Sunday, December 22, 2013

Epstein on WASPs

Friday's Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein, praising the old eastern WASP establishment as against today's meritocracy. I fault his argument for manner, matter, and maker.

Manner: Epstein uses a flexible, not to say sophistical definition of WASP that allows him to exclude Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton:
WASPs were a caste, closed off to all not born within it, with the possible exception of those who crashed the barriers by marrying in.
Well and good, but he lists Dean Rusk, born to modest means in rural Georgia. Carter was born to landed wealth and received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academ;. Rusk worked his way through Davidson College. He lists George Kennan, born to comfort but not riches in Milwaukee--married as it happens to a Norwegian. He lists Robert MacNamara, born in modest circumstances in California, and with a distinctly Irish name.

true WASPs were too upstanding to go in for the unscrupulous business dealings of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.
Or rather, they had inherited it from an ancestor who had managed the unscrupulous dealings for them. Was John D. Rockefeller more scrupulous than the elder Kennedy?
or the feckless philanderings of him and some of his sons
With all due respect to JFK's track record, this is ridiculous. Can philandering be more feckless than when it leaves a man dead in his mistress's bed (Nelson Rockefeller) or on the sidewalk outside her apartment (Adlai Stevenson)? What of the vestryman J.P. Morgan?  Should a spy run around quite so much as Allen Dulles did?

More to the point, what of their stewardship? Henry Cabot Lodge was not a benign influence on American foreign policy. Who is there now that believes that John Foster Dulles's foreign policy was sensible? The New Frontiersmen led us into an engagement in Vietnam that such downmarket southerners as Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of. They had second thoughts, but by then Johnson was stuck with the war.

Then there are the obiter dicta on the meritocracy:
the only thing that normal undergraduate schooling prepares a person for is... more schooling.
It is the premise of the liberal arts faculty that undergraduate schooling prepares one for a good deal more. I am confident I went to a worse school and got a a worse education than Epstein, but I did learn a thing or two.
Having been a good student, in other words, means nothing more than that one was good at school: One had the discipline to do as one was told, learned the skill of quick response to oral and written questions, figured out what professors wanted and gave it to them.
That is a different matter, isn't it? We could rephrase the first sentence as "The only thing that a normal undergraduate transcript establishes is that student's fitness for school." The argument then verges on tautology.


What our new meritocrats have failed to evince—and what the older WASP generation prided itself on—is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own.
Well, what if you can convince yourself that your well-being and the nation's are identified? Most of us, with more or less effort and conviction can say something like that now and then; no doubt it is easier if you own a fair bit of the nation as some of these WASPs did. The harm may come from honest error as easily as from self-interest. You might decide the austerity, even deflation, is the proper answer to a depression; that you, as an owner, have only to gain by deflation need not imply insincerity in your views.

Maker: I am not acquainted with Joseph Epstein's biography, but I'm fairly confident that given four guesses I could name the college he attended, and it would not be Davidson College. His mother may have believed that this had nothing to do with his early employment in publishing and in helping him to find a publisher for his first books. I see no reason to believe it. He holds no employment in the government of the United States, nor does he work in the finance industry; other than that, and age, I see small difference between him and the meritocrats he complains of. Well, maybe one--I do believe that he writes his own books, and I give him credit for that.


  1. I think the "WASP" label is old news. Our culture is now so blended that such labels are rather meaningless. Well, at least they should be.

    BTW . . . I just discovered your fascinating blog . . . I'll be back every now and then.

    1. No, it has never been especially useful. I believe Florence King ended her book WASP, Where Is Thy Sting by saying as much--though she got quite a few amusing pages along the way to that conclusion.

      Thank you for your good words.