The thing about WASPS

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, pundits Joseph Epstein and David Brooks have both endorsed the idea that the days when America was ruled by a caste of upper-class white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men were the country’s heyday, when the trains ran on time and all the non-WASPS knew their place (securely subordinate and modeling themselves as much on WASP style as possible).
Both men assert that WASPS ran things better because they had noblesse oblige: They knew they were privileged and that with great privilege came great responsibility. As a result, the corruption we see in today’s meritocratic elite didn’t exist (Brooks, whose usual columns are written to worship our great leaders, gets a little incoherent explaining that their corruption is a problem, sort of, but no, not really).
The assumption of noblesse oblige doesn’t hold up (I’ve made that point before but it’s worth making again). Old-school WASPs were capable of corruption, keeping mistresses, nepotism just like anyone else, though they were more discreet about it. And their sense of privilege, their obligation to run the country well—to the extend they had it—fit quite comfortably with their wish to run it for the benefit of their own class; if you start from the assumption that your own kind are best suited to be in charge, it’s a very easy jump to thinking that discrimination is part of running the country well.
WASPs in government resisted increasing Jewish immigration when Nazi persecution began in Europe. Some WASPs traded actively with Germany even after the war began (the excellent book Trading With the Enemy gives the details). WASPs didn’t consider passing anti-lynching laws as part of their noblesse oblige, or challenging widespread discrimination in housing (which took place all over the country, as detailed in the book Sundown Towns). And they saw nothing wrong—indeed, they saw something commendable—in setting quotas on Jewish and Catholic admissions to the traditional Ivy League schools, not to mention keeping out nonwhites and women. Not that they were any worse than the average American—but they weren’t any better.
So why exactly do Brooks and Epstein think those glory days were so glorious? And what do they think we should do about our current fallen state?
For Brooks, it’s all lumped in with his general weeping and wailing about how the old times used to be so much more moral, back when WASPs imposed tight social cohesion, codes of conduct and moral behavior (as I’ve mentioned before, he should love Saudi Arabia). Because the cause of all our problems is immorality (confined to the lower orders, not the upper-class meritocrats that Brooks fawns on)! And because we’ve become so immoral, there’s no point in spending on unemployment insurance or a social safety net, we have to slash government spending instead (click through the links you’ll get to Brooks column to read it for yourself—but believe me, it doesn’t make any more sense when he says it).
Epstein’s goals are vaguer, which may reflect that I don’t know his writing as much as I do Brooks. He’s very clear that meritocracy doesn’t work, but he seems to equate “merit” with going to the “right” schools. Thus Truman and Reagan, who weren’t Princeton men, somehow prove meritocracy doesn’t select the best; I’d say they’re both examples of talented non-WASPs rising through merit. Likewise he dismisses Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as being “superior students”—implying that other than going to the right schools, they didn’t really have any qualifications. While it’s true that meritocracy isn’t perfect (a lot of tops spots fall to Ivy Leaguers and to the rich), it’s a little hard to see that it’s any worse and in some ways it’s better. As Bill O’Reilly once said, 20 years ago the white establishment would have shut Obama down; it’s good to live in a time when that’s not doable.
My guess would be Epstein’s wish would be to stop challenging white, plutocratic rule. Or maybe he’s just one more crotchety old fart crying in his beer about how back in the good old days everything was so much better…

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The thing about WASPS

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