Few things announce an open audition for the bizarre like a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. The subsequent debate makes our presidential races look mild in comparison. This is the byproduct of “the people” having no direct control over the confirmation process. Nothing turns up the volume on crazy like the recognition that the composition of the Supreme Court is entrusted to people you don’t trust.
Journalists, not knowing what to do but certain that the issues are too boring for print, undertake an archaeological dig of the social landscape and emerge with fringe storylines. Since the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the strangest storyline in recent years has emerged: The Fall of the WASP.
No, not the insects that exhibit the charm of Nancy Pelosi on a visit to the NRA, but the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who were once ubiquitous in the halls of government and Wall Street. The Northeastern Yankees who stepped off the Mayflower, into the pages of “The Great Gatsby” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and who, from Washington to Eisenhower, monopolized the White House.
Trumping all, Salon published the heady “Fall of the WASP,” and as you imagined John Kerry tumbling down a flight of stairs, scowl still deftly intact, the piece went on to attribute the WASP’s demise to “technology and globalization.” That’s pretty heavy. Suddenly, thanks to Microsoft and NAFTA, an entire American demographic needs a half-bottle of Xanax before boarding their sail boats. Tennis, the sport of sunny days, is simply out of the question.
For WASPs, this has been an unexpectedly depressing week. Few things are more of a downer than waking up every day and reading your own obituary. But it’s a fleeting shock, one which dies—speaking of generalizations—in the dead zone of the WASP’s token indifference. The only depressing thing about hearing that your unsentimental, invisible subculture has really vanished, is the realization that you’ve been replaced by people who care about stuff like that.
That’s the thing: I don’t think this is really about the “Fall of the WASP.” That is a consolation thought, a placeholder for people who choose not to identify what has really disappeared: a nation where people who speak in the childishness of identity politics are laughed out of rooms; far more endangered is the broad understanding of E Pluribus Unum – “Out of Many, One.”
For nearly five decades, our national luminaries have increasingly sought to fragment American citizenship into sub-cultures; encouraging the kind of tribalism that has brought other nations to their knees. We have seen too much of it these years – with race, gender, religion and ancestry fueling an identity politics that distracts from substantive issues – the kind that could provide genuine insight into whether an individual will function effectively in a public office.
Yet the stories we have been given are indeed accurate: you don’t see a lot of WASPs in Washington anymore. There are, however, plenty of other sub-cultures to fill the curmudgeonly void: groups who opt for a life of tribalism to protect an uncontested view of world; people who, in the absence of doing anything substantive today, choose to look to a forgotten past for identity.
Some years back I was on Capitol Hill, stuck in a meeting with one of those crazy-eyed More Christian than Christ-types, who, after lambasting every demographic in this country – never once using the phrase “American” – concluded by assuring me that “the meek would inherit the Earth.”
Clearly, across much of the political landscape, they already have.
Elena Kagan’s nomination is about her qualification to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, nothing more.
And for those genuinely concerned with the disappearance of the WASP, his extinction is no Easter Island mystery – it is a simple story. All the stuff WASPs like to do – smoke, drink, colonize, revolt, proselytize, make money, drive fast cars without seatbelts, hunt and read – are fading from cultural acceptance. Former WASP activities, today, range from the rude to the illegal. A people known for tobacco, booze, wealth accumulation and privacy rights won’t survive long in an age of body despots, wealth redistributors and transparency freaks.
It’s neither bad nor good – just the inevitable inertia of life.
If anyone really misses the WASP, fret not. They can still be found, en masse, congregating each summer on the cobbled streets of Nantucket Island. During the summer months, Nantucket looks like a prison colony for Yankees and exiles from 19th century America. The island is overrun with Tween children with verbs for names: Chase, Skip, Pat and Wade. Its taverns swell with people who can’t dance, dress themselves in blinding, migraine-inducing colors and can always tell you, any hour of the day or night, within a 200-point margin of error, the latest numbers from the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.