The late, not-so-great era of WASP ascendency

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.

Health care reform politics and Kristallnacht 2010

There was a joke that used to go around about a golf game involving entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.  Another player asked his handicap, and Davis replied “I’m a Jewish black man with one eye; how much more handicap do I need?”
This came to mind when I read the New York Times story about President Obama’s White House Seder.  It was surprisingly moving for a non-observant Jew to learn of the President’s observance of one of our rituals.  But as a Jew, I’m also slightly–and less surprisingly–alarmed on the President’s behalf.  People already accuse him of being a Muslim non-citizen; how much more handicap does he need?

It’s illuminating, though, to consider the President an honorary or metaphorical Jew, because it highlights the parallels between the hysteria attaching to Obama’s presidency and the hysteria recurrently directed at Jews.  What’s the difference between Sarah Palin’s claim that the President will operate death panels to kill her disabled child, and the classic blood libel that Jews kill Christian babies and use their blood to make matzoh?  Only the most ignorant and fearful among us could possibly believe such nonsense, and yet time and again scapegoating has worked because people have believed it and sought to eliminate imaginary threats by killing real people.

And now the President’s opponents have adopted another tactic from the anti-Semites’ playbook.  There’s already been way too much talk about Nazis in the course of debating the Affordable Care Act. But when a political group’s response to legislation comes in the form of coordinated window-smashing, only the willfully forgetful can fail to think “Kristallnacht.”

That’s the night the Nazis expressed their disappointment at a political setback by going on a simultaneous rampage all over Germany: killing Jews, beating them, setting fire to their homes and, most memorably, breaking 7500 windows of Jewish-owned shops.  The current incidents of vandalism against the offices of Congresspeople who voted for the Affordable Care Act aren’t remotely comparable in scale to that night in 1938, but they’re precisely comparable in purpose.   And the sound of breaking glass is the last thing you hear before reasoned political debate is drowned out entirely, and with it genuine self-government.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is apparently among the willfully forgetful.  His response to the outbreak of violence among those who share his political positions was to claim that he, too, had been the target of political violence and–more important–to blame the Democrats for making public what had occurred. In other words, he claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.

Consider, if you would, the Wikipedia account of Kristallnacht’s aftermath:

More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps . . . . After this, the Jewish community was fined 1 billion reichsmarks.

In other words, the Nazis claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the people who broke campaign-office windows are actual Nazis, or that their doing so had anything to do with anti-Semitism or Jews.  The fact that Kristallnacht was organized and the latest nonsense mostly not is a big difference, as is the fact that Kristallnacht had official sanction while the window-breaking doesn’t. Everything that happens isn’t about Nazis or Jews.

Being Jewish nonetheless provides a useful set of historical sense memories, and the sound of glass splintering on sidewalks is one of them.

In the early 1930s, plenty of people on the respectable German right disdained the low-class National Socialists.  They were a tool, that’s all, useful temporarily for cowing and marginalizing liberalism so the respectable right could regain political power.  By the time the respectable German right figured out that the Nazi tiger couldn’t be ridden, the whole country was already inside.

So who on the respectable American right will be the first to condemn wholeheartedly our current eruption of far-right thuggery? Apparently it won’t be John Boehner, who undercut his own criticism of the attacks by describing them as the natural result of insupportable Democratic provocation.   It won’t be Sarah Palin, who like her anti-choice allies routinely identifies opponents as “enemies” and “targets,” and like them will doubtless pretend to be surprised when someone gets murdered.   And it won’t be Eric Cantor, though as the highest-ranking Jew in the Republican caucus he might be expected to remember history and hope not to repeat it.

So is there anyone left in the Republican Party to speak out, or are they all too busy hoping the Tea Partiers don’t come for them?

Stay tuned.

Fort Hood: The Jewish Response

Now is the time for the Jewish community to do its part in ensuring that the Fort Hood outrage does not lead to anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hysteria.

As Josh notes, this is going to get very dark.  Maybe it is better to light a single candle.  My best effort in that vein was to write a letter to the Jewish Journal.  To wit:

 

The grisly and brutal massacre at Fort Hood earlier today should, of course, outrage all civilized people everywhere. The Jewish community, however, should be especially strong in its response — both by condemning the terror and standing against potential discrimination.

The suspect in the shooting is a US Army Major, Nadal Malik Hasan. It requires little imagination to see that Hasan’s name could potentially lead to a dark wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria. Despite our often profound differences with the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities over the Middle East, members of the Jewish community should take this opportunity to insist that the crazed brutality of one person not lead to witch hunts, guilt-by-association, or ethnic demonization. Our community knows all-too-well how fears, libels and rumors can spiral out of control, and it is incumbent upon us to do all we can to prevent it from happening here. Jewish organizations throughout our nation and our city must speak out strongly and be vigilant against those who would use Fort Hood to divide us by religion or ethnicity.

By standing against terror and against prejudice, we can renew and strengthen the finest aspects of our tradition and demonstrate the true universality of Jewish values.

And a political/moral tactics point: standing with a threatened community before they ask is usually better than waiting for a request.

Maybe we can nip this in the bud.  Maybe.