œThere has always been a privileged class, even in America, but it has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings.â€ He foresaw an emerging chasm between the countryâ€™s new upper class and its great mass of citizens. â€œThe new elites,â€ he wrote, â€œare in revolt against â€˜Middle America,â€™ as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.â€…
Americaâ€™s Anglo-Saxon elite both reflected and perpetuated Anglo-Saxon sensibilities on the Continent for some 300 years. And it did so as its proportion of the countryâ€™s population declined steadily throughout that period. Given that, [Benjamin] Schwarz [in “The Diversity Myth,” published in The Atlantic in 1995] suggests that the American eliteâ€™s ability to â€œdominate American cultural and political life for three centuriesâ€”â€¦in fact define what it meant to be an Americanâ€”is a remarkable achievement.â€ It was an achievement of cultural identity and pride.
It couldnâ€™t last forever. The question wasâ€”and remainsâ€”why. Alsop speculated that a significant factor was the decline of Great Britain as a global power, which undermined a significant element of the eliteâ€™s sense of identity. He surmised that the â€œerosion of authorityâ€ that transformed American society in a host of ways in the 1960s (and later the 1970s) may have been a factor as well. But probably the largest contributor was demographics. America was becoming less and less an Anglo-Saxon country, and less and less did it look to its old elite for guidance and governance. New impulses, attitudes, and agendasâ€”precisely what Theodore Roosevelt had warned againstâ€”were making their way into the American consciousness with more diverse waves of immigration, and these had a profound effect upon the nation. …
[In terms] of whatâ€™s going on in America today. Christopher Lasch got closer to the heart of it in The Revolt of the Elites. To Lasch the problem doesnâ€™t reside simply in the distribution of wealth or income, although these are not insignificant. It goes much deeper, far into the civic consciousness of the elite and the nation at large. The destructive nature of the new elite, by his reckoning, touches on profound questions of who we are, where we are going as a nation and society, and how we reconcile our present with our past and our future.
Like Stewart, Lasch sees major civic problems festering in America under the new elite. He views many of them, though not all, as economic in nature. And he believes that the new elites, in pursuing their positions of economic and social privilege, have ignored the fate of those below. â€œElites, who define the issues, have lost touch with the people,â€ he writes.
But he goes further, painting a picture of an elite that harbors little sentiment of noblesse oblige toward the common people; that has little regard for democratic ideals; that favors globalism over patriotism; that accepts assaults on free speech in the academy; that sneeringly assaults the national heritage and the foundations of Western thought; that promotes a politics of diversity and a preoccupation with â€œself-esteemâ€ (tied to identity politics) to the detriment of civic harmony; that fosters civic rancor through its open borders advocacy; and that employs powerful weapon-words such as â€œracist,â€ â€œsexist,â€ and â€œxenophobicâ€ to stifle debate on matters it wants handled out of established halls of discourse.
In short, Lasch portrays an elite that has cut itself off from its own nation and civilization. He invokes Jose Ortega y Gassetâ€™s famous book from the 1930s, The Revolt of the Masses, written in the era of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of European fascism. Ortega saw the Western crisis of that time as a product of the â€œpolitical domination of the massesâ€¦the spoiled child of human history.â€ Now the spoiled child, says Lasch, is the new elite.
â€œToday,â€ he writes, â€œit is the elites, howeverâ€”those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debateâ€”that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.â€ Indeed, he adds that for many of these people the very term â€œWestern civilizationâ€ now â€œcalls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppressionâ€”women, children, homosexuals, people of colorâ€”in a permanent state of subjection.â€
18 Jul 2016
Pamela Constable is a Washington Post correspondent and a typical traitor-to-her-class Baby Boomer, who grew up in WASP-y, privileged Connecticut only to rebel against her parents’ values and become a Social Justice Warrior Holier-Than-Thou. Now, rather late in the game, she is beginning to understand that her parents sacrificed and struggled without complaint to obtain for her the privileged life-style she so despised, and she is beginning to see that the old-fashioned WASP virtues of hard work, good manners, emotional restraint, and good taste have quite a lot to be said for them.
My childhood was a cocoon of tennis and piano lessons, but once I reached my teens, disturbing news began filtering in from the world beyond. An alumna of my elementary school gave an impassioned speech about her summer registering black voters in the South. At boarding school, a current-events teacher introduced me to McCarthyism and apartheid, and I watched the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Filled with righteous indignation, I memorized Bob Dylan songs about poverty and injustice and vowed to become a crusading journalist. Above my study carrel, I taped the famous journalistic directive to â€œcomfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.â€
The most convenient target I could afflict was my parents, who seemed more worried about their daughter turning into a hippie than about a world full of rampant wrongs. I wrote them earnest letters railing against capitalism, country clubs and colonial exploitation. I accused them of being snobs and racists and scoffed at their preoccupation with appearance. If they were hurt or offended, they never let it show, in part because I kept getting Aâ€™s and dutifully stood through numerous fittings for my debutante dress.
I hardly saw my parents during my four years at Brown, a tumultuous time that included the bombing of Cambodia and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Soon after graduation I was gone, immersed in big-city newspaper work. I spent a decade writing about alcoholics and juvenile delinquents and slumlords. Eventually my reporting took me even farther afield, to impoverished or war-torn countries such as Haiti and Chile, India and Afghanistan. It was an adventuresome and stimulating career, but it was also a kind of private atonement for having grown up amid such privilege. I rarely told anyone where I was from.
Over time, my relations with my parents settled into a long-distance detente that was affectionate but formal. We sent each other thank-you notes and avoided talking about politics. Yet even though I had run as far from Connecticut as I could, every time I called from another war zone or refugee camp, they always asked eagerly, â€œWhen might we see you again?â€ The guest room was always waiting, with a few ancient stuffed animals on the pillow.
Still, it was only after witnessing the desperation and cruelty of life in much of the world that I began to reexamine my prejudices against the cloister I had fled. In some countries, I saw how powerful forces could keep people trapped in poverty for life; in others, how neighbors could slaughter each other in spasms of hate. I met child brides and torture victims, religious fanatics and armed rebels. I explored societies shattered by civil war, upended by revolution, and strangled by taboo and tradition.
Visiting home between assignments, I found myself noticing and appreciating things I had always taken for granted â€” the tamed greenery and smooth streets, the absence of fear and abundance of choice, the code of good manners and civilized discussion. I also began to learn things about my parents I had never known and to realize that I had judged them unfairly. I had confused their social discomfort with condescension and their conservatism with callousness.
Read the whole thing.
23 Mar 2015
A typical group of WASP preppies in olden times.
Robert Laird (a WASP Harvard guy) discusses the vexed relations between the two most influential American tribes.
I was raised to be prejudiced against the Jews. Not because they were inferior or evil or un-Christian, but because they were the only serious rivals of the real Chosen People, people of Anglo-Saxon and celtic descent. For my father it was that simple. If we were the New York Yankees, they were the Boston Red Sox, which meant that almost everything about them was wrong or at least unacceptable. Everything different was a line of demarcation. They were Democrats (many of them Communists). They were ostentatious in their wealth. They had bad taste in cars and houses and clothes. They were loud and obnoxious. They had bad manners and didn’t even know it. Everything similar was the field of competition. They were smart, they were devoted to education, they were fiercely competitive, they took care of their own, they had a way of enduring storm after storm after catastrophe and still rising almost unbelievably at the top of whatever hierarchy they were in. They were so much like us in every important way that they were completely intolerable because they sent food back in restaurants and made dirty jokes in mixed company. It was absolutely unacceptable to let them beat you in what mattered most: school. …
Always a romantic in the Sir Walter Scott mode, I thought Judaism itself was boring and creepily emasculating. Those yarmulkes and shawls. The dumb hats and curls of the orthodox. I thought Jewish accents and inflections were jarring, nasal, Hebrew a language of throat-clearing coughs that sounded gross compared to the music of English. Their synagogues looked like community centers, not holy places. Their young women wore ugly shoes and their older women wore too much makeup and nagged in public. They offended my esthetic senses, all of them. Although I did fall in love with Rebecca when I read Ivanhoe. If only I could meet one like her… which I did only much much later.
Read the whole thing.
I attended a Lithuanian parochial elementary school, so I never actually had Jewish schoolmates before high school. In high school, I had a whopping two, count ’em, Jewish classmates. One of them was academically hopeless. The other was the best male student in our class, after me. He followed the stereotype accurately. He wanted to succeed. He worked furiously. And he always came in second. I did essentially no work in high school. I just pursued my own personal program of self education through extensive reading. I never did homework. I could always churn out the obligatory Latin exercises and math problems in school before the relevant classes.
Relations between Lithuanians and Jews in Shenandoah were very amicable. We bought our furniture and appliances from Jewish merchants who treated our parents like distant relatives. When my parents wanted a new range or a new sofa, they would go see Benny Schoor, who would make a big fuss over them, express enthusiasm over their selection and arrange to deliver it the next day. My parents never asked what Benny proposed to charge and they never paid in cash. A month or two after their purchase was delivered, a bill for some small sum from Benny would appear in the mail. My parents would make whatever monthly payment it was, and eventually the bills would stop coming. Everybody had perfect confidence in the honesty and reliability of everybody else.
I thought of Jewish kids, like Italians, as hopeless incompetent non-combatants, who needed to be looked after and protected by tough Lithuanians like myself from the predatory juvenile gangs of Poles, Irish, Slovaks, and Lithuanian scum who roamed our town’s streets looking for victims.
Where I grew up, pretty much everyone was some kind of Roman Catholic ethnic immigrant type with names like Kowalonek and Wodjehowski, so I got a real kick out of being at Yale and getting to meet people with English-language names, just like the people I’d read about in books.
WASPs struck me as a lot like Lithuanians who had simply been in the country longer and had more money, and who had consequently successfully cultivated better manners and tastes. Like Lithuanians, WASPs, I found, placed a high value on emotional restraint, revered tradition, cared strongly about morality and respectability, and typically possessed a love of order and a recognition of the necessity of making a practice of doing things correctly.
I think there is a general recognition, in the larger world, of a lot of similarities between the New England WASP tribe and the Jewish tribe. Both have traditionally been clannish, moralistic, hectoring and intolerant, intensely ambitious and keen on acquiring wealth and worldly success.
What seems odd to an outside spectator like myself has been the incredibly dramatic and downright astonishing retreat of the WASP from the center of the America Establishment, and his precipitous surrender of control and operation of the culture and institutions to others, most frequently to Jews. The American WASP was traditionally distinguished by his firm grip on common sense and his Yankee shrewdness and skepticism. All those admirable qualities have not been much in evidence in recent decades. Faced with the rise of a left-wing culture of accusation and complaint, the gentlemanly WASP has simply hung his head in shame over the alleged crimes of his ancestors and slunk quietly off the stage.
I think myself that the vanishing of the old-fashioned WASP from the culture and the establishment is really a pity. The old gentlemen who used to run things were more than adequately well-meaning, but they also had good sense. You couldn’t panic or stampede those people. If Eric Holder’s Justice Department had come along and demanded that Yale create a new Star Chamber system to adjudicate sexual harassment complaints or lose federal aid, old President Seymour, I suspect, would have felt bad at losing all that money, but would still have told Eric Holder that Yale would not comply. No one would ever expect the current president of Yale to resist the tide of fashion in any form.