The Way of the WASP
Here is the latest in an occasional series of reprints of my pre-Internet articles, my 1991 review of Richard Brookhiser’s The Way of the WASP.
THE TRUTH ABOUT US
The Way of the WASP: How It Made America, and How It Can Save It, So to Speak, by Richard Brookhiser (The Free Press, 164 pp., $19.95)
AMERICAN CULTURE may be in serious trouble, but how can we save that culture if we don’t even know what it is? According to Richard Brookhiser, all the usual theories that purport to explain the American idea are inadequate. Liberal democracy based on the Enlightenment is too abstract; there are other democracies, but they’re not like us. Similarly, the frontier theory (immigrants mixing in wide open spaces made us) fails to account for the different character of other countries that also had immigrants and large frontiers. Nor is the American mere Homo economicus, generic, universal man. The American’s nature, Brookhiser declares, “is more particular than a theory or a circumstance. It has a local habitation and a name. And that is, that he was once a WASP. To miss this is to get everything else wrong.” In The Way of the WASP, Brookhiser gives fresh and affirmative meaning to a word normally used as a sign of disdain for America’s oldest group—and for America itself. As an ethnic identification, he shows, WASP properly denotes not just the notoriously restrained upper class, but all white Americans of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent (about a quarter of the U.S. population). More significantly, as a cultural designation, WASP refers to all Americans who have adopted “the way of the WASP,” the basic outlines of which were established in early America. “The WASP character is the American character,” Brookhiser writes. “It is the mold, the template, the archetype, the set of axes along which the crystal has grown. Without the WASP it would be another country altogether. Without the continuing influence of his values, it is sure to lose its way.”
Of course, both intellectual and popular cultures have long derided the WASP as a cold, repressed automaton who had imposed himself as a model on the whole nation—an attack that reached its manic height in the effusions of Norman Mailer: “The Protestant is the historical embodiment of the great will which deadened the flesh.” But the criticism of WASPs as a group, says Brookhiser, is only a symptom of a deeper ill. “For decades—for a century, in some cases— Americans have been turning away from WASP ways of thinking and behaving, with disastrous results… . Hip-deep in blessings that the rest of the world covets, they have thrown them away with both hands.”
While he views this loss of faith as a catastrophe for our culture, it is not Brookhiser’s style to run through the marketplace like Nietzsche’s madman, crying out that God is dead and that we have killed Him; nor does he follow the hard path of the Straussians to philosophical salvation, though he draws on some of their insights. His approach is commonsensical and witty, ranging amiably from George Bush’s election to the novels of John Updike to an obscure Methodist enclave on the New Jersey shore. He describes Michael Dukakis as a “man from a strange and distant land. Not Greece, of course, but Brookline, Massachusetts.” Speaking of WASP-Irish similarities, he notes that the Irish were “familiar with the English half of Anglo-American liberties, even if only by being deprived of them.” But this chatty irreverence is only a front, a scaffolding for Brookhiser’s deeper purpose, which is to call America back to its true self.
“The way of the WASP” consists of six closely related values or character traits—conscience, civic-mindedness, industry, success, use, and anti-sensuality. The most important is conscience—“the great legacy of Protestantism.” Conscience is not the modernist way of paradox and ambiguity; “it is the inner light that shows us self-evident truths … the source of whatever freedoms WASP society enjoys.” Civic-mindedness is the “operation of conscience in social relations.” Honor, family, group take a back seat to the good of society. Conscience mandates—and civic-mindedness sanctions—industry, which results in success. By “use,” Brookhiser means asking what things are good for, a kind of practical Aristotelianism. Finally, the WASP suspicion of sensual pleasure is not a morbid turning away from the body, but an application of the test of use: sport, food, even art, are valued because they’re “good for you.” It is the only WASP trait he seems to regret: “The Chinese work hard; so do the Italians. Yet they both know how to cook.”
In his account of the degeneration of this pattern of useful virtues into an opposite set of vices, Brookhiser illuminates our current disorder. Conscience, the monitor of the self, has given way to the untrammeled self, along with the attendant liberationisms; lower-class welfare mothers and upper-class S&L con artists are equally products of a culture that has thrown away the constraints of conscience. Instead of industry rewarded by success, we have ambition striving for gratification. Civic-mindedness has been displaced by the group-mindedness that now dominates our politics, while the objective test of use (which implies a moral standard derived from nature) has given way to diffidence: “[Things] are, therefore we defer to them”—a neat characterization of America’s timorous response to every minority demand.
Ironically, it was WASPs themselves, not today’s cultural radicals, who first undermined the WASP ethos. The first culprit was Emerson, who in viewing the self as totally autonomous, even divine, devalued conscience. “Seeing with inner light,” Brookhiser notes with typical panache, “is very different from generating it.” Then there was Progressivism (exemplified by Woodrow Wilson), which changed men’s notions of the good. “Progress was not progress toward anything definite…. It was going with the flow, waiting in the baggage-claim area of history to see what rumbled up the belt next.” The Progressive approach to history meant that all claims were equally deserving of respect—including the claims of all groups. As a result, “civic-mindedness sank soon after conscience.” Even the Protestant churches betrayed the way of the WASP. First, nineteenth-century Biblical scholarship undermined the Bible as a source of revelation; then the social gospel split liberals from traditionalists. Protestantism’s unity of ethical belief—and thus its normative function in American society—has unraveled.
Brookhiser’s recommendations add up to a call for counterrevolution: make war on group-mindedness; reject the Progressivist paradigm (which Reagan failed to do); return to the concept of human nature and a politics deduced from that nature. Lastly, encourage open debate in the Protestant churches. In a real debate, errors will be exposed, and “a restored cultural amalgam will emerge.”
The Way of the WASP is an adroit refutation of the “all-cultures-are-equal” pieties. Yet, as valuable as his ideas are, I fear that Brookhiser has skipped over an important dimension of the cultural debate. Focused as he is on America’s own—potentially reversible—spiritual foibles, he ignores the irreversible impact on American culture of our open-borders policy. Like many conservatives today, he believes that while group-think (a/k/a multiculturalism) is bad, unlimited immigration is wonderful; the implication is that if we restore the WASP civic-mindedness which encourages assimilation, we will be able over the coming century to absorb scores of millions of Latin Americans, Asians, Middle Easterners, and Africans with no loss to America’s Anglo-form cultural heritage. But that’s hardly a unanimous view—least of all among the immigrants themselves. Novelist Bharati Mukherjee, a moderate who opposes multiculturalism and supports cultural “fusion,” speaks of Asian-Americans as “We, the new pioneers who are thinking of America as still a frontier country…. Letting go of the old notions of what America was shouldn’t be seen as a loss.” Now, if ongoing mass immigration and cultural fusion mean “letting go” of America’s historical identity and cultural heritage, what happens to the way of the WASP, which—the author himself would acknowledge—has its historical and imaginative roots in that heritage? Richard Brookhiser is not the only conservative who has thus far failed to ask, or answer, that question.
NATIONAL REVIEW / JANUARY 28, 1991