WASPs are still alive and well, and still influence the U.S.

The Argument

Despite the obituaries for the white Anglo-Saxon elite, the values and attitudes they epitomize go on reigning


October 13, 2002|By Lauren A. Weiner | By Lauren A. Weiner,Special to the Sun

Joseph Epstein's Snobbery: The American Version (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $25) is about various kinds of elitism that have supposedly replaced the elitism of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. WASPS no longer guide our national life, this author insists.

To chronicle "snobbery in its new, post-WASP-dominated American setting," Epstein writes of celebrity snobbery, SAT-based college snobbery, democratic snobbery and many other undeniably real phenomena. He exaggerates, however, the extent to which WASPs have been relegated to the sidelines.

Even as the Social Register seems to be going the way of the dodo bird, the WASP presence shines through in a number of recent books. Those who came over on the Mayflower, and their descendants, still color our collective imagination, still put their WASP stamp on American history and culture, and obviously still occupy the White House -- even to the point of family dynasty.

The arch tone and eclectic approach of the Epstein book bring to mind Paul Fussell's Class (Summit Books, 1983, 202 pages). Despite the similarities between Snobbery and Class, I enlist the latter on my side. Fussell dwells on how middle-class Americans ape those they consider above them socially. He speaks of "the snob power of New England" and "the pliability of the locals to the long-wielded moral and cultural authority of old families." The scorn that Fussell heaps on both the snobs and the wannabes doesn't affect my point, which is: If the WASPs are still models, they still matter.

Epstein says their institutions continue to exist -- the Episcopal Church, the Ivy League universities, the old-line investment firms -- but "in a vastly attenuated form." If you define the WASP narrowly, that is true. Richard Brookhiser, in his short and wonderful The Way of the Wasp: How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak (Free Press, 1991, 171 pages), does not use a narrow definition. The Way of the Wasp includes "the whole loaf, not just the upper crust" -- the inhabitants of "Akron and Arkansas, not just Andover." For Brookhiser, "Wasp character is the American character."

This character contains positive and negative traits that he says are traceable to the founding generations, who embodied, while also rebelling against, British traits and customs: "success depending on industry; use giving industry its task; civic-mindedness placing obligations on success, and anti-sensuality setting limits to the enjoyment of it; conscience watching over everything."

Ah yes, the conscience. Brookhiser gives a telling quote from Secretary of War Elihu Root, secretary of war at the beginning of the 20th century: "We rightly desire honor and distinction. ... But always we must remember the glory is not ours." The fear of God imposes limits on the WASP.

Brookhiser takes more seriously than others do the "P" (Protestant) part of the acronym. When one ponders the array of Protestant denominations, and the political movements connected with them, one begins to see diversity here (to use a trendy term that is normally used to rebuke WASPs).

William Lloyd Garrison the abolitionist and John C. Calhoun the slaveocrat -- both WASPs. Brookhiser points out that it was the WASPs who gave us Prohibition, but it's a group with more than its share of drunks. Jerry Falwell is a WASP, yet so is William Sloane Coffin, the anti-Vietnam activist.

Diversity, and also defection from the ranks -- both are in fact the way of the WASP. American Protestantism lost some of its political and social unity, and the upper crust first began to lose its self-confidence, during the time of capitalism's most severe growing pains, the Gilded Age. Fighting Poverty With Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000 by Joel Schwartz (Indiana University Press, 2000, 353 pages, $39.95) concerns not the religious right, about whom we hear a lot, but the forgotten religious left, which formed during that age.

Schwartz describes moral reformers like the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, who sought to lift up the poor of the teeming cities by inculcating in them thrift, industry and sobriety. The moral reformers were overtaken by a new breed, advocates of the "Social Gospel" -- such as the clergyman Walter Rauschenbusch -- who believed that the usual Protestant faith in individualist virtues blinded Protestants to the social causes of urban poverty. The Social Gospelers proved influential. Their collectivist and root-causes thinking -- and their low expectations of the uneducated and the destitute -- are recognizable in liberals of today, whether secular or religious.

For more proof that to be an American is to be WASP-ified to at least some degree, consider that anyone who has gone through a high school or college athletic program has been exposed to the ethos implanted by the "Muscular Christians" of the 19th century: that rigorous exercise and competition build moral character.

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