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Gin without the tonic

October 4, 2013

How modern preppies got the style but forgot the values.
by Susan Cheever. Published in Newsweek on August 6, 2012.

SUMMERING used to go with trust funds and prepping at St. Paul’s and double-barreled names that ended in Roman numerals. These days summer at the beach has become an American right that we hold to be self-evident. We are an intensely WASPirational society. Things that were once associated with the Protestant establishment—vacations; golf and tennis and fly-fishing; boats; schools like Andover, Harvard, and Yale; Lilly Pulitzer shifts and flood pants from L.L.Bean—are now what almost everyone seems to want. We have internalized the Preppy Handbook and devour novels that describe the beaching rich. The 1 percent behave outwardly more like the headmaster of Groton than like their own grandparents.

But Peter Pan collars, leaky catboats, boating moccasins, and trust funds are not the secret to becoming an elite. The ideas and convictions that went with all that stuff—the Breton red slacks, the clambakes, the plummy accents, the tennis prowess—have somehow been lost in the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. These days, money is wasted on the rich.

American aristocrats were raised to ski hard and tie a mean Royal Coachman, but they were also often raised in a tradition of service—noblesse oblige it was called—that led them to give away lots of their money and to behave in ways that helped those who had less. John D. Rockefeller famously spent more time at the end of his life giving away money than earning it. It wasn’t because he was so rich. At the beginning of his life, he gave away 10 percent of the $200 a year he earned as an Ohio bookkeeper’s assistant. He was not alone: the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and more recently the Roosevelts all established foundations that made the world an extraordinarily better place. When John Jacob Astor IV gave up his seat on a Titanic lifeboat, he was acting out of a tradition of gallantry and service that was rare then and is even rarer now. There are still titans with a conscience in the 21st century—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey, for instance—but some of the rich hang on to their money until the eagle grins. They don’t even want to pay more taxes. And this has helped create unprecedented income inequality in our country.

The old-line WASP aristocrats were flawed in spite of their Harvard and Yale degrees and ability to set a spinnaker. They had little sexual tolerance, they thought women shouldn’t have careers, they were anti-Semitic, they named their children after themselves with sometimes hilarious results, and they often drank too much. Their gods were bloodlines, that ineffable thing called class, good manners, and, well, God. Our gods, these days, are money and intelligence—but these more modern, up-to-date techno-gods don’t come with a code of behavior or anything as fusty as courtesy or a sense that privilege carries responsibility. We revere our self-made men—and since they have made themselves, they don’t feel responsible for anyone else.

Perhaps the old WASPs we are so slavishly imitating deserved to be overthrown, but they had an attitude about the world that it would be nice to adopt when we put on our pastels and belts dotted with whales to head for the beach.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2013 2:39 pm

    Flawed by the ever-changing modern standards, perhaps.

  2. max permalink
    October 15, 2013 9:46 pm


  3. October 21, 2013 3:04 am

    Irritated, momentarily proud, then disconcerted: this article served a cocktail of mixed feelings. I could not rest until I posted this response. Let me explain ….

    Before though, some common ground. Yes: tennis prowess, plummy accents and boat shoes are superficial markers of our culture. More centrally, to be a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant is to be called by a duty to serve others, by a sense that privilege brings with it obligation. So far, we are in agreement.

    But, then the irritations ….

    First, in the ambiguity of the author’s message, I wondered: does she favourably contrast yesterday’s “old-line WASP aristocrats” with today’s WASPs (“modern preppies”), or with the wider “WASPirational society”? The author is unclear and I think the unfortunate result is to cast a pall over today’s inheritors of a fine culture. Not a day passes without me witnessing marvelous examples of civic responsibility from Episcopalian youth aged 12 to 30, not to mention other age-groups. And it’s selfless, not cynically performed to satisfy college applications! If the author meant the wider “WASPirational society” as would be the obvious reasoning, she ought say this unambiguously.

    Second, she says that WASPs perhaps “deserved to be overthrown” and speaks in the past tense about our culture. WASP culture is strong. WASP culture is persistent. Not only that, WASP culture has empowered three important cultural threads of US society, the beneficiaries within them today being their first generation in full flourish. WASPs must accept their credit for this unleashing. Is it any wonder then that the wider “WASPirational society” attempts to mimic? And is it any wonder some of them get it only half right? Let us not be confused, as the author seems to be, that WASP culture is on life-support.

    Third, the author draws on protestant stereotypes regarding gender, race and sex from a different era as if our culture is not the epitome of tolerance today. Contrast today’s WASPs with today’s mimics if you dare that taboo. Contrast yesterday’s WASPs with yesterday’s aspirants if you care. The “protestant establishment” has a nation building legacy about which to boast were if predisposed to boast.

    Fourth, for any number of reasons, it is a long bow to claim of whatever group is ascribed “They don’t even want to pay more taxes. And this has helped create unprecedented income inequality in our country.” Please show me anyone of any social group who pays more tax that they have to. Certainly not Warren Buffett, as you cite. As that great WASP philanthropist, Kerry Packer, elsewhere opined: “I am not evading tax in any way, shape or form. Of course, I am minimising my tax. Anybody in this country who does not minimise his tax wants his head read. I can tell you as a government that you are not spending it so well that we should be donating extra.”

    Fifth, let us not indulge the fiction that WASP culture is an American phenomenon. The terms WASP and preppy are from this country, but everything written in response to this article taps a deeper vein. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture is endearing, mimicked and above all values-based. And this is true throughout the Anglosphere countries of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

    It is important when writing about WASPs that proportion, accuracy and clarity are offered. This applies to Susan Cheever as well as anyone.

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