WHY A MANIFESTO?
These essays are indebted to E. Digby Baltzell (1915-1996), the University of Pennsylvania sociologist and author of The Protestant Establishment : Aristocracy and Caste in America (Random House, 1964). He is widely and correctly credited with popularizing the term “WASP” within the American lexicon, but even while most will easily ascribe to him this minimal accomplishment, few take due note of his central argument within the book itself. Baltzell posited that the American Anglo-Saxon Protestant upper class, bombarded by waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century and facing radical change in American society, was, by the middle 20th century, in danger of retreating into itself, of becoming a closed caste, and therefore of condemning itself to irrelevancy and eventual extinction.
He was entirely prescient.
While they have lost their iron grip on the reigns of power and authority, WASPs have not died out, although sounding their death knell remains a popular sport among observers within and without. Accordingly, there is a very real extent to which WASPs, in the popular imagination, in academic ethnography, and in the manner of their self-identification, have forgotten or neglected the full spread of WASP history and its attendant duties. Instead, they have retreated into a small conception of themselves, one based largely upon popular negative stereotypes.
These stereotypes speak for themselves: WASPs are considered to be stuffy, cold, tightfisted, impotent, and closed-minded. They are thought to be exclusionary, spoiled, out-of-touch, insular, and not infrequently alcoholic.
The fact of the matter is that WASPs have been both progressive and public-minded, especially over the last 100 years, and have been influential in business, banking, philanthropy, academia, the arts, and in public service. They have contributed in a very real way to the building of the United States, and some of our great leaders – both past and present – have been white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.
At present, even as WASPs themselves recede from the popular memory, a great deal of attention is given to their legacies – buildings, clothing, institutions. Consider the popularity of the term “Preppy” to describe a certain style of manners, education, and dress, all of which have been dis-engaged from their foundation in WASP provenance. Indeed Ralph Lauren has made a retail empire of marketing these things as “classic American style,” which indicates the extent to which the public view WASP style as the American classic.
In the guise of “Preppy,” therefore, WASP has become a lifestyle, something that can be espoused by stocking up on the relevant merchandise, by striking a pose and espousing a certain art de vivre.
To my mind, however, this is cheap, and it is several sizes too small an evaluation of the space formerly occupied by our people.
In response to the question above – why a manifesto? – one’s answer comes from a strongly-held belief that our way of life offers more to the world than simply good clothes and good manners. Put another way: WASP-dom is not an empty shell, fading grey into memory, and our people are not lame ducks in this great American experiment. If one considers that the purpose of all of our upbringing – from the Knickerbocker Greys to Yale and Harvard – is to prepare our young men and women for the responsibilities of privilege, and that the uppermost of these attendant duties is the charge to lead, then it is imperative that our people not squander the benefits that we have been given. To do so is to neglect responsibility to the land that created us and that has put the silver spoon, so to speak, into our mouths.
It is time that our people come again to believe this of themselves.
It must be distinctly understood that these essays do not advocate a racial position. In this day, WASP ways and values can readily be adopted by members of any race or (in some instances) religion, and they certainly are. We are in a time when second-generation black Ivy League graduates are at large in American society, ascending to positions of leadership alongside their white peers. The same will be true of members of every nationality and racial background before very long indeed.
What is critical are those values of literacy, fair play, sportsmanship, moderation, and civic-mindedness that have long shaped the ways of our people. They grow from a background of independent education and a certain amount of comfort, and they are critical to balancing the radical impulses of a society, radical impulses which have grown enormously in the last 50 years and which threaten to push the United States onto a dangerous, destructive course.
All of the values listed above, and their peers, are a critical tonic to the fanaticism and individual self-centeredness that have been creeping ever more strongly into American public life. A people who do not understand the basic self-sacrifice endemic to a successful democracy, who cannot appreciate why taxes are paid and why we must all give of ourselves for the greater good, such a people utterly misunderstand the nature of our form of government. In the first instance, before it is for the people, ours is a government OF the people. Our plenty – in peace, in wealth, and in liberty – is dependent upon those things that we give of ourselves.
At our people’s best, WASPs live these values. And while we have been guilty en masse of being spoiled and inward-looking, so also are we to be credited en masse for giving of ourselves and providing leadership for the good of our towns, cities, and for these United States. It is for the promotion of this latter purpose that the WASP Manifesto is written.