Those Sorts Of People
October 23, 2019 9:38 AM   Subscribe

“When the rude masses began arriving from Eastern Europe, the WASPs got paranoid that they were, to use the phrase chanted by the rioting Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, about to be “replaced.” They turned on their former class siblings, the German Jews, with whom they’d once shared the upper rungs of American society. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, many old-line WASPs embraced a toxic mix of social Darwinism and eugenics.” To Serve Is To Rule: On WASPs and the longing for a more polite ruling class. (Harper’s)
posted by The Whelk (14 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
One of Abigail Adams's letters from the still-under-construction White House expresses a suspicion that the southerners were relying on slaves because they were racially decadent, and that Yankees would just build it themselves much faster. That kind of thinking goes a long way back, even in the most surprising places. Still, a WASP who knows how to keep his yap shut beats a moron whose money is only 2 generations old and who is already squandering it. Please, Adamses, Lodges, Cabots, Lowells, come back.
posted by ocschwar at 9:52 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I very much liked some parts of this, but like many obituaries for the WASPs as a class, it misses the fact that even the best-behaved WASPs were just as lusty for and obsessed with money as Trump. They made it in different ways and they wouldn’t talk about it as openly, maybe, but it was as much of an obsession for them as it is for the hedge fund managers who’ve more successfully optimized the making of it.

Further, the projection of carelessness in the WASP ethos is its own flavor of terrible. Certain things were not acknowledged because of the code of manners mentioned in this piece. But that didn’t mean they weren’t happening. Trump openly brags about abusing the power of his office and abusing women. WASPs would never discuss dreary things like work or sexual abuse at a dinner party. But they were happy to do them, and meanwhile the WASPs who might have confronted the baddies among their class (ahem like the women who are always invisible in pieces like this) were taught that to do so was bad manners. So you got a whole social class with extreme power pretending they didn’t have any in favor of discussing the Harvard-Yale game (unless you want a lobotomy or to be whispered about as the family weirdo). It is somewhat soul-killing to make small talk about Irish wool with someone’s dad who helped grease the wheels for a brutal war and has never faced social or legal repercussions.

This point was nice, though: “An encouraging thing about the breakdown of the political defense mechanisms is that it provides an opening, not only to Trump’s seething id, but also to challenges from a left unwilling to observe the constraints of Baltzell’s politesse.”
posted by sallybrown at 10:03 AM on October 23, 2019 [20 favorites]

I very much liked some parts of this, but like many obituaries for the WASPs as a class, it misses the fact that even the best-behaved WASPs were just as lusty for and obsessed with money as Trump.

And just as prone to try to wiggle out of scrapes when they got caught.

I'm reminded of a scene towards the end of the film Quiz Show, which was about the game show scandals in the 50s. The main thrust of the scandal (according to the film) is simply the show-fixing, but there's also an implied subtext that the previous winner, Herb Stempel, had been booted because the more refined WASP Charles Van Doren came along. Stempel (played by John Torturro) is almost a stereotypical borscht-belt-comedy Jewish man from Queens, while Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is a Columbia University professor and heir to a prominent family. So there is some golden-boy-WASP-worship going on, at least unconsciously.

Towards the end, Van Doren is called to testify before a Congressional Committee that's looking into the scandal; he delivers a prepared statement by way of apology, but it comes across as more like sorry-but-be-sorry-for-me-too:
''I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last year. The past doesn't change for anyone. But at least I can learn from the past. I've learned a lot about life. I've learned a lot about myself... and about the responsibilities any man has to his fellow men. I have learned a lot about good and evil. They're not always what they appear to be. I was involved... deeply involved, in a deception. I have deceived my friends...and I had millions of them. I lied to the American people. I lied about what I knew...and then I lied about what I did not know. In a sense, I was like a child who refuses to admit a fact in the hope that it'll go away. Of course, it did not go away. I was scared...scared to death. I had no solid position, no basis to stand on for myself. There was one way out, and that was... simply to tell the truth. It may sound trite to you, but I've found myself again after a number of years. I've been acting a role, uh... m-maybe all my life, of thinking I've, I've done more... a-accomplished more, produced more than I have. I've had all the breaks. I have stood on the shoulders of life, and I've never gotten down into the dirt to build... to erect a foundation of my own. I've flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy. That is why I am here today.''
The first three congressmen to respond all congratulate him on his courage for coming clean. But then the fourth congressman speaks.
"Mr Van Doren, I'm also from New York; a different part of New York. I'm happy that you've made the statement...but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues. See, I don't think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended...for simply, at long last, telling the truth."
"It's lonely at the top/it's hard to be in charge, so have pity on me" is also something that those at the top try to pull, and was ever thus.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on October 23, 2019 [27 favorites]

No nostalgia for Nan Pierce offering drinks she knows the help can't accept.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:35 AM on October 23, 2019 [10 favorites]

They did give us one of the best movies of all time, though.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:58 PM on October 23, 2019

WASPs always make me think of the movie The Good Shepherd, about the WASPs who created the CIA:

Joseph Palmi: We Italians, we got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have the homeland. The Jews, their traditions. Even the n*****s, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

The WASP sense of politesse, such as it was, was premised on them being the ones who owned the country. It underscores the fact that nostalgia won't get us out from under Trump; a new spirit of public service is going to have to be forged.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:32 PM on October 23, 2019 [25 favorites]

What I kept thinking while reading this was just give it a few decades. It isn't the robber barons that are being described but their children. Today is the second gilded age, I feel confident that a new aristocracy is being formed.
posted by Pembquist at 1:41 PM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

If I remember Quiz Show from the one time I saw it, the WASP/Jewish culture divisions were a major, marquee-blinking, not-so-subtle thread running through that story, played out with the Rob Morrow character who himself is a striver and who clearly sees in Stempel the community he's trying to leave and in Van Doren the seductive power of that impossible faraway shore. It's what allows it to be a "disillusionment plot." Morrow's character can never reach the shore with the WASPs, and even if Van Doren finally tells some version of the truth at the end (to far too much back-patting) he's still a highly educated fool from a consequence-free environment blissfully unaware of the underpinnings of his privilege, so is that shore worth trying for anyway?
posted by Navelgazer at 1:47 PM on October 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

Interestingly, in later years Van Doren did some work for my father, a New York Jew. My father speaks highly of him and the work he did.
posted by Schmucko at 4:28 PM on October 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

What a great perspective on a niche yet central aspect of US history. I had some of the individual bits in my head, but it's so nice when someone comes along and connects the pieces with a pretty ribbon.
posted by booksarelame at 4:52 PM on October 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

My father, a couple of days after Van Doren's death:
Charles Van Doren slunk into my office at Fact magazine. On 40th St. in NYC. In the 1960s.(He just died, at 93.)
He seemed ashamed to be seen in public—after his disgrace, lying about the famous quiz show.
Fact was a small aggressive magazine. We ran articles by Toynbee, Dr. Spock, Sloan Wilson, Hemingway’s wife. We even ran an article arguing that Oswald alone killed Kennedy.
I don’t know how I found Van Doren's address, but at Fact we were always looking for good writers.
He relaxed when he saw that I was treating him with respect. No mention of the quiz show.
I had a typewritten list of story ideas. He grabbed it out of my hand & looked at it. My notes were rather incomprehensible. He gave the list back, perhaps a little embarrassed.
Was he interested in writing about the salacious Ben Franklin and his peccadillos? No, his uncle had written a fine book about Franklin, and he didn’t want to write anything unflattering about Franklin.
We agreed that he would write about that miserable man, Christopher Columbus, who introduced syphilis to the American Indians.
We had a dispute about something historical (something about Lincoln) but he conceded—and began flattering me. Not persuasively.
He wrote a good article, which we published. He didn’t want his name on it. And he declined my invitation that he write other articles, saying, if I remember, that he was beginning a new job.
I felt sorry for him.
What did Dr. House say? “Everybody lies”?
posted by Schmucko at 9:50 PM on October 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

Further, the projection of carelessness in the WASP ethos is its own flavor of terrible. Certain things were not acknowledged because of the code of manners mentioned in this piece. But that didn’t mean they weren’t happening.

Yes, I was reading this article thinking about how it weirdly acknowledged the dark side of the WASP elite (complete with eugenics and admiration of dictators) - while still being blind to their over all problems.

The powerful at all times have been about themselves. That's how they get to be powerful, that's how they stay powerful.
posted by jb at 9:48 AM on October 24, 2019

From early in the piece, this jumped out:
Though the early United States was settled and ruled by WASPs—assisted by their disreputable cousins, the Scots-Irish, who did the dirty work of killing Indians and capturing runaway slaves
I know I've referenced Daniel Immerwahr 's How to Hide an Empire in other threads, but he also addresses this and how the earliest class schisms in the U.S. (the WASPs and the Scots-Irish) are pretty much a huge factor in establishing and enforcing the racist, colonialist mindset upon which the U.S. rests. It's a jaw-dropping chapter where this is laid out.

And this:
(Anti-sensuality indeed: comfort is scorned. Thermostats are kept low in the winter, and when I suggested to my WASP mother-in-law that I might get an air conditioner for the room we sleep in at the family summer retreat, I got a look like I’d proposed turning the place into a bordello.)
is beautifully explored in George Howe Colt's Enconium for the WASP, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, where the virtuous discomfort is detailed near-constantly. The chapter in which he details how the family summer home has been bought and renovated by a distant, distaff member of a younger generation who makes her own money and has no patience for the punishing blackberry whips lining footpaths, the lack of decent bathrooms, etc. is a most elegant farewell to WASPdom.

But wow, the conclusion:
A society like ours—hierarchical in every way, with democracy consciously limited by everything from ballot laws to campaign cash—needs a coherent ruling class, and what we have now is a rabble of plutocrats and grifters.
shows his hand. It takes an old white man to argue that a nation which has been driven to this point by old white men ... can only be saved by old white men.
posted by sobell at 5:40 PM on October 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

can only be saved by old white men.

Huh, that wasn't the response got from it at all. I got it was coldly and slowly detailing why someone MIGHT like the idea of a polite ruling class and then detailed the various oh global but quiet crimes and anti-democratic actions of that class, then state, with great honestly that we do NOT live in a democracy and we suffer under a hierarchy but now, for the first time, the ruling class is seen as traitorous and illegitimate by everyone and we can actually push past a more genteel kind of exploiter, past a society with gender parity among child concentration camp guards, into something actually new.

New like not just demanding bigger wages but demanding a seat at the table, control over the workplace, actually sharing power which the WASPS loathed to do and their newer ruling class replacements don't know how to coach reaction to that in nice words and good manners.

What I got from the essay is that;s never been a better time for a revolution.
posted by The Whelk at 9:28 PM on October 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

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