Yesterday, Ross Douthat published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled Why We Miss the Wasps. His byline: “Their more meritocratic, diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” The entire piece is bizarre. Douthat’s basic argument is that we—the American people—long for a past period when a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elite ruled our country with “noblesse oblige,” displaying nobility, generosity, and wise, sound leadership.
Douthat begins by quoting from an Atlantic article, where:
[I]n The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness 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 weren’t.”
“People” wish the rule of the WASP elite weren’t gone? What “people”??
I’m also not at all convinced that the WASP elite Foer and Douthat describe is actually “gone.” Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, the two most recent nominees to the Supreme Court, fit Foer’s description perfectly (albeit Kavanaugh is Catholic, not Protestant). So, too, does Donald Trump, our current president.
Look, I don’t miss the rule of the WASP elite (to the extent that it has actually disappeared,” so Douthat and Foer can dispense with their use of “we” and “people” as though they are speaking for the entire American populace. They’re not.
Douthat goes on as follows:
I think you can usefully … describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — 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 — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.
Look, I get that I’m young. I was born in the 1980s. But Douthat isn’t actually that much older than I am. He was born in 1979. He may look at the past with rose colored glasses, but that doesn’t mean it felt that way to live through it.
He may not have lived through the period, but surely Douthat knows that the 1960s and 1970s were periods of great tension. My great-aunt recently told me that it was a very scary time, for white people. (I asked whether it might not also have been a scary time for black people.) It wasn’t just a period of marches and police dogs, thing things we remember. There were riots, left-wing paramilitary groups, FBI plots against internal groups, bombings (by paramilitary groups and the government), an angry, passionate anti-war movement, the slaughter at Kent State, assassinations, and far, far more.
We think of our own time as troubled, but then, so does everyone. The 1950s were plagued by great tensions—tension over race, panics over juvenile delinquency and drugs, and horrific demonization of LGBT individuals and cultures. It was the decade of massive resistance, as states closed down their school systems rather than integrate. Violent white mobs terrified blacks across the South. Then there was McCarthyism, the trails of major Hollywood figures, panics over an alleged internal Communist threat—and, you know, the whole Cold War potential global nuclear war thing.
Nor was the 1940s a time of equanimity. Americans only came to see WWII as “the good war” in retrospect. The period was plagued with fears about the moral wellbeing of American troops (and young women), fears about juvenile delinquency (with their mothers at work in factories making airplanes), and the like. Oh, and in the 1948s an entire segment of the Democratic Party, critical of Truman’s performance, bolted and founded their own party—the Dixiecrats. Their candidate, Strom Thurmond, won four states. So much for some sort of widespread trust in the elite.
Should we go back still further? We can! FDR faced massive political residence during the 1930s, during a time of widespread poverty, transience, fear, internal unrest, and the rise of populist demagogues. White mobs attacked filipino farm workers—and blacks. It was also a time of global unrest as dictators around the world solidified power and expanded their reach, engaging in gross atrocities as the world, for the most part, sat by. Domestically, FDR became so frustrated with the limits on his power that he made plans to pack the Supreme Court, leading to political crisis.
What of the 1920s? Political scandal—Teapot Dome, anyone?—corruption, Prohibition, mobsters, concern over “flappers” and moral decay. The bombing of Black Wall Street. The 1910s? The jailing of anti-war activists, anarchist bombings, mass deportation that accompanied the First Red Scare, the “race riots” of 1919. We can go back further, too, and here we find more labor unrest, unionized workers shot by police, their families slaughtered by private armies employed by companies, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, child labor, corruption, more race riots, more bombings.
See also, the genocide of Native Americans. Jim Crow laws. A civil war. Slavery. More genocide of Native Americans. Anti-Catholicism. Bleeding Kansas. The Fugitive Slave Act. The burning of abolitionist halls in the North.There was no perfect past era. What Douthat—and Foer—so nostalgically describe is an imagined past. Foer, to his credit, appears to know that. Douthat, not so much. As Douthat writes:
Foer suggests this nostalgia is mostly bunk, since the WASPs were so often bigots (he quotes Henry Adams’s fears of a “furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the ghetto”), since their cultivation of noblesse oblige was really all about “preserving [a] place at the high table of American life,” and since so many of their virtues were superficial, a matter of dressing nicely while practicing imperialism, or writing lovely thank-you notes while they outsourced the dirty work of politics to race-baiting operatives.
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.
So if some of the elder Bush’s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — 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 — 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 — a cosmopolitanism that coexisted with white man’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 today’s shallow multiculturalists.
And somehow the combination of pious obligation joined to cosmopolitanism gave the old establishment a distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship — 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 hasn’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 didn’t have to like the establishment — and certainly its members were often eminently hateable — to prefer their leadership to many of the possible alternatives. And as an American today, you don’t have to miss everything about the WASPs, or particularly like their remaining heirs, to feel nostalgic for their competence.
This is a bizarrely rose-colored view of the WASP elite. In Douthat’s telling, the WASP elite practiced austerity (despite having vast amounts of concentrated generational wealth), they were cosmopolitan and understood the non-American world (despite participating in colonialism and—oh dear, I forgot to even include the massive, bloody war the U.S. waged against a Filipino independence movement in the early 1900s, resulting in a million civilian deaths, in my earlier list).
Also, re. George H. W. Bush’s military experience—it was a World War. Around 10% of the U.S. population (including women, the elderly, and children) served in the military. Our entire economy and way of life realigned to center on the war. We have not had a war like that since. If your grandfathers (or fathers, or great-grandfathers, depending on your age) lived in the U.S. at the time, they either served in the military or had a very good reason for not doing so.
Anyway, Douthat goes on at some length, but this is his core argument: that the WASP elite was simply more competent than the more meritocratic and diverse ruling class that has supplanted them. He wishes that the WASP elite had retained the reins of power, he says, while admitting blacks, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, and women, provided they agreed to play by its rules. He would rather be ruled by this elite than by a more diverse, meritocratic elite that he sees as less competent.
And somehow he wants us to believe that this is not a race thing, or a class thing, or a gender thing. Sure, our current political elite is more likely than in past generations to be black, or non-Protestant, or female, or from a working class background—but that’s not why they’re less competent. They just … happen to be less competent. That’s all!
Oh, and Douthat also adds this:
It’s de rigueur for liberals to lament the decline of the Rockefeller Republicans, or the compromises that a moderate northeastern WASP like George H.W. Bush made with Sunbelt populism. But a WASP establishment that couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard was never likely to maintain its hold on a mass political organization like the G.O.P.
We live in a strange era, my friends—an era when the New York Times is decried as being a Leftist propaganda tool, while simultaneously publishing thinly veiled (if veiled at all) odes to white supremacy, like this piece by Douthat.
(If you’re wondering where you’ve heard Douthat mentioned before, you’re probably remembering this piece, in which Douthat argued that one way to get incels to stop murdering women is to “redistribute” sex so that everyone has access.)
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