The Old Virtues
The Way of the Wasp: How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak.
by Richard Brookhiser.
The Free Press. 171 pp. $19.95.
It is about time someone spoke up for the WASP. Since this is America, the task has naturally fallen to a descendant of an immigrant German Catholic family who was brought up as a Methodist and is now lapsed, who knows only two Protestants in Manhattan, one of them Japanese, and who is married to a descendant of Russian Jews. Thus does Richard Brookhiser, a graduate of Yale, senior editor of the National Review, contributor to Time, speech writer for George Bush in 1982, introduce himself.
Brookhiser begins by recounting the WASP-bashing during the Bush campaign of 1988—a continuation of a theme in American politics that has been sounding since the late 60’s and early 70’s. He cites in evidence my own book, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1971). What some of us then wanted was breathing room in which to discover and express our own non-WASP identity (status recognition, if you will). The redirection of American politics we recommended—back toward the “little platoons” of family, neighborhood, and work—had British precedents, in Edmund Burke, for example. But it did not entail the collapse of the larger platoon. I can still recall the astonishment I felt at the time when a fortress I thought both admirable and impregnable was suddenly surrendered without a fight.
Brookhiser pursues two theses. First, early America was created by WASPs: “They wrote the rules; everyone else played by them. If America had been settled and founded by Frenchmen or Spaniards, as it might well have been, it would be a different place now. And a worse one.” His second thesis follows logically: “Any project to improve or repair the country the WASPs made should be attentive to its particular patterns of thought and forms of behavior. If the only living and healthy values to which the whole country has access are WASP values, then anything restorative or profitable we try to accomplish has to draw on them.”
Roughly agreed (the “only” is a bit strong). But what are WASP values? In the most interesting chapter of his book, Brookhiser lists six “traits” that define the essential WASP character: conscience, industry, success, civic-mindedness, use, antisensuality. How conscience leads to industry, industry to success, success to civic-mindedness, and how all of these require and issue in a sense of practicality, are matters familiar enough. In a way that I at first found irritating but then helpful, Brookhiser prints his terms in a clockwise diagram, with conscience at noon and civic-mindedness at six, and the others distributed evenly in between. This allows him some suggestive pairings: civic-mindedness broadens conscience and incidentally gives the lie to the common accusation that the American conscience is radically individualistic. Antisensuality helps to modify industry and vice versa, as use (or, better, utility or practicality) illuminates success. More than many other cultures, WASP culture insists on a certain inner self-government; it construes freedom to mean doing not what one wishes but what one ought; it insists upon unbroken attention to the bite of guilt.
From his discussion of WASP traits Brookhiser moves to non-WASPs and the world they have aspired to and then, with greater originality, to a chapter on dissident and rebellious WASPs who have aspired to other worlds. Here he briefly considers Henry Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (in an unusual treatment) Woodrow Wilson. Then he broaches the cultural rebellion of the 1950’s and 1960’s which aimed to overturn the nation’s founding ethos, and the decline of the WASP character in three quite different areas: Wall Street, art (especially writing), and the churches. Finally, he writes of our current, “post-WASP world” and how we have gotten there. Somehow, having for centuries beaten back all challengers, the leaders of the WASP elite lost their nerve, and a new permissiveness—a new centrifugal dispersion—took over. Brookhiser’s emblem is a scene in Manhattan nowadays: a man in clean chinos and new track shoes, pissing on the sidewalk.
Brookhiser blames it all on the WASPs themselves; they did themselves in. But how? He declines to accept two possible explanations: the rise of a New Class of technocrats and public-sector professionals, and the rapid spread of anti-bourgeois modernism in the universities. Rather, adducing both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he traces the fault back to the WASP embrace of Progressivism; with this, he believes, the foundations of conscience were sapped. Once conscience was made to yield to the “spirit of the age,” it was only a matter of time before a thoroughgoing counterculture emerged, complete with mirror images of the six WASP traits: self, ambition, gratification, group-mindedness, diffidence, and (aesthetic) creativity. Once conscience had accepted progress as its guide, anyone—and everyone—could speak for it. In place of civic-mindedness, group-mindedness grew, and with it the jungle of competing interests. No longer in evidence was a single standard that all must meet. And for the dereliction of its elites, the whole society has had to pay. “The George Bushes of this world bear more responsibility for the pissing in the streets than they may be aware of.”
Can the way of the WASP be saved? Brookhiser is rather more certain that it must be than that it can be. I agree that it must be, because America’s WASP ways have had a great deal to do with American success. Other areas of the world have natural resources of comparable value, frontiers to inspire the imagination, etc., but they have not succeeded; our special ethos is also our comparative advantage. Nor is it difficult to agree that the health of America’s institutions depends upon certain moral and cultural qualities of the sort Brookhiser identifies, to keep the system from internal destruction. Yet as Brookhiser also suggests, half of our current WASP elite lacks “the vision thing,” while the other half pursues an errant (progressive) vision. Sometimes, indeed, the battle can be seen to rage within the same person. George Bush, who makes altogether too many appearances in this book for its own rhetorical good, evokes many of the virtues of his heritage; but he also exemplifies many of its weaknesses. On such a basis, how is the WASP way to be restored?
Brookhiser would have done well to imagine analogues of WASP ways, or even improvements upon them, of a sort that would help the American system fulfill its promise. He is right that our system can be made to work only upon the basis of some finite range of moral strengths. But in limiting the possibilities to six traits, he narrows his own vision. It was, after all, Ronald Reagan, a WASP of decidedly different traits, who inspired the nation with esteem for its traditional ways and the strengths of its past.
One of the glories of this society, designed and for so long presided over by WASPs, is that in becoming Americans we all take on responsibility for maintaining the ethos which secures our rights. That ethos no longer belongs solely to WASPs. It is conceivable that, having assimilated the WASP way, others in their gratitude may be able to join in preserving and promoting it without suffering the WASPs’ historic failure of nerve.