The Worst Thing We Read Yesterday
There is only one Ross Douthat column and the theme of it is that Ross Douthat is unhappy with his place in the world. Usually he understands this to be the world’s fault. Sometimes the problem is couched in terms of God and morality, sometimes in terms of status, sometimes (and more and more lately) in terms of race. Yesterday, it was all three, as he offered up a lament, on the occasion of the death of George H.W. Bush, for the passing of the WASP aristocracy in America.
“Americans miss Bush,” Douthat wrote, “because we miss the WASPs—because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.”
“We” is a tricky word for an opinion writer to toss around, especially an opinion writer who is perpetually and visibly struggling to understand his own position. Do we miss the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants? Did we feel wisely and well ruled, when they were in charge? Have the WASPs even really left us?
That last question is the secret to the scam that Douthat is running on himself, and that he can’t stop trying to run on everyone else. He presents himself, forever, as an outsider—an outsider very close to the inside, yes, close enough to press his nose against the glass and chronicle every foible and moral failure he sees, but kept apart by his devout Catholic faith, his commitment to conservative values, his…
Well, his what, exactly? Ross Douthat made himself famous as a young man by writing a book about his estrangement from the experience of going to Harvard, a book made possible by the fact that he went to Harvard and by the fact that he had the right connections to get a book published. He has kept it up ever since, accumulating impeccable credentials as a meritocrat while despising or pitying the hollowness and hypocrisy of the credentialed meritocracy:
The old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, it had failures aplenty, and as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology (and don’t get me started on its Masonry).
However, one of the lessons of the age of meritocracy is that building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms. You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex … and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.
The wriggliest maneuver, and the key to the whole piece, was Douthat’s identification “as a Catholic.” For a Catholic, an endorsement of the old WASP ruling class would be an argument against self-interest—an admission that, in some ways, the world was better run when it blocked their own kind of people from opportunities.
Except Ross Douthat is not that kind of Catholic. He is a convert, whose ancestry runs right through the Protestant establishment, including his great-grandfather having been the governor of Connecticut. Calling himself a Catholic in the discussion of historic power and opportunity was a Rachel Dolezal–grade feat of impersonation. To the extent there is a story to be told about the decline of the cultural dominance of the Protestant ruling class, it would be the story of how Ross Douthat came to identify as Catholic, without ceding any power or influence along the way.
But Douthat, as always, located the ruling class somewhere else: in a tribe of grasping, self-deluding secular usurpers, who have taken over the aristocratic position of the WASPs without replacing the old elite’s “spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety” or its “distinctive competence and effectiveness in statesmanship.”
This account of things is ridiculous as a matter of either history or logic. It depends on Douthat indulging in what could be called the No True WASP Fallacy, in which the virtues of George H.W. Bush are definitive of the class, while the vice, folly, and corruption of the other Bushes (and of G.H.W. Bush himself) are uncharacteristic exceptions. Coming at the problem from the other side, Douthat was forced to reckon the austerity and competence of Barack Obama to be not an example of the virtues of diverse meritocracy, but the “admirable influence” of the WASP elite, somehow transmitted down to the present.
A more straightforward way of telling the story might be to say that the ruling class has always contained some gifted and public-spirited individuals, amid a larger mass of selfish, domineering mediocrities, and that those better people have at least believed they were trying to run things for the general benefit (to the extent they thought that effort could be harmonized with the interests of their own class). And that the ruling class, being the ruling class, hasn’t ever gone away.
Douthat presents that version of things as a speculative alternative history:
So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.”
What is the difference between “a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy” and “the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of ‘merit'”? This is exactly what the Ivies did: they adapted their conception of the elite to include more different demographic groups, whose elite status was to be measured with tests and resumes.
Why did Douthat’s effort to describe a functional distinction collapse into tautology? The real problem he wanted to talk about—the breach between past and present—lay elsewhere, in the demise of “religious faith” as part of the ruling culture. Did faith make a difference? The people on the receiving end of what George H.W. Bush’s WASP establishment considered prudent and statesmanlike foreign policy might have been surprised to have learned it was informed by the teachings of Jesus Christ, but, to be fair, people abroad in the 21st century would be likewise surprised to learn American interventions are supposed to be rational.
If religion is the dividing line, though, it absolves Douthat from admitting that he, himself, is the continuity between the supposedly separate elite traditions. There are other dividing lines—most glaringly, the one tucked away in “(and more women).” As with Douthat’s past musings on whether immigration has gone too far, he failed to imagine himself addressing an audience, or a body politic, that wasn’t white and male. “Diversity” must be dismissed as a superficial characteristic, something to be hypocritically embraced by elite institutions, not as a change in who is able to be present for the discussion. It was the old WASP resentment, so familiar to the Bushes, of even having to try to feign equality.