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Kagan and the triumph of WASP culture

Her confirmation wouldn't undermine WASP culture; it would be a powerful example of its reach.

May 17, 2010|Gregory Rodriguez

WASP culture is dead! Long live WASP culture!

Solicitor General Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court says a whole lot about the state of white Anglo Saxon Protestant culture in the U.S., but it's not what you think. If her appointment is approved, there will be no white — or any other color for that matter — Protestant on the court. Some joke that this means it's high time to carve out a WASP seat on the bench. Others suggest it spells the end of WASP dominance in general.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the prospect of adding a Jewish New Yorker to the six Catholics and two other Jews on the high court suggests not the death of WASP culture but its ultimate triumph.

In contemporary America, we tend to think that demography is destiny. We fixate on population percentages as the be-all and end-all of cultural and influence. We forget that culture can trump mere demography, and that has always been the case of the Yankees in American society.

And when we say WASPs, that's who we're talking about, right? "WASP establishment" doesn't refer to white Southern Baptists but to the descendants of the original English colonists in New England, whose relatively small numbers have always had a disproportionate influence on U.S. culture.

E. Digby Baltzell, the late, great sociologist who popularized the term WASP, also brilliantly noted that institutions are largely "the shadows of their founders." This is not to say that all the Founding Fathers were Yankees, but by the end of the Civil War, the nationalization of Yankee ideology, symbolism and lore was complete. The New England Puritans' sense of divine election and the belief in America as a promised land gradually had become a kind of national creed. It's not for nothing that American exceptionalism is often expressed in the biblical "city upon a hill" words of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And even though the North encompassed more than New England during the Civil War, it was "the Yankees" who won.

But it wasn't only force that carried the Yankees' cause to cultural victory but their elite New England institutions. "The principles of New England," Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, "spread at first to the neighboring states; they then passed successively to the more distant ones; and at length they imbued the whole confederation. They now extend their influence over the whole American world."

For the most part, even as they became a smaller and smaller sliver of a diversifying nation, Yankees maintained a sense of their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness. Yet, the British sociologist Eric Kaufmann observed, the Yankee sense of ethnic superiority often competed with their belief in universalist liberal ideology — equality, liberty and human rights. One way that worked itself out is that non-Yankees could aspire and acculturate to the Yankee norm and ideal — by gaining entrance to their schools primarily, but also by joining their churches, appreciating their art forms and imbibing their ideas, adopting their aesthetic.

By the late 1960s, a Time magazine essayist pondered whether this process meant that what we knew as Yankee culture was more learned than inherited. "Ultimately," the essayist noted, "Waspism may be more a state of mind, a pattern of behavior, than a rigid ethnic type." The article went on to note that in that decade, it was a member of an Irish Catholic dynasty, John F. Kennedy, who added new luster to WASP ideals — complete with his dry humor, laconic eloquence, Boston accent and Ivy League education.

It's been noted that Kagan's confirmation would give Ivy League law schools complete hegemony over the Supreme Court. That only proves the point. The new lineup of justices would be ethnically and religiously non-WASP, but they — like President Obama — all would have been trained in the very New England institutions that were established to spread Yankee learning.

And, let's face it, students don't just strive to attend Harvard and Yale for their educational excellence. There is also the matter of absorbing those universities' sense of authority, legitimacy and historical legacy that leads back to their Yankee founders.

If Kagan is confirmed, as seems likely, don't cry for the WASPs. The educational pedigree of the Supreme Court will be a powerful example that their culture abides and still anoints power. The only thing that has changed is that today's "WASP elites" are just as likely to be Jews and Catholics as they are to be Yankees.

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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