Monday, June 28, 2010

The greatest triumph of the WASP 

Noah Feldman, in today's NYT, writes about the greatest triumph of the American WASP elite (short commentary below):

But satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court. Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph....

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Read the whole thing, especially if you know what the term "dirty bicker" means.

A personal note and short commentary

After the ellipsis above there are all sorts of qualifications, but the point remains, American WASPs made a decision to open up American society in the last 75 years not because they were forced to do, but because they thought it was the right thing to do. My grandfather, a Scottish-American from Maine who went to Bowdoin College and graduated from the second class of the Harvard Business School, was president of the St. Andrews Golf Club in Westchester when it first admitted blacks in the late 1940s. At dinner with him there in the 1980s, such was his pride that he teared up telling the story of it.

My grandfather's story would be more remarkable if countless thousands of American WASPs born between, say, 1880 and 1940 had not done the same thing in their own businesses, universities, churches, clubs, and government agencies, in most cases without the application of legal pressure.

Which history makes it all the more galling that the entertainment industry has more or less decided that WASP businessmen are the archetypal villain of our age.


By Anonymous Jeff Foreman, at Mon Jun 28, 06:00:00 PM:

Well put. I have held, more or less, this same thought for years, never having been sure how to articulate the thing without sounding absurdly arrogant; but it is very much a valid view of history, in my opinion.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Mon Jun 28, 07:10:00 PM:

I think that this thesis probably has its proper origin in the writings of Digby Baltzell, who died in 1996, but is credited with coining the term "WASP." Prof. Baltzell was a sociology professor at Penn, and was also an acquaintance of my late father's. Prof. Baltzell would likely say that some of his fellow WASP elites were not as enthusiastic as others about the concept of opening up institutions, but that it was the very credibility of those institutions that was at stake, as well as the continuing rejuvenation and strengthening of those institutions.

Having only a small portion of the WASP gene (really, pre-Declaration of Independence Dutch, in New Jersey, at that), I have always assumed things proceeded on the basis of meritocracy and hopefully a modicum of courtesy, and that, frankly, until the food got better at WASP country clubs, was it really a big deal whether I was a member? Now that the food is in fact better, and the clubs aren't truly WASP clubs anymore, I am not sure I see much of a point; or, to put it in Groucho Marx's terms, I don't think I want to be a member of any club that would have me, heh.

Nearly 80 years ago, when my father was applying to Princeton in the middle of the Great Depresssion, the admissions department wanted to know, "Are you a white guy who can pay cash for the tuition, and have you graduated in the top quintile or so of your private school?" Needless to say, it is a bit more difficult to get in to an Ivy League school now, and the universities are immeasurably more diverse and competitive. (One might argue that the universities are rife with political and philosophical homogeneity, as may have been true 70-80 years ago, but it is a different set of politics altogether, and really a separate discussion).

As to dirty bicker, it was real, I know men who graduated in the 1950s who carried that unfortunate experience around with them for a lifetime. Not a great episode in the history of Prospect Street.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jun 29, 01:16:00 AM:

So the anti-aristocratic ideals of the WASP has led to increased opportunities for other groups who can now foster their own exclusive privilege which exclude the WASP.
Makes sense.
The makeup of the Supreme Court is not an accident and is not the result of merit and inclusion.
Stupid to cede your dominance to other groups who won't abide by the same standards.  

By Blogger D. B. Light, at Tue Jun 29, 03:07:00 AM:

The idea that the old WASP elites were not meritocratic is problematic. They rewarded merit, but judged it differently. Today we rely on bureaucratic credentialing institutions and professional associations to define and certify merit. Before WWII the WASP elites relied more judgments based on deep personal observation of up and coming individuals. Of course the old system was easily corrupted; but as David Brooks keeps reminding us, so too is the new "meritocracy". And, Brooks further observes, it is hard to see that the new system provides better governance or business leadership than the old one.

Thanks for mentioning "Digger" Baltzell. He was one of the good guys.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jun 29, 08:08:00 AM:

You're not going to enjoy being governed by the Hostile International Bolshevik "Elite" that's subverted the USA!  

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