"WASPs" vs. Jews, part 8

From the introduction to the 1996 edition of Nelson Aldrich's Old Money (continue reading):

The relics purveyed at Polo HQ can be purchased by anyone who wants to buy them, but they used to belong, more or less exclusively, to an elite of inherited wealth called the American upper class. The qualifier "upper" is gone now, even at Polo, leaving "class" tour court, as in "class act" or "class" attire. The excision is not a trivial matter, as it reflects what happened to the class and its culture after World War II. First, the class found itself in the reduced circumstances known as an "ethnic group," specifically the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ethnic group. Second, its culture, after a long illness, died--whereupon it was transfigured as a lifestyle commodity, elements of which you'll find on sale at your nearest Ralph Lauren outlet. [. . .]

Henry Adams, however, must be the first writer to have discovered not only "Other" ethnicities, but also, reflexively, his own. In the Education (1907), Adams famously laments that people like himself, Americans of America, have gone the way of the Indians and the buffalo. The agents of this Darwinian extinction are the successive waves of immigrants that have surged onto our shores, leaving behind masses of struggling ethnics any one of whom, Adams lamented, was better equipped to survive in America, on America's terms, than those who came here first, like the Adams family. Henry particularly had in mind "a furtive Yacoob" from Warsaw.

Of course, as Adams would have been the first to point out, this account of upper-class decline says more about America's terms of success than it does about him and his fellow class-members. The terms of American success were those of the marketplace, and they were set with Andrew Jackson's humiliating defeat of Adams's grandfather, John Quincy Adams, in the 1832 race for the Presidency. Perhaps, in fact, they were set earlier than that, with he passing from power of the Founding Fathers, including Adams's great-grandfather, John Adams. But in either case, Adams felt that the noble civic ideals and practices of the American republic were being swamped by the unbounded appetites, the rootlessness, the selfishness, and the cold-hearted search for competitive advantage of the free market.

Why was the "furtive Yacoob" any better adapted to survival in the new America than Adamses, or, for that matter, the middling sort of Americans? It was because Adamses had been inseminated at conception with the "democratic dogma," as Henry's brother Brooks put it. The dogma held that the pursuit of happiness in commerce had to be constrained by an Adams-like upper-class regard for the past and for posterity, and by a true spirit of candor, civility, and social conscience. Thus the farther one was from being an Adams or an American--and who could be farther, said the anti-Semitism of the time, than the rootless, greedy, cold-hearted Jew?--the freer one would be of all inhibitions on the orgiastic worship of the market.

Already around the turn of the century, Adams believed, the orgy was dogma, and with it American democracy had taken a decisive turn. It was now a struggle a l'outrance, one person against another, all squealing and grunting at the trough of economic opportunity. On this view, shared with Adams by innumerable other descendants of the old upper class, they are merely one of the defeated "ethnics"--the WASPs. They might be better off than the Indians, but no less remote from power and influence.

The man widely credited with coining the "WASP" epithet is E. Digby Baltzell, himself a WASP University of Pennsylvania sociologist whose most influential book is The Protestant Establishment. Much of his book is a round-up of the various indices--boarding school and college matriculation, club memberships, trusteeships, directorships, summer and winter addresses, and so on--which WASPs (no mean social scientists themselves deploy in order to determine who is one of them and who is not. Baltzell's argument, buttressed by heart rending anecdotes of all sorts of prejudiced blackballing of non-WASPs, is that WASPs are not a ruling class in the Marxian (or any other) sense of the word. Instead, they ware well on their way, by means of all those black balls, to constituting themselves as a ruling caste. They are marrying each other, hiring each other, renting and selling to each other, promoting each other to key posts in the culture and the government, and admitting each other to their cherished schools, colleges, and resorts. Henry Adams was wrong: WASPs are still on top of the world; no other genes need apply.

Baltzell later came to detest the term he had invented. Like former New York City mayor John V. Lindsay and many others, he has been quoted as complaining that his acronym has become an epithet--as injurious as, say, "Wop." This is ridiculous: epithets are as epithets do. Even in the locker room of New York's Racquet Club, a luxurious haven of WASP athleticism, nobody will punch you in the nose for calling him a WASP. [. . .]

Baltzell and others know this about "WASP." My guess is that their indignation over the currency of the epithet masked the melancholy realization that Adams was right after all [. . .]

3 comments:

Chris said...

Ralph Lauren, aka Ralph Lifshitz. About as WASP as Hideki Tojo.

TGGP said...

The anti-commercialism of the old upper class northeast is also discussed in Wolfgang Schivelbusch's "The Culture of Defeat" (in the section on the American south) and Arthur Lipow's "Authoritarian Socialism in America". I didn't actually finish the last one, since I'm not that interested in Edward Bellamy.

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