Copyright John T. Reed 2013
I fear young people may not understand this. Unfortunately, they need to.
There was a super article in the 12/21/13 Wall Street Journal titled “The late, great American WASP.” Google the title to read it.
WASP stands for white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. It also refers to a group often called preppies. WASPs/preppies rarely refer to themselves by those names. Those names are put-downs against them used by not-WASPs/non-preppies.
The subtitle refers to them as “the old U.S. ruling class,” which they were until about the 1970s
FIRST, I must make two important points:
The author of the article, Joseph Epstein, sounds Jewish which would most definitely mean he is not and never has been a WASP.
I am not and never have been a WASP or preppy.
My maternal ancestors were Irish and German/Hungarian Catholics. I was forced to attend Catholic school from 1st through 5th grade at which time we moved to a rural area with no Catholic school. There I was forced to attend Catholic religion school once a week after regular school and I was forced to attend Catholic mass by my mother until I graduated from college. By definition, Catholics are not WASPs.
After 5th grade, I attended public schools and went to college at a public school called West Point. Preppies go to a handful of expensive boarding schools in the New England area, not public schools.
My paternal ancestors include a Cherokee great great grandmother, and a bunch of Scots-Irish West Virginians. James Madison, the fourth president and Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is my distant cousin. My father had to go to the Episcopalian church, which was the “official” church of the WASPs. But WASP has a connotation of being rich and elite. My father’s family were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but they were relatively poor farmers, not rich or elite. My father was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He always attended public schools. He did not go to college. In other words, the WASPS did not have poor relations other than technically. So my father was not a WASP in any sense of the phrase.
A call-out in the Journal article says,
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant—but they were far from being WASPs.
Ditto my dad’s ancestors. They were more like Carter and Clinton than FDR or George H.W. Bush (the last WASP to rule America, although he did it in part by trying to disguise himself as a regular guy—his son, George W., chose to be a Texan not a WASP).
However, since my early 20s, I have become intimately familiar with WASPS and my sons are arguably half WASP.
I graduated from college in 1968 and first became aware of preppies when I saw the 1970 movie Love Story.
In 1972, I started dating one, sort of. My wife was born in Indonesia and grew up in that country, Taiwan, and Ethiopia. However she is a WASP preppy by DNA if not upbringing. She is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (which requires a verified ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. She has ancestors on both sides of her family who did that.). My wife’s father is a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence named Francis Lewis. My mother-in-law’s maiden name was Cornell and she is related to the family that Cornell University is named after.
My wife is not a preppy in the sense of going to a prep school, but her parents were essentially part of that crowd. Her big sister went to a prep school.
I encountered the preppies big time when I entered Harvard Business School. In some ways, I thought they were a bit ridiculous. They sort of wore a uniform: two Ralph Lauren polo shirts (one on top of the other?), corduroy tan sport jacket, LL Bean chinos, and topsider shoes with no socks.
Many of them also put their preppy elementary school and high school on their “graduating-from-Harvard-Business-School-in-their-late-20s” resumes. I did NOT think that was okay. It was a way of saying, “hire me not the other guy because I am one of your fellow preppies and he’s not.”
In 1980, The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach came out. I think it was a best seller. Funny. Informative and accurate. When my mother-in-law came to visit, she read our copy and said afterwards, “Yes, we are preppies.” Among other thing, preppies like ducks and have images them around their homes. My wife bought replica mallard ducks for our mantle years before the Preppy Handbook came out. I never understood why the heck she did that until I read the book. She did not understand why she did that until she read the book!
I have often referred to my post-Harvard self as nouveau preppy. I am big on Ralph Lauren clothes. (Ralph, a Jew and arguably one of the top arbiters of preppy culture, is mentioned in the Journal article. He is also nouveau preppy.)
So, there is my full disclosure about how WASP/preppy I was born and raised—zero—and my subsequent, considerable associations with WASPdom/prepdom. In short, I am not one, but I have been real close to many of them and wear clothes like them.
The full subtitle of the article gives you its thesis:
The old U.S. ruling class had its problems. But are we really better off with a country run by the self-involved, over-schooled products of modern meritocracy?
The author’s answer to that question is “Hell, no!”
I agree. And the article is not some racist tract that calls for the restoration of the of the old legacy crowd. Rather it points out that the WASPS, while not perfect, had a culture and character that placed a far higher value on integrity and doing the right thing. The phrase noblesse oblige was not in the article, but it could have been.
Barack Obama, Mr. nouveau Chicago politics, does not have the slightest hint of any character remotely resembling integrity or noblesse oblige. He is a prime example of the “self-involved, over-schooled products of modern meritocracy” or in his specific case, “modern affirmative action.”
American WASPs are a subset of British upper-classes. When they hold high office and screw up or are asked to do something they regard a improper, they resign. The last time I remember that happening in America was when Nixon’s Attorney General Elliott Richardson was ordered by Nixon to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox whom Richardson had appointed. Elliott refused and resigned rather than obey the order.
Richardson was a consummate WASP—of course, he was a graduate of Hahvahd College and editor and president of the Hahvahd Law Review. (Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, a new, political-only position. Editor is strictly a merit position. Obama is often erroneously said to have been editor. Like hell he was!)
Cox was also a consummate WASP and a graduate of Hahvahd College and Law School.
If Richardson was Secretary of HHS now, the job now held by Kathleen Sebelius, he would have resigned after the Obamacare debacle became apparent. Indeed, he was once Secretary of HEW, the predecessor cabinet department to HHS.
Sebelius, a graduate of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. with a B.A. in political science and an MBA from the University of Kansas, will resign when hell freezes over. She is one of the “self-involved, over-schooled products of modern meritocracy.” As Epstein says in his article,
Doing the right thing, especially in the face of temptations to do otherwise, was the WASP test par excellence. Most of our meritocrats, by contrast, seem to be in business for themselves.
Epstein makes an interesting point I had never thought of, but I instantly recognize that he is correct. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the John F. Kennedy family, was a non-WASP Irishman who desperately aspired to WASP-hood to an almost comical degree. He graduated from Hahvahd, sent his sons to prep schools and Hahvahd, and was the U.S. Ambassador to England in the years leading up to World War II. But at Hahvahd, Joe was not allowed into the most prestigious WASP fraternity—a little know-your-place put-down.
Getting his son Joe, Jr., then John, elected president of the U.S. was his way of barging into WASPdom whether they liked it or not. Joe, Jr. was killed over the English Channel during World War II switching Senior’s presidential ambitions to the next son John by continued primogeniture. All that Camelot high-culture stuff about the Kennedy administration was a continued effort by the Kennedy family to put themselves firmly in WASPdom, notwithstanding their continued Catholicism. JFK’s wife Jacqueline was a preppy, as was JFK.
I remember in 1960 my mom and her family were all excited about a Catholic, Irish person getting elected president as a sign of that ethnic group finally having “arrived” in America, not unlike the feelings of blacks about Obama becoming president. Roughly speaking, my mom’s family and friends were thrilled about an Irish, Catholic joining the elite, American ruling class.
And here is a parallel that Epstein did not point out. I was in the U.S. Army for eight years: four as a West Point cadet and four as an Army officer. I have called the Army officer corps faux aristocratic, faux royalty. You have to salute them and call them“ sir.” They fancy themselves similar to British aristocrats and royalty. They are sort of Joseph Kennedy, Senior without the talent, intelligence, and money. They talk a good game about honor and integrity and doing the right thing. Here is the West Point Cadet Prayer which sounds like it could be the WASP/preppy prayer.
Great stuff, but a total fraud in the U.S. Army officer corps. See my article http://www.johntreed.com/militaryhonor.html.
I read a book in 2000 called The Big Test. Its subtitle is “The Secret History of American Meritocracy.” I felt it was very much my story. During the World Wars, the Army used a standardized IQ test to do a better job of placing draftees in the optimum job to win the war. (Winning wars was the focus back then in the U.S. military. Now it’s diversity.)
The SAT test for college admission was a descendant of the Army IQ test. Before the SAT, getting into selective colleges was a matter of whether your father went there, what high school you went to (prep school or other), and your grades, although those were subjective so where you went to school was more important than your grades. The basic idea of the Army IQ test was your worth was determined by the test, not any of that who you father was stuff. Merit, not who you know.
My father was a West Virginia farm boy who became a mean drunk during World War II and who couldn’t keep a job. Nowadays, if you told the college that, it would increase your chances of getting admitted. Back then it would probably have increased your chances of getting rejected on the like-father-like-son theory. My mom worked as a secretary and was the bread winner. If WASPS ruled the world, I was shut out. But as a result of my SAT scores and being a decent student and being somewhat athletic and healthy, I got into West Point and later into Harvard Business School.
But it’s hard to argue with Epstein’s point that those WASPs did a far more admirable job with regard to try to doing the right thing than the products of the meritocracy as a group. Obviously, we need a combination of both, meaning we need leaders with WASP character albeit from whatever family and ethnic/religious background they might come.
Epstein says that WASP culture now only exists in pockets—in some country clubs, neighborhoods, and a few prep schools. It also still exists in some fraternities in the Ivy League and is alive and well as a clothing industry niche including Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, L.L. Bean, and this rather long list of other preppy companies.
Epstein further says that the meritocracy is really nothing but those who get admired to top undergraduate colleges. To do that simply requires that one be a super high school student. But where does it say that people who were super high school students are the best to lead the nation? In fact, they are just good students. Being the son of a WASP did not prove you were the best, but neither does being the son of a Tiger Mom.
A good student might even be more than a bit of a follower, a conformist, standing ready to give satisfaction to the powers tat be so that one can proceed to the next good school…
In my writings I have condemned those who spend their whole lives going hat in hand to seek the approval of boards and committees in order to get admitted and promoted and validated. That is how the meritocracy really works, not on pure merit, which is hard to measure outside of math, science, and foreign languages. But rather they admit and promote on the basis of skill as a sycophant. See my web article “The 'U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament'
OR 'How America selects its generals'.”
Getting rid of the WASP-ocracy does not mean you have made things better; only different. They new “ocracy”—including the so-called “meritocracy,” may be worse.
Here is the main message in Epstein’s article:
Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal, and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity, and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided. What our new meritocrats have failed to provide—and what the old WASP generation prided itself on—is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own.
Thus far in their history, meritocrats, those earnest good students, appear to be about little more than getting on, getting ahead and (above all) getting their own. The WASP leadership, for all that may be said in criticism of it, was better than that.
John T. Reed