The Very Heart of the Wasp

My boarding school roommate and I have little in common despite a decades-long friendship -- she a relatively wealthy WASP, and I not, she extravagantly familied, and I not so much. But we both wish the telephone hadn't been invented, and we both love going to the funerals of the old guard.

So it was that I found myself earlier this month, in a tiny wood- clad church, at the funeral of Hank Rotherham. More than 40 years ago, Hank had sold my parents land for their house in southern Quebec, and he had owned the hardware store in the village. But around this former Commander in the British Navy drifted a wisp of glory. He had been one of the men who had sunk the Bismarck.

Now, I grew up with brothers, a war hero father and a mother who had been a Captain in the Wrens and well, the Bismarck, that is a storied fight, one which had kept me up at night for weeks, it more filled with threat and impossibility than anything Hollywood has ever dreamed up. It turned the course of the Battle of the Atlantic, and some say the Second World War itself.

At the front of this tiny church, three very old men, chests festooned with medals, stood holding heavy flags, and at the back, beside me, another switched on a creaky old tape deck, and The Last Post was played, and the flags were slowly lowered, then raised. I had been tearing up since the beginning, because the Book of Common Prayer always makes me cry, the elegiac language so beautiful, but The Last Post nearly finished me, and I thought, you know, this humble little church, the ancient service, these rusty navy-blazer-clad handfuls of people on a rainy winter morning, this is the very heart of the WASP, and it is why - - despite the fact that everyone seems to hate us, that we are the race on which all invective is heaped, the only group it is permissible to insult - - our dull and stern values form the template on which the most successful civilization in history, so far, has been built.

There have been few books which grapple with this phenomenon. Lewis Lapham and Nelson Aldrich, both sons of great wealth who seemingly live to trash their families' accomplishments, have tried to deconstruct it, and, I think, overwhelmed by the larceny of the few and intellectual fashion, failed amusingly. Digby Baltzell, who wrote the classic The Protestant Establishment, came a little closer, but his work is risible since, written in the '60s, he placed so much faith in the increasingly dubious pseudo-science of sociology. A non-WASP, Richard Brookhiser, more recently, in The Way of the Wasp, How It made America and How It Can Save It, So to Speak came closest.

Many, like former Time editor Robert Christopher, have tried to prove that the WASP hegemony is long gone, but I ask you whether you would rather be living in Brazil, say, or Uganda, or in fact anywhere else other than in the northern half of North America? Why is the immigrant traffic pretty much all one way, and why is the idealized lifestyle promoted so heavily by Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart, a Brooklyn-born Jew and a first-generation Pole, respectively, so very thoroughly WASP? Just how likely, I ask, along with Brookhiser, are the cultures promoted by the hip hop tribes and the radical gay community to survive? Why do black people not want to move to Africa, or Eastern Europeans back to their now-free former countries, current recipients of a great deal of Western aid? Why do the countries of South America, settled around the same time, keep falling on their respective faces? Why did Oprah's recent appearance in South Africa spookily duplicate the crowd crushing of apartheid?

Literary fiction is almost entirely based on a false notion of the corruption and misery of 19th-century Anglo-Protestant life and 20th-century North American suburbs. Most view the WASP with envy and resentment, even anger. This should not be. It is chilly and damp in here and you are not allowed to complain. In fact there are a lot of rules, and there is an emphasis on the following things: industry, success, civic-mindedness, emotional continence, usefulness, anti-sensuality and conscience. Thrift, probity and guilt, especially the latter. Guilt rules the conscience of the WASP because you can never ever live up to what is expected of you.

Could there be anything more boring? Contrast that with current fashionable values of self, creativity, ambition, self- gratification, collectivity, celebrity worship and the view that man is born good and corrupted by society. Which appears to lead directly to the idea that society must change to accommodate the whining Self, which seems to lead to the yawning horror of the highest court in the land forcing kindergarten children to learn, far before their parents would choose, about sex change.

The equally discredited-18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards came up with the idea that created the culture of faith that gave birth to the tolerance and strength that indicates we will survive even the current era's self-indulgence. Religious faith, he argued, must be elected, man must have the choice to be good. Goodness should not be forced. There cannot be, argued this early President of Princeton*, an established church which man must join in order to accrue temporal power or even get a job. This thinking, this ideal, forms the basis of our current (and ever-growing) cultural tolerance, and our success -- despite the episodic racism and discrimination of the few. Edwards' insistence on the separation between church and state is the fundamental reason why we are strong and free, and why we are tolerant of radical lesbians, totalitarian environmentalists, and sensualists of all stripes. The direct revelation of God to individual, the fundamental principle of Protestantism, once articulated, cannot die. The idea is far too seductive, far too successful, and far too real.

The choice remains. Despite the destructive activity of much of our intelligentsia, and the obvious trap of materialism, millions of individuals and families of all races still choose a life of civic- mindedness, thrift, hard work and self-denial.

And we inside the chilly circle of WASP-dom know this one fact: Perfection is not found in the lives of the haute-WASP celebrated by Ralph Lauren. It is found in the ordinary life of ordinary families, trying in an ordinary way to be good, in the life of an ordinary man, bolstered by the strenuous ideals of his tribe, who faced the most impossible terror to be found on the earth, and prevailed.

*then the College of New Jersey