WASPS – Decline of the Group America Loves to Hate

Posted on May 16, 2010

This generation probably does not know what a WASP is.  It is short for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”  The Pilgrims were protestants driven  from Britain by their brand of protestantism.  They arrived on these shores aboard that iconic ship, the Mayflower, and  set foot on what they called Plymouth Rock (after Plymouth, England) in what is now Massachusetts.  The passenger list became a sacred relic held in esteem only just below the Bible. To be able to trace your ancestry to one of the passengers was to have been elevated above the rest of mankind.

The other great historical listing is that which has been compiled by the organization known as “the Daughters of the American Revolution.” Trace your ancestry back to a known combatant of the time and you received a certificate to hang on your wall.

At the height of their influence in the 1950s, men of the WASP establishment  had their clubs that were “segregated” racially and sexually. Women had the Junior League, a service organization that taught members about their communities and then taught them how to be of service as volunteers in it. It was by invitation only but it was understood that invitations would be extended only to fellow WASPS.

From a wealthy family all of whom had been educated in private schools, my father (a Democrat) put me in public school so that I would be involved in the real world.  It was heavily Jewish and he liked that because of that community’s insistence on maintaining the quality of the education there. As a result, I would go to our private club and ask: “why aren’t my friends from school here”?  Dad was embarrassed to say that a group of men in the club decided who could be members. I remember saying to him “how can they decide who can and can’t come here”?  I was truly his daughter.  He taught me to comfortably go between all worlds. He said “I want to be able to set you down anywhere in the world and you will feel comfortable.”

And so children are taught.  I was fortunate in my teacher. So many were not. He also taught me that I was as good as anyone else and that is an important lesson to learn when so many WAPS are on rungs above you. Finally he gave in and sent me to boarding school so that I, a moderately successful student, could get into a good college.

Fancying themselves as deposed royalty in exile (the disconnect was never examined),WASPS took on the way of life and the philosophies of  the British ruling class.  In doing that, they took on the centuries-old  motto,”Noblesse Oblige” – “Nobility Obligates.”  If you were wealthy, it was your duty to share it and so WASPS became a large resource for building cultural and educational institutions in the US – all before taxes were passed into law.  The steel king, Andrew Carnegie (Scotsman) gave countless public libraries to innumerable towns. Charitable Foundations were created and not just for tax purposes.  Every one on every level did something for someone else at Christmas.  But money was not just shared.   There was nobility of education to be passed on and nobility of soul to function as an example of the morally good life.

Thanks to Instapundit, I came upon an article in the Wall Street Journal that was the best, succinct expression of not only what WASPS were but posited some plausible theories about their decline as a ruling class in American society and industry:

“That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP – Kagan Nomination Marks Another Faded Day in the Establishment’s Illustrious but Insular History; a New Path to Power,” by Robert Frank.

He made four or five on target assessments of the reasons behind their decline:

  • [T]he deregulation of markets, globalization, the rise of technology, the primacy of education and skills over family connections.
  • [T]he shifting dynamics of the faith itself, with mainline Protestantism giving way to the more fire-and-brimstone brands of Evangelicals in recent decades. The Episcopal Church, usually seen as the church of the Establishment, has seen some of the most pronounced declines in recent years.
  • Rev. Mark S. Sisk, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said the polarized landscape of religion today hasn’t favored more moderate faiths like Episcopals.
  • [T]he prejudice and insularity of the elite as the eventual causes of its decline. “A crisis has developed in modern America largely because of the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment’s unwillingness, or inability, to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks.”
  • Jamie Johnson, the documentary filmmaker and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, said he believed the destructive effects of wealth over multiple generations were also a factor.

This last item, the destructive force of large estates on initiative and creativity of succeeding generations is of a greater import than many realize.  So many grow up used to a certain level of wealth and the power it does in fact bring and when their fathers die and their estates are divided up among heirs they find their resources diminished and their ability to rebuild insufficient, a wasted existence can result.  Powerful parents tend to stifle the talents of their offspring – many of whom try to live up to parental standards and forget about living up to their own.

Robert Frank finally gave a lot of credit to the “establishment” as it gives way to a new order:

‘I think we’re losing something fundamental with the Establishment,” he said. “The Establishment was really about people who became leaders because they were confident and highly competent in their areas.’ [Wall Street Journal]

The only disagreement I would have with Mr. Frank is what is left of that group’s influence:

Meantime, WASP culture has been left to live out its days as a fashion statement, on the shelves of Ralph Lauren stores, or as a social badge at defiantly old-world clubs like the Knickerbocker Club in New York or the Bath and Tennis Club in Palm Beach.

You can’t bottle and sell the essence of WASP.  It’s not in a shirt or in a home at Nantucket.  Not from my experience.  Those who survive have a history similar to mine:

My Grandfather is gone and with him the materialism that many felt defined him. But the character of the man which was shaped by his inner strength, refined in the studies he followed, that informed his business practices, and that was expanded by his travels and by so many other things – his character was his true inheritance. WASPS are no longer the establishment.  But the spirit and the strength of the men and women who founded those families lives on in quiet corners. Only the trappings of power have gone.  There is still “Noblesse Oblige” and so I teach.

from Wikipedia:

The literal translation from French of “Noblesse oblige” is “nobility obliges.”

The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus:

  1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
  2. (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms to one’s position, and with the reputation that one has earned.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term “suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility”. Being a noble meant that one had responsibilities to lead, manage and so on. One was not to simply spend one’s time in idle pursuits.


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