When Penn lawprof Amy Wax and San Diego lawprof Larry Alexander wrote about the breakdown of bourgeois culture, they were excoriated for being racist. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it was taken as an homage to a time in America when racism reigned rather than a commentary on the nature of human conduct and relationships that served to sustain us as a society. Hard work? Family? Education? Civic-mindedness? All tools of white supremacy, probably the patriarchy as well.
But what if these horrifying and exhausting characteristics of American society were divorced from other, negative aspects of society?
They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement.
They weren’t endorsing racism, which remained a fixture of America during its halcyon days of “late 1940s to the mid-1960s,” as should have been apparent but, apparently, wasn’t. The problem was that the unduly passionate couldn’t, wouldn’t, separate the idea promoted from other things happening concurrently. And so the entire concept was derided as awful, baby and bathwater.
Ross Douhat learned nothing from this episode.
This week I briefly trended on Twitter — a bracing experience for any columnist, because it means that you’ve done your job of provocation a little bit too well.
In my particular case the provocation was a column about the phenomenon of George H.W. Bush nostalgia, which I suggested reflected a general nostalgia for some of the aristocratic virtues of the old WASP establishment, and a disappointment with the meritocracy that has risen in its place.
This argument was read by certain readers (and a few social media non-readers) as a paean to white privilege, even a brief for white supremacy. In these misreadings, there was an assumption that to praise, in any way, the elite that predated the modern meritocracy is to reject racial diversity, minority and female advancement, in favor of permanent white rule.
This ungenerous interpretation of Douhat’s point gave rise to his denial and re-explanation of his point, this time using smaller words so even the woke on social media might understand. After all, suggesting the old WASP establishment possessed any virtue is cause for burning at the stake, and Douhat isn’t so naive as to blow his sweet gig at the New York Times for a deep thought.
First, Douhat explains that when he referred to a WASP, it wasn’t just any white anglo-saxon protestant.
Here it’s important to stress that a WASP was not just any white Protestant or upper-crust American of the pre-1960s past. The term properly refers to a specific kind of American elite, mostly from the Northeast, mostly high-church Protestants, concentrated in a few cities (Boston, Philadelphia, New York, plus some Midwestern and Californian outposts), generally associated with the Republican Party (with occasional defectors like F.D.R.), who dominated a particular set of fields (academia, finance, foreign policy) and shared the code of service and piety and manners that defined the elder Bush’s career.
He later adds in a quip by Ann Richards that gives it a more woke gloss.
But even as it restratifies society, the meritocratic order also insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned. “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple,” Ann Richards famously quipped of George H.W. Bush; well, the typical meritocrat is born on third base, hustles home, and gets praised as if he just hit a grand slam.
So he’s woke enough not to conflate privilege with merit, even as he praises the virtues of the meritocrat. But that still doesn’t get to the very specific cadre of WASPs of which he speaks.
The WASPs were distinct from other white elites — including the planter class that ruled the South, the regional elites that emerged as the frontier moved westward, the immigrant tycoons who challenged WASP power in the East. Their importance rested, to borrow from a WASP acquaintance’s email this week, on being “primus inter pares” — first among equals, with a particular kind of power in a particular set of institutions, and an ability to set a tone for the American upper class that was adopted by other groups when they ascended.
For all his efforts to talk his way off the pyre, however, Douhat really never gets to the point. Because I’m a swell and particularly helpful fella, I will do so on his behalf. There is almost a Platonic ideal to this view, a group of people of such wealth, such education, such impeccable taste, who will never lack for any comfort in their lives and will forever be welcome in the halls of power. They were, indeed, first among equals.
And this extremely select group was charged with what they were told was a higher calling, they “shared the code of service and piety and manners.” It was the American version of noblesse oblige, a duty of the few to serve as the leaders of the many as both a birthright and a responsibility.
The problem with this American aristocracy is one I learned a generation ago when SJ World Headquarters was moved into their midst, a stone’s throw from neighbors with names like Rockefeller, Morgan and Roosevelt. They were extremely knowledgeable about such matters as which fork to use, whether their wine glass was on the left or right and could recite the names of all five premier grand cru classés, as if anyone they would associate with needed to know.
Remarkably, every one of them had, at some point in their careers following their education at Choate, before it merged with Rosemary Hall, and Harvard, worked for the CIA or the State Department. It was the male debutante ball. And each expected to serve, perhaps in the Senate if not the Oval, or perhaps in some function where only their own would know of their service. Whether the groundlings knew their name was irrelevant, as the groundlings were irrelevant. What mattered was that their peers knew they were fulfilling their obligation to America.
So Douhat is right that they possessed a gentility, manners and dedication to service that exists among no other group. But despite being born with a silver spoon in their mouth that was so huge that it’s astounding they didn’t choke on it, they had one enormous drawback. They absolutely believed they were the best and the brightest, and they were doing the rest of us a favor. The elites were exceptionally good at appearing elite. They just weren’t as good at governing as they were sure they were.