At the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein has penned a paean to the era of WASP ascendency in American life, whose spirit is captured by quotes such as the following:
Much can be—and has been—written about the shortcomings of the WASPocracy. As a class, it was exclusionary and hence tolerant of social prejudice, if not often downright snobbish. Tradition-minded, it tended to be dead to innovation and social change. Imagination wasn’t high on its list of admired qualities. [….]
Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided. [….]
Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. Many meritocrats who enter politics, when retired by the electorate from public life, proceed to careers in lobbying or other special-interest advocacy. University presidents no longer speak to the great issues in education but instead devote themselves to fundraising and public relations, and look to move on to the next, more prestigious university presidency.
The modern American meritocracy certainly has its serious hypocrisies and defects. One could write an entire book about the failures of the American elite in Iraq, the subprime crisis, and more. Perhaps someone named Christopher Hayes* might write such a book. He might call it Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.
Yet there is something crazy and a little sad about Epstein’s essay. Sure the old WASP elite was a tad snobbish and stodgy. These were hardly their worst problems. Under WASP hegemony, corruption and incompetence were actually quite common in high places, more common than today, in fact. Perhaps the misconduct and stupidity produced fewer scandals. if so, that was only because these behaviors were better-concealed from public view.Where is the honor or the character in maintaining a system of exclusion to protect one group’s social and economic privileges at the expense of others?
The unapologetic exclusion of Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, Catholics. and women did not enhance the integrity or the technical competence of American government. Nor did it noticeably improve elite professions such as scientific research or clinical medicine to exclude these same groups. When I was a Princeton undergraduate, a disgruntled alumnus wrote into the student newspaper to lament the rising presence of “big-city, high-SAT intellectuals,” who were apparently ruining the once-gentlemanly environment. Thirty years before, people like this man successfully maintained quotas that cruelly excluded many among my parents’ generation from attending elite schools. Not coincidentally, the Princeton of (say) 1950 or 1960 was a decidedly mediocre place. We who came later owe a great debt to the pioneering generation who smashed down these barriers and opened the road for others, as well. Our current elites should do some serious housecleaning, but not out of any misguided nostalgia for the unfair and mediocre non-meritocratic era we’ve left behind.
Perhaps I betray my own biases, but I think there is something undignified to celebrate an era and to celebrate the people who so mistreated our own parents, and many others besides. I do have one consolation. Epstein’s misguided essay beats this somewhat similar Walter Lippmann gem, which defines the genre.
*Yeah, I initially misspelled Chris Hayes’ name, which is ironic, given this clip from the University of Chicago’s 67th annual Latke-Hamantasch comic debate.