David Brooks lately published a column in the Times, “Why Our Elites Stink,” faulting the new elite for a lack of a sense of “leadership” and “service.” He often speaks of the old WASP leadership in the column:
a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance. Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network….
The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.
Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous).
At the American Conservative, Scott McConnell notes that in an earlier book, Brooks acknowledged that Jews had played a large role in the transformation of Establishment cultural values. Brooks wrote, “the Jews were the vanguard of a social movement that over the course of the 20th century transformed the American university system and the nature of the American elite.”
Brooks doesn’t go into this in his current column. He never does. Perhaps there’s no need to: in a way, his key criticism of the new elite–that its members insist on perceiving themselves as outsiders even though they are insiders–stands as implicit acknowledgment of a sociological fact best left, most of the time anyway, unspoken.
Why the reticence? Perhaps somewhere there is a fear of awakening a slumbering beast of heartland anti-Semitism. There has never been much anti-Semitism in America, but given the global historical record, this is, to say the least, an understandable concern.
I would surmise the greater reason is connected to the one area where Brooks most sympathizes with the prejudices of the current elite and most favors their prejudices over those of the old one. American foreign policy is very different under the new meritocracy. The generation of Harrimans, Lovetts, Achesons, Marshalls, and Kennans would have no difficulty imagining a corrupt and self-serving Wall Street class — they had lived through the 1929 crash, when WASPs ran the show and ran it badly. But I doubt they could imagine an America which so completely perceived its foreign-policy interests–its choice of enemies, its choice of wars–as so congruent to those of Israel. The old WASP elite were, almost to a man, opposed to the creation of Israel and to American recognition of the state; they saw nothing but trouble arising from America’s support for Israel. They can be faulted, certainly–none of them lobbied for America to make room for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish war refugees (displaced persons, in the jargon of the time) languishing in refugee camps in 1947, many in Germany of all places.
They made their peace with President Truman’s decision, and went on to serve their country in important ways. And for a generation at least, it could be fairly argued that their fears were much overwrought.