Last weekend we had a houseguest, a member of my wife’s extended family in Philadelphia, and when we were sitting in the kitchen one morning he said, What happened to the WASPs? I asked him what he meant, and he said the following:
The WASPs ran the country for 3 or 4 centuries, but I am not talking about power, I’m talking about society. Society is really all that matters, and WASPs had a cohesive society. Now that is gone, and over. And in fact some of the things I see today inside what is left of that society are pathetic and sad. Young people with nothing to do, no path for them. So the drugs and the idleness– I think it’s all part of the end of that world.
Do you grieve for its passing? I asked.
No, he said. Things change. Orders change all the time. It’s the nature of society. And besides, we had a good run.
I told him about a man I know whose male forbears, for three generations, had been English professors. Then the rules changed for academic advancement, the meritocracy came in, my friend was completely intimidated by that new way, and he absented himself. He has frittered his life away, but the thing is, when you go over to his house, he can quote Shakespeare as well as anyone, and explain the meaning of the book of Genesis. He’s a scholar, but in drydock.
My wife’s relation nodded and said he saw it at a granular level. WASP society was built of many things, it was an entire fabric, like any society. There were neighborhoods, there were stores, and schools and clubs and churches and retreats. Everyone knew everyone, and kept up on the gossip. There was a set of distinct values that you could count on everyone having. And money was at the bottom of it; the trusts were at the bottom of it. The trusts kept families together and kept people coming back to their communities. Now even the trusts are dwindling. Many of them are used up. And that has helped to dissipate WASP society. There is nothing to come back to. And so the communities themselves are drying up and frittering away. The associations and values are breaking up.
Of course intermarriage has something to do with it. The clubs and retreats are still there, but they are not nearly so distinct any more. Not just ethnically. But the values and manners, and understandings, they are disappearing. And at the heart of it is an economic collapse.
I said, You do seem to grieve it a little.
I do, he said. It’s a world that is over. And there were many great things that came out of it. The founding fathers, the Constitution. The character of American society. But of course in the last few generations it was built around the military industrial complex. That really was the source of all the money. And the Vietnam War came out of that.
Then I told my wife’s relation my own theory of the Jewish rise. Much of the 60s rebellion had a political character, but some of it was social, too, against the WASP elite. At Columbia during the 60s rebellion, the students had researched their professors to find out how much of their income came out of the defense contractors. And a lot of those rebellious students were Jewish, their parents ran candy stores or other small businesses, and as SDS leader Mark Rudd said a few years ago, (in this piece on Why there were so many Jews in the SDS) the administration offices at Columbia were “dripping with goyishness.” So there was a social component to that too, it wasn’t just about power.
I wonder when people will begin to describe the new elite. We shy away from doing so because it engages issues of anti-semitism, but if you think of that self-contained WASP society, the only thing to contend with it, in term of social cohesion, is affluent Jewish society, the Jewish mandarins of New York and Washington. No one has given us a name– the media industrial complext? Writers like David Brooks avoid the subject because it would involve talking about the Israel lobby.
But I can tell you from my own life’s arc, from Harvard and New York media/politics, that my Jewish world has the cohesion that my friend remembers about that self-contained WASP society. We have geography and manners (liberal voting, the Hamptons, Paul Krugman’s latest column, Tom Friedman, the Upper West Side, brunches and book clubs), we have a politics (abortion rights, gay rights, Elena Kagan writ large), we have culture (I could go on and on), and yes we have money (hedge funds). And a war under our belt too.