WASPs Were Awesome, WSJ Essay Mythologizes

Do you long for the days when a greed-free generation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants championed social causes? If the answer is yes, you'll love this essay in The Wall Street Journal.

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Do you long for the days when a greed-free generation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants championed social causes? Do you hate the fact that you have to be smart to get ahead these days? If the answer is yes, you'll love this essay in The Wall Street Journal.

Penned by Joseph Epstein as an excerpt from his new book, "A Literary Education and Other Essays," the essay makes the totally straight-faced argument that WASPs were pretty much unimpeachable, as opposed to the meritocracy espoused by such things as the American dream promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren't, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today's new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided.

Also, their farts smell like flowers.

Let's brush past the significant chunk of the essay where Epstein devotes a shocking amount of rhetorical space to rating just how WASPy some famous Americans were (FDR: 10 out of 10! The Kennedys: a zero, because they were a bunch of phoneys!) It most notably makes the argument that times were pretty darn halcyon when our ant hill was run by our power-hoarding WASP overlords, instead of the workaday hassle of, oh, working hard to make good things happen.

Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. ... A financier I know who grew up under the WASP standard not long ago told me that he thought that the subprime real estate collapse and the continuing hedge-fund scandals have been brought on directly by men and women who are little more than "greedy pigs" (his words) without a shred of character or concern for their clients or country. Naturally, he added, they all have master's degrees from the putatively best business schools in the nation.

They may be someone else's words, sure, but Epstein still trumpets the incredibly weird claim that people who work hard to get ahead are inherently very greedy and only want what's best for them, instead of back in the old days, when your family's good name was enough, which is in no way greedy or self-serving. "Thus far in their history," he goes on to write, "meritocrats, those earnest good students, appear to be about little more than getting on, getting ahead and (above all) getting their own. The WASP leadership, for all that may be said in criticism of it, was better than that."

Ugh, said Twitter.

It is worth noting that WASP, according to a 2010 essay by Kevin Schultz in the journal Historically Speaking, is a term first created in the 1960s by the civil rights movement, seeing their oppressors as white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Fifty years ago, WASPs made up 75 percent of the highest rungs of the political, military and academic elite. Things are different, now – and despite the writer's laudatory claim that "doing the right thing, especially in the face of temptations to do otherwise, was the WASP test par excellence," it seems fairly clear that we're able to do right, too, in rejecting this essay.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.