Privilege Blog

A Response To Ross Douthat’s “Why We Miss WASPs” From A High WASP, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:43am

On Wednesday, in the midst of commemorative ceremonies for President George H. W. Bush,  the New York Times published an op-ed by Ross Douthat entitled “Why We Miss WASPs.” My first objection might have been, “Hey, we’re still right here.” My second perhaps more pedantic, “Could you please be specific about which WASPs?” except he made that clear in his subheading, “Their more meritocratic, diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” He meant Ivy League white men of the 50s, most of whom were admittedly WASPs.

Here’s my true objection. How dare he use my culture to make a point with which many of us would now, in fact, disagree? But I’ll hold the outrage. Here’s his thesis:

“Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart described the elder Bush as the last president deemed “legitimate” by both of our country’s warring tribes — before the age of presidential sex scandals, plurality-winning and popular-vote-losing chief executives, and white resentment of the first black president. Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer encountered “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

I think you can usefully combine these takes, and describe Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.”

Well. Hmm. Balderdash! “We?”

Also it’s hard to address his wrong-headedness because he’s conflated so many different issues. So let me try to, as he says, “put it simply,” i.e. outline his points. Before I smash him into a million pieces. Oh, wait, manners. He says:

  1. We honored President Bush because we haven’t had a “legitimate” president since. (I really don’t even know how to react here. I suppose we could keep ruling presidents out until we get to George Washington. Let’s not.)
  2. Although we still send people to the Ivy League, and therefore still create an elite and exclusive ruling class, our new meritocracy doesn’t exhibit the High WASP’s spirit of noblesse oblige. (I guess we had that spirit? I think we weren’t alone? In fact a lot of my ancestors were probably quite wicked and greedy tho we do have nice manners now.)
  3. So why did the WASPs have to “die off?” (Ahem. Still here.) Oh wait, he means why did we not cling to power and and develop a self-conscious elite-drafting strategy that relied on something other than the “dubious ideal of merit?” (EXCUSE ME? Since when is merit “dubious?”) We should have made more effort to maintain our control, and also religion in government. (Buddy what are you even talking about?)

Look, I’m not going to debate his politics.

One can always, when good with language, craft a logical and convincing argument. He misses this: any noblesse oblige the High WASPs might have exhibited was in fact founded on the concept of meritocracy. If we did not believe ourselves meritorious we could not justify our position. Perhaps this is because we had overthrown an aristocracy. I do not know; I’m no political scientist. But I do know High WASP culture – from my family and from others I’ve encountered while writing this blog – and I think our American experience is informed by the belief that all men are created equal. You know, all that Constitutional stuff. Even though it means our family fortunes decline, and others take over.

Mr. Douthat wanted to make a point, he grabbed up my particular culture and used it, incorrectly. He didn’t mean WASPs, per se, he meant “the Yalies, the Harvardians, (and I suppose the Princetonians,) who used to stroll with ease from prep school to Washington along a path cleared each morning by a swarm of invisible sweepers.” He should have said so.

But this brings us to a more universal problem. If I can be enraged by a New York Times op-ed in which my family values are a) distorted and b) used as a metonym for some political amalgamation of human behaviors, if I, warm, fed, yeah, privileged, can feel so profoundly offended, imagine how it feels for others to be so treated? 

Political correctness, as it is often termed for better or worse, is kind of a pain in the neck. But it’s probably the best manners of all, to allow groups of people to decide for themselves what they mean. And what they will signify.

Have a good weekend.

57 Responses

  1. What? Last “legitimate” president? And he seems to be saying we miss being ruled by our betters? (My interpretation of what he is saying, not what I think.)

    So, so wrong.

    Here’s what I’ve missed in the past two years: Someone who conducts himself with decorum and decency and who doesn’t seem to be a complete idiot. I would take any president of any party over what we have now.

    1. I think that’s what he’s saying. And I cannot imagine how he thinks it’s a good thing to say.

  2. He and David Brooks can have drinks at the Plaza and commiserate over how all those pesky minorities and women are upsetting the world order. This seems to me to be a whine about how white men don’t own the world any more. I don’t think it has anything to do with meritocracy. I doubt he’d consider Bill Clinton among the favored few although he went to Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar so that tidbit about meritocracy is a bunch of bullsh#t. Let’s forget about FDR’s mistresses and…. I could go on and on. It’s about .0005% of the population having the luxury of telling the rest of us what to do because of their birth. They had robber barons, and railroad magnets, and slave owners (!) in their family trees. Their history (and I’m sure yours) is filled with men who did horrible things in the surety that their name and class would protect them. White men who ruled the world gave us the Civil War, WWI, WWII, internment camps, the Vietnam War, etc. Do I need to go on? Articles like this enrage me.

    1. I’ll take Claire’s comment as my own – so well written and stated, and covers all my emotions as well. Thanks Claire.

    2. I don’t know for sure if I understand what you are truly saying. WW1 and WW2, gave the USA many many white men, black men, and others who were willing to fight for America to be free. HOW MANY white men died for this cause????????? Perhaps this article may enrage others, and for sure it enrages me. My father,my three Uncles, fought in WW2. They made it home, after the war, thank you God for that! Many of their dear buddies/friends/relation, did not..Guess what, all were white, so don’t put everyone you do not like, in the same bucket…(edited for civility guidelines, I ask my readers to speak carefully to on another when they disagree) You would not be here in America, except for the “white” men that have died for your freedom, and for this GREAT country…

      1. Bonnie, I thought about deleting your comment, because you are replying to Claire rather than saying this to me. The rules here are you have to be kind to the other readers, save your anger for me. But I think you have stayed just civil enough and I support your right to disagree with Claire’s opinions, so I think am going to leave it here.

        Sorry to have enraged you. I was speaking about myself and my reactions.

    3. “He and David Brooks can have drinks at the Plaza and commiserate over how all those pesky minorities and women are upsetting the world order.”@Claire, Claire you made my morning.

  3. Ha! Can you tell my brain’s a bit scrambled from pain?! Just finished yoga practice – I meant “post” not “pose”.

  4. We have a similar vein over here in the UK. What is referred to as Eton and Oxford eg. privileged elite, mostly male, mostly white, all with money to prove their bona fides. And with a solid history of being in the positions of power. And a creeping insinuation of: we let you others have a go and it was a mistake. Time to let us take up the reins again.
    The use of the word legitimate is chilling.

    1. @Annie Green, Yes, “legitimate” is certainly a loaded word, as the political career of the current occupant of the WH was founded on questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. Douthat’s premise is, simply, stunning. One point at random – his assumption that we are now a meritocracy. Counter-example – how far would BK have gotten in life without having been a white male who has gone to the “right” schools? Certainly not to the SC.

  5. I read his op-ed and was wondering (hoping) if you would comment. I’m so glad you did! You’ve stated, beautifully as usual, everything that is so wrong with his piece. Thank you.

    1. Thank you. I couldn’t let it go by, as reluctant as I am to dig up the old High WASP stuff these days;). I tried to keep it apolitical by focusing on how I feel about my culture of origin.

  6. I wish I understood this better.

    What I can say is that we need a President who wants to unite this Country not divide it. Who will help America embrace the world community and our environment with care, intelligence and hope.

    You give voice to this Lisa by whatever means your background or privilege has somehow allowed.

    I thank-you for it.


    1. I doubt anyone would disagree with your assessment of what we need<3.

      In terms of understanding this, I think in the end what matters most is that someone used my culture, isolated aspects, made a point they wanted to make that most of the people in my culture (at least those I know), would disagree with. Which feels bad.

  7. It rather refreshing to hear from anyone who is comfortable enough in their own skin. It requires a certain amount of honor, regard for self and others and a willingness to “draw back the veil” without defensiveness and being shrill.

    In our so-called meritocracy, no one wants to own that they come from a line that bequeathed them. A head start, and loaded them with lots of advantages as compare to others. These advantages result in privileges.

    In my interpretation, of it all, there are groups who have lot of unearned advantages. They were, and are ascribed to use the sociological term. So being born into a life of advantages for which one did nothing except “show up”, is their reality.

    The question is, wat do they do with and about the advantages. They cannot deny that they have them, and we all know the “meritocracy” uses a few people to say, “see, if you work hard, you can accrue the same advantages that “we” have. Trouble is, that “meritocracy” says to all the rest of the hard-working ambitious souls that it is THEIR fault if they do not make it, and not the fact that others had head starts just by virtue of birth. The tall man cannot say to the short guy, “You just need to work harder”. Tall men have advantages that short men do not. Pretty people have advantages plain people do not—unless of course they are “on the manor” born. In most societies, not just ours, people of a certain color or hue of skin have advantages when compared to those who do not.

    Perhaps I could hear different definition of “privilege”—which are often the result of effort and not birth. I sometimes think that “privilege” is the politically correct term for advantages. We in the meritocracy do not acknowledge that the “playing firlf is Not level and never has been. Thus, the use of the gentler, softer term, “privilege”.

    In any case, I began with saying it is refreshing to hear, “Yes we had/have advantages. We know it and do not feel bad about it, because we know that, under the current veneer of “diversity”, inclusion and a black president, and even the current leader of the country, we really are still in control”.

    1. I agree, privilege is another term for advantages.

      In terms of your last paragraph, I apologize, but I can’t quite follow whether you believe I said that or Mr. Douthat did.

  8. Our leadership in the USA has not been outstanding in a very long time. The combination of high spending/big debt, wars, presidential affairs rocking expectations of decorum of the office of president, and lately brash behavior that nobody would have predicted. To pull up WASP and wrap Bush securely in WASP clothing seems a bit of a stretch. Then again, fiction writing is popular today… Some writing, simply can not be taken seriously.

  9. Brava. I trace my own WASPy lineage back fairly far, and throughout, I note, the notion of meritocracy and equality is paramount (along withe the notion of genuine education, not just the right schools). But then, although we do count some Rhodes Scholars among us, Harvard/Yale/Princeton was not a commonalty. And as a privileged woman, I feel fine in the company of unprivileged women who resent and publicly rebel against being insulted by those in powerful positions (even when those powerful fellas tip well, their version of noblesse oblige, I suppose).

    1. The emphasis on genuine education is so strong. And I feel lucky when I am in the company of women with the courage to rebel.

  10. Same here in Australia, changing Prime Ministers so fast it makes our head spin.
    Appears the majority of politicians world wide are not concerned about climate change. There is not one inspirational politician in our parliament any more.

  11. Thank you for writing this! Suggest you send it to the New York Times as an op-ed piece.

    1. Thank you! I did, on your suggestion, turns out they don’t like op-eds in reply to other op-eds, so I’d need to resubmit it as a letter. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow:).

  12. I think all this came about because nobody could think of anything wonderful that Bush did during his 4 years, so they focused on his ethnicity.

    Although the man was originally from New England, he considered himself a Texan. So he’s not the end of an era, he’s the beginning of a new order. Twenty years down the road I”m not sure that it’s a better order but I think there is hope.

    If anything Bush typified the worst of WASP pragmatism. Witness his calling Reagan’s economic plan voodoo economics, and throwing in with him. He promised, ‘no new taxes’ and then raised taxes.

    My young co-workers took off early to go to the Capital and pay their respects to the former President. They got there early, since they cut out of work early, and were surprised as the Bush family arrived. The staff was going to clear the room for the family, but “W” told them to let the people be. Everyone had been through a metal detector before entering the Capital, it wasn’t a huge risk.

    The family worked the room like pros, no surprise. Photos of George, Jeb, Laura, Jen and Barb with my smiling team flew around our emails all the next day. About half my group are Naturalized Citizens, most of the others are not White. What they are is hard-working, innovative individuals who want the opportunity to excel.

    I don’t think that WASP-ish values are fading from our nation, I think they’re pliable and changing.

    1. I just wanted to note…I was taught at a very young age..more than 70 years should not speak ill of the dead. If you cannot say something nice, do not say anything at all. You don’t agree with somebodies ideas, or way of life, so be it. (edited to stay within civility guidelines)

    2. This is such a great and funny and direct thought. “I think all this came about because nobody could think of anything wonderful that Bush did during his 4 years, so they focused on his ethnicity.”

  13. I like that you linked his NYT Twitter account when you posted this piece to your Twitter account. I’m sure you’ve seen that today he’s already penned/parsed a followup piece in his own defense. Of all the abstractions one might draw around his/your argument, mine is the least relevant: I imagined the forces pushing RD to the edge from behind – hey RD, your numbers are down, your traffic is down, your Comments, Likes, and Objections are down; unless you pen something more…vigorous, more edgy…we’re not going to publish your work as much, the clock is running, the sitemeter is counting. Signed, cynical & feeling manipulated.

  14. I for one, have been sickened to see the rehabilitation of the younger George Bush by the democrats.

    Remember when he was the guy who took us to endless war on false evidence? Remember when the democrats used to think he was awful?

    The adulation of the elder Bush is just more of the same.

    No amount of hugs and kisses, or passing of mints at funerals between George Bush and Michelle Obama is going to make me forget how fake all of this is.

    It’s clear that Bush’s rehabilitation has more to do with disgust for Trump, but it’s a stupid tactic that most people can see through.

    How many have died from Bush’s war? For that matter, how many more civilians have died from Obama drone bombing them, which he was really good at?

    ALL these guys just blend together as killing machines to my mind. I don’t understand any of the adulation for any of them.

  15. Hello Lisa, The problem with taking credit for any good things that happened in an earlier day is that one must also take responsibility for the bad ones–degradation of the environment (a large unstated cost of the so-called “profits” of the 20th century), excesses of racial injustice, etc. We can also add to the list the profligate use of resources. I recently read Louis Bromfield’s book about the restoration of Malabar Farm, and he oddly praises the early pioneers in one paragraph for carving their farms out of the wilderness. Then he castigates them in the next for gross neglect and mismanagement (even for that day) resulting in eroded and exhausted soil, leading to abandoned farms and communities in the search for fresh virgin and “inexhaustible” soil to rob. Yet when we visit these empty town squares we find statues of the early founders and leading citizens, no doubt carved by Mr. Douthat’s ancestors.
    p.s. The above rant is in response to Douthat’s article. My real opinion is more balanced, but I expect others’ statements to be as well.

    1. I agree – it’s hard to focus on past heroism when we are also facing, as a society, the cost of past behaviors. All of us are on edge these days, it’s hard not to be. Your points don’t sound like a rant to me:).

  16. Yes! And especially this:

    ‘He didn’t mean WASPs, per se, he meant “the Yalies, the Harvardians, (and I suppose the Princetonians,) who used to stroll with ease from prep school to Washington along a path cleared each morning by a swarm of invisible sweepers.” He should have said so.’

    Thank you for taking this on, and dissecting it so beautifully.

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