Privilege Blog

Breaking News – The New York Times Agrees

A link from a reader, to Professor Noah Feldman of Harvard, in the New York Times.

Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph. (The Triumphant Decline of the WASP, New York Times, June 28, 2010)

If that isn’t some of what we’re trying to say around here, I will eat my Princeton Reunion hat. Excessive tigers and all.

Thank you, Professor Feldman. Thank you very much.

One request to all, that all comments replying to each other remain polite. Feel free to be as rude to me as you like.

41 Responses

  1. Hmm, I still don't see it as a triumphant decline, rather a sad decline, I don't care for all inclusiveness and globalism., I prefer elitism.

  2. Let's try this again….

    Glad you liked the piece – of course I thought of you the minute I read the headline.

    Tabitha, if it weren't for that inclusiveness I wouldn't be able to dine with LPC on my own Princeton Reunions hat. :) One can be global, inclusive, *and* elite, as what makes one elite is character and accomplishment, not bloodlines.

  3. Triumphant decline, I think not. Also, don't mix the High Wasps with the Low Wasps…who are not in decline.

  4. Booklady, thank you for sending this to me. Tabitha, Belle, do, if you have time, read the article. He uses decline very judiciously. Perhaps I will add a quote to this post.

  5. So I suppose a hats-off to the most Barry Sanders style retirees of social or ethnic groups.

    Prefer elitism? why? Protecting what you have through regulation, exclusion, or discrimination is a recipe for eventual destruction rather than simple decline.

    If you can't compete or maintain the top through merit, you will have a first hand history lesson from the view of Marie Antoinette.

  6. Have I mentioned before that one of my favorite books is "In Defense of Elitism"? I think you might like it. I liked the article. My favorite line:"The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated." Very nice.

  7. And there's the big problem with society – no one has anything to strive for since anyone under 30 has been taught they are perfect and no one is better than them!

  8. We in Europe, mostly white, non-Protestants and all, are still engaged in a probably necessary campaign of over-compensation, manifesting itself as bowing to these values of merit and inclusion in abundance. It's a current injustice to balance a more grave and predominant historical one. Whether two wrongs make a right is yet to be determined, but at least two opposing wrongs may be preferable to two linear ones.

  9. Since the Kagan nomination, I have seen several similar comments regarding the ethnic and religious composition of the Supreme Court. The "decine of the WASP" vis a vis elite institutuins is undoubtedly multifactoral – intermarriage, smaller families, increased diversity of the US population and the opening of previously closed opportunities to all who qualify. I fully support the diversification of elite institutions based on merit rather than accident of birth. We all benefit when the "best and brightest" can excel. I am, however, deeply concerned that the six Catholic members of the Court (at least in theory) risk denial of communion if they do not make decisions based on church dogma. This seems dangerously close to state establishment of religion.

  10. I'll have to read the article tonight. I've always felt a bit alienated in my lack of modern American identity – as in my current workplace I'm a big NOT. Not Catholic, Jewish, Chaldean, Asian, African, Latina, new immigrant….just a mix of Euro and American Indian blood whose people have been here since 1740 and have been subsumed in the mass of history.

    Frankly I envy the ethnic and religious groups (or "minorities") for the community and cohesion that they can choose to enjoy. My Jewish and Chaldean coworkers especially can have as much, or as little, as they want of language studies, cultural clubs, advocating for the folks overseas, writing and making art drawing on their cultural history. And I'm drawing on…Martin Mull's History of White People in America.

    Oh well.

  11. I suspect one would find many women, Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and even Irish and Italians who would ague it has been anything but voluntary. To the extent it WAS voluntary, I wonder what role the WASP sense of fair play and perhaps the realization that their WASP daughters deserved the same opportunities as their WASP sons played in the process.

  12. Lisa,
    I might need your helping hand here: "The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph." Who is "its" – the Americans?
    uh uhhh, I don't get it :-(
    Or maybe I AM getting it and it just seems to be bizarre. The message …
    Thank you for the link!

  13. brohammas – Protecting the elite leads to their decline. I agree. Respecting those who have earned right to be called elite, at whatever, is a different thing.

    Le Belette – Here's to opening doors. And tweed.

    Suburban – Luckily the real world often teaches us what we are actually capable of.

    Jill – I know, right?:)

    Mise – "Two opposing wrongs may be preferable to two linear ones." I wish I'd said that. But thank you for saying it here.

  14. DocP – "We all benefit when the "best and brightest" can excel." I agree. Completely. And I am 100% sure it was part fair play and part daughters. Maybe even friends from other worlds.

    Maureen – I have said it before. The comments on this site are spectacular.

    Artful Lawyer – Yes, exactly. The hunger for authentic and permitted culture is strong amongst High WASPs

    Rachel – There you go:).

    Paula – He's making a complex and slightly ironic point. Saying that the Protestant elite in the USA, the founder of the country and the early wealthy, have brought about their own fall from entitlement, simply because their initial values were all about equality and a meritocracy.

  15. In May the Wall Street Journal published a similar article written by Robert Frank–"That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP." It also referenced Kagan's nomination as a significant signpost.

  16. Can someone please explain to me what the difference is between High Wasp and Low Wasp?

    Meanwhile, in Australia no one cares much where you're from or what religion you are-Money is God.

  17. Yes, times have certainly changed…rather our society has certainly changed over time.

    The late Senator Robert Byrd (WV), who had ties to the Klu Klux Klan, will soon be lying in state under the Capitol dome, and he will be eulogized by our Nation's first black president.

  18. It is really interesting, diving into a culture which is so different from the own. We hardly differentiate between Catholics and Protestants, more between Christians and Muslims. There the difference is apparent. Then I visit Ireland and am confronted with major tensions. Among Christians, which I find depressing. Hard to understand.

    In Austria classes are built within areas where you live. It is a horror for the established classes when they have to watch "the other" entering "their" area. There exist no gated communities in my city. Not yet.
    But: those established classes, they are overaging. They might become extinct, since many of their kids don't have children but hobbies and careers.

  19. We are fortunate to have left behind the days when there was a so-called “Catholic seat” on the court

    Hasn't that been replaced with "the woman's seat" and "the black seat?" Although merit does matter more than it used to, it is not the only factor. It's just we have changed the focus from family to race and sex. Look at the Hopwood and the Michigan Law School decisions: basically, a school can consider race as a factor in admission. Where is the merit in that?

    But yes – the US has the greatest social mobility in the world and I would agree that it is because of the appreciation of merit over family. We saw Roger Daltrey and Eric Clapton perform last night. Wealthy, talented and successful even though they are from lower-class, uneducated backgrounds. Imagine!

  20. Class factotum, "the race seat" even made it into comedy, Desperate Houswives (the episode where Gabrielle's daughter finds out she is actually Mexican).

  21. I am fairly sure the US not only does not have the greatest social mobility in the world but in the developed world ranks pretty damn far down. The US puts a lot of store by the idea of social mobility – but the numbers call us all liars.

  22. RoseAG – I'm unable to give up the aesthetic but I'd fight for the code of conduct. Fight without violence, I mean.

    Anon – Yes, and Gregory Rodriguez wrote one in the LA Times too.

    FF – There is no such thing as Low WASP, to my knowledge. There are WASPs. I started using High WASP for extra precision. One might argue money is god in America too, except not quite.

    Gourmetmom – ;).

    Anon – Yes.

  23. Paula – Although it began as a religious differentiation, at this point the Protestant bit is just an artifact. The family history of time in America, wealth, and education has more impact. And it was really Anglican, for the most part:).

    Anon – Are you sure? The history and impact of slavery is undeniable. But outside that terrible piece of our history, are you sure? All the immigrants I know in SV tell me we are way better here than back whereever they came from.

  24. Class Factotum, race seats and the like, you should agree, are the result of America's historical failures to live up to its own promise. The Economist did a fine article some time back regarding affirmative action vs. "legacy" admittance to ivy league schools and found that family and money still FAR outweigh any exception made on race.
    Sad reality is that our country was founded in large part because of its sytematic oppression of most specifiaclly black people. (they were what allowed the vast majority of WASPS to gain their fortune and fund our countries foundation).
    Fast forward a few hundred years and the WASP may no longer wield the same power… but there are after affects.
    Of course post civil war politics and policy has had a much more direct affect on black reality than slavery's legacy.
    But all of this is a digression from the point which is that while the WASP may have declined greatly in the power they posess, it has not been to the advantage of any other singular group. This results in a group that while in decline still holds advantage in greater proportion than any other group. It may not look so legally, but as our Australian friend pointed out, money is king.

    Old money lives on.

  25. I think there is no doubt that money talks. That's why you gotta hang onto it.

    In as much as new groups wash onto our shores, mind their pennies, invest, lobby for the government to keep their hands off their new fortunes, avoid the temptation to spend all their new money in the first generation, and propel their offspring into leadership positions then they're following the secular Protestant ethic and will over time become old money themselves.

  26. I am so tired of Americans saying that they have the country with the greatest social mobility in the world, have you not been to Australia? We have it too, maybe more so what with our ability to get our mitts on free health care.

    People like Oprah repeat this day in day out and it is just plain Incorrect.

  27. brohammas – I cannot speak to the actual facts of how fortunes were made. I cannot agree more strongly however that the biggest stain on America was the way African Americans have been treated.

    RoseAG – Deconstruction is valuable, I think, in separating the money from the values, where ever possible, and understanding what cultural habits actually have strength enough to become values outside that specific culture.

    FF – Well, no, probably we haven't been to Australia:). It's far away and we aren't always good at traveling, living in a big country surrounded by oceans, and lots to see internally. Seriously, however, social mobility has in the past also required opportunity for substantial new wealth generation. Something at which America has traditionally excelled, although, that's in question now. I hope this would be a contest, for social mobility, like soccer for little kids. Everyone enters, everyone tries their best, everyone gets a prize.

  28. Agreed, one of the most civilized, thought-provoking discussion groups on my bookmark list!

  29. Buckeroomama – Yes, the comments amaze me. And you of course live in a veritable laboratory of social mobility.

    Americott – Thank you so much. If I had to choose two adjectives I would most aspire to, civilized and thought-provoking might be at the top of the list.

  30. "Voluntary" seems a bit of a stretch…
    Perhaps inevitably would be more appropriate.

  31. "then they're following the secular Protestant ethic"

    I'm sorry, but thrift and a good work ethic are hardly the exclusive to Protestants.

  32. I lived in Australia, am from England, and now live in America. America and England have its problems but Australia was the most racist and sexist country I've ever been to; it was like stepping back into the 1950's and yes I did travel extensively. Err you are aware of the Aboriginal atrocities right or like most Australians is that something that outsiders cannot mention? One thing I like about Americans is that they are upfront and honest about their prejudices, you need a baseline to start from if you want an honest dissuasion about race or any other highly controversial subject.

  33. Wow, stepping into this towards the end of the discussion is even more interesting! A lot to think about here. Makes me remember why I majored in the social sciences…

    As a Catholic European immigrant married to a 14th generation American WASP (swam over in the late 1600s) of the Anglican persuation – also a high-WASP if I understand its true meaning – I've definitely felt the nuances of the American Protestant tradition as it differs from the Old World continental tradition I was raised in. Don't even get me started on family holidays for the past 10 years.:)

    The differences that come up over and over are the attitude towards immediate/extended family, the display of one's wealth, the appreciation for living in full today vs. enjoying it all later, and how to help those less fortunate. Some of these issues have more to do with a Catholic/Protestant tradition (I say tradition and not teaching because I believe we are both taught the same principles). Other issues are more socially absorbed. Certainly some values transfer both ways over time. My husband jokes that I'm becoming a WASP after 10 years, which I find humerous.

    Having said all that, a great deal has to do with your family experience, what values you personally hold, and the influences in your life. Some of my husband's siblings behave like the biblical prodigal son, wasting their inheritance early, believing what we consider to be extremely liberal ideals, and never holding down a stable job. My husband, who happens to be the baby of the family, had the least education and obedience but the most success and stability in his career and adult life. We are also by far the most socially conservative members of our families.

    But even all that being said, I think nobody here said it better than RoseAG:

    "In as much as new groups wash onto our shores, mind their pennies, invest, lobby for the government to keep their hands off their new fortunes, avoid the temptation to spend all their new money in the first generation, and propel their offspring into leadership positions then they're following the secular Protestant ethic and will over time become old money themselves."

  34. Those values are NOT exclusive to the Protestant ethic. Jews, Asians, Indians and many other groups do the just the same. As much as they might like to think, Protestants don't hold a monopoly on hard work and frugality. Look around.

  35. Sinc – I believe it was voluntary in that if the class hewed to its values, the fall was bound to come, in the event that other groups performed well.

    Anon – True. But it is a Protestant ethic.

    Anonymous – Thank you very much. I hope we are honest about our prejudices. If that is true, it's probably because even the privileged came here to escape prejudice elsewhere.

    3-Penny – Yes, I agree. The culture is one thing, the psychology of each person is much more complex than just a rehash of their culture.

    Maryam – Not saying they hold a monopoly on hard work at all. In fact, my feeling is that one of the things that contributed to America's success, such as it has been, was the relatively open immigration policies of previous decades.

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