Thursday, January 09, 2014

Two things I should not like so much

1) I admit, I find it kind of difficult to muster anything but amusement at the idea of politicians punishing one another with traffic jams. If scandal embroilment is unavoidable, this has to be the best of all possible scandals to be embroiled in - how long could anyone's real moral outrage over such a thing last? (Ok, that's clearly an invitation to be proven wrong. Maybe I just can't appreciate the gravity of this crime b/c I never drive between Manhattan and New Jersey?)

2) Joseph Epstein says the same thing about WASPs that David Brooks said a while ago, but adds that their additional virtue was keeping oversharing in check. Epstein does undermine himself a little by blaming the Kennedys for having too many extramarital affairs and then holding up FDR as a great embodiment of the WASP, but I offer my assistance in construing that comparison in a more fruitful way: FDR kept his affairs on the DL, and everyone around him helped with that. And everyone was correspondingly better off for it. The lesson to be learned here is that keeping things on the DL makes you the greatest American president.* Failing to do so makes you a soap opera character, which is awkward if you also happen to be an American president.

A carefully managed population of WASPs could be useful for keeping all kinds of internet-abusers in line - from oversharing parents to people who launch national considerations of such phenomena as Gwyneth Paltrow's (and their own) "long butt" - basically all of Phoebe's nemeses. Indeed, Phoebe would be the natural choice to oversee this endangered wildlife rehabilitation colony, what with her PhD in tense social relations between established groups and upstarts. Obviously, we can't have them overrunning the place again, lest they kick us out of the Ivy League in order to drag us into ill-advised wars in Southeast Asia, which of course we meritocrats would never do, but under wise supervision, maybe their stings can be deployed for good.

*The floor is not presently open to debate about this.


Phoebe said...

Consider me lured to the comments. You had me at the seriousness of traffic jams between NJ and NYC. That's serious business (if not a particular route I ever take).

As for my leading this campaign... It sure does seem like being Jewish is at the very least permitted among WASP-rule nostalgists, but I'm very much not one of them. I read Epstein now, Brooks before, and I continue to not get it. It seems like an awfully selective reading of history to say that corruption is something new, brought by meritocrats. And Epstein's stuff about how WASPs - but not meritocrats - put the nation first is just ridiculous, and if Epstein himself weren't non-WASP (although I hardly think this matters) would plainly read as racist. Whatever it is, it's preposterous, dual-loyalties-ish, and just odd.

But more generally, what I've never understood is this notion that a hereditary elite is somehow less entitled or absurd than a meritocratic one. Is meritocracy the one and true and magical way to pick leaders? I'm not sure who thinks this, other than Epstein's straw man. Meritocracy is flawed, its execution basically inherently flawed, but the idea is that it's better than the alternative.

In any case, I wouldn't worry too much, if I shared this nostalgic approach. Elites always reconfigure themselves, no? These shabby-chic, austere WASPs were, as I understand it, people who made their money in business, which was nouveau-riche and gauche and whichever other borrowed-from-French term by European aristocratic standards. Every elite is arriviste until it isn't. In a few years, there will be nostalgia not for robber-baron families emulating English aristocrats, but Jewish journalists aesthetically and politically smitten with WASPs.

Miss Self-Important said...

But even if on a highly trafficked road, it's still a traffic jam. It's just really hard to stir up my angry glands over this concept. Maybe I'm just too deeply against driving to feel for the sufferers.

Well, that's why it would be a controlled colony that you'd be managing, and not a wholesale resurgence. You would cultivate their WASP powers of reticence, unleash them on the people, and end overshare through shame by comparison. Mommy bloggers will be made to look like unhinged maniacs next to their reserve. The rest is indifferent - of course there was corruption, etc. before 1952. But if people were much better at shutting the hell up, that's what I want to resurrect.

It's true that such a campaign would probably require me to shut down this blog, but in this case, I am willing to put the nation first.

Withywindle said...

MSI: This is why you need to read more SF. Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Exxperiment has already explored the downside of such experiments. Also, Orson Scott Card's Treason.

Phoebe said...


Christie is, or was, a viable Republican politician. It seems like there's a split over how outraged/annoyed to be that matches up quite neatly with party lines.

As for being against driving, it's politicians such as Christie who are encouraging this by making the train option into the city a big mess, as well as more expensive than driving.

And as for WASPs and reticence, this seems to be your argument, not Epstein's. Epstein's saying (in a deliberatively provocative way, of course) that this previous, one-ethnicity elite was just better. It's a genteel, intended-to-be-humorous version of every old argument about how arrivistes or minorities (or arriviste minorities) are just worse, essential-values-wise. One can have a conversation about Brooks's take on meritocracy - whether meritocratic elites truly believe that they deserve their place in a different way than hereditary elites. Epstein just seemed to be dressing up a tired 'white people are better' argument with marginally sophisticated additions like knowing that Irish people aren't WASPs.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: Can you summarize?

Phoebe: Yes, that's my argument; I'm not suggesting that Epstein wants to start a controlled WASP colony to eradicate oversharing. Epstein mentions reticence as one of their qualities, and I'm expanding this particular point. The rest is indifferent, although I do still agree with the DBrooks logic that meritocracy doesn't foster institutional loyalty. That's one of the downsides of prohibiting nepotism, but nepotism itself has downsides. So, trade-off. Even the broader claim that WASPs were superior overlords relative to meritocrats can only be made once WASPs have been overthrown and replaced.

I don't think it's strictly "whites are better," since strict meritocracy has not appreciably advanced blacks as a group, since they've continued to lag on the academic achievement prerequisites. It has, I guess, been most useful for Jews and Asians and some other immigrant groups. The view that our leaders ought to resemble the general demographic profile of America and that inclusion, diversity, etc. are inherently valuable is counter-meritocratic.

Phoebe said...

"meritocracy doesn't foster institutional loyalty"

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Loyalty to the country? That's a very strong accusation. Loyalty to educational institutions? Seems like there's plenty among Ivy grads who got in on the meritocratic track.

Anyway, I'd say Epstein's argument very much "whites are better" - just because some non-whites haven't done as well as others in the meritocracy doesn't mean the meritocracy didn't dethrone the WASPs, who are the ultimate white people in America.

As for diversity and meritocracy, there's also the argument that obstacles continue to exist for certain groups, and that until those are dismantled (by, among other things, affirmative action), it's not a level playing field, and thus not a true meritocracy.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, I think Brooks's point was that they're not particularly loyal to their firms and the institutions with which they're affiliated, not that they're traitors to the state. The brief rehash is that meritocracy induces endless status anxiety b/c every position is a stepping stone to another position, no job is permanent, and so no institution through which you pass is worth investing too much of yourself in, and there is more incentive to take what you can get from it and run. See our previous discussions of this here and here.

It may be that colleges are a unique exception to that, but that may be b/c they provide one of the few really embedded institutional experiences we have. You live in them, with all your friends, and lots of fun and intense stuff happens in those years. I think even people who went to non-Ivy League or non-prestigious schools often feel this way about college. But then, post-college institutions? I certainly feel more loyal to Chicago than Harvard, b/c even grad school is more like a stepping stone than a really totalizing experience like college, and it's still a lot more embedded than my work experience.

I'm not sure how far into Epstein's brains we'd have to dig to learn whether he thinks the most translucent of white people should be enthroned, but I suspect he has some pro-Jewish biases. WASP times were also good times for American Jews in many ways, although not in the overt ways of making partner at white-shoe law firms and being Secretaries of State, but more like making a lot of their own money, establishing Israel, and writing all the essays that skewered WASPs and their ways. (Btw, "The Way of the Wasp"!)

AA doesn't dismantle obstacles; it compensates for them. You may be right that the original impetus for adopting inclusion and diversity measures grew out of a desire for a more perfect meritocracy, but I'm not sure that remains the reason for them. At this point, diversity is a "compelling interest" of its own, at least as per the Grutter decision, and I'm skeptical that anyone among AA's proponents has a clear or concrete end game scenario in mind - that is, some measure of playing field evenness by which we can declare further compensation unnecessary.

Withywindle said...

MSI: Nah. But!--Dosadi has a great courtroom scene toward the end. And Treason is good on what you need to do with politicians.

Phoebe said...

"No, I think Brooks's point was that they're not particularly loyal to their firms and the institutions with which they're affiliated, not that they're traitors to the state."

OK, that does make sense - it's just Epstein casting doubt on non-WASPs loyalty to the nation, not Brooks.

-Re: Epstein and Jews... From other things he's written, perhaps, but this was basically the essay equivalent of Ralph Lauren, whom he mentions. It's almost like some strange reverse (?) Orientalism - a mid-century (and thus now archaic-seeming) American Jewish fascination with American aristocracy. It - as in, that op-ed - does strike me as borderline racist, but part of it is maybe just that I don't get this aesthetically. I get wanting to be French or Japanese, but no matter how many times I pass Lilly Pulitzer and Barbour (that's the town center in these parts), I can't get enthusiastic about all that is WASP.

-You may be right (I haven't thought about this in years) that the legal justification for affirmative action is no longer about leveling the playing field. But my own reason for thinking it's justified (if not the ideal way to level the playing field) - one I'm certain I didn't come up with on my own - is the idea of representation. That once a certain number of people from Group A are in some position not previously open to them (for whatever reasons), it's no longer seen as impossible for Group A people to do whatever it is. More from the next cohort/generation/whatever will then apply for whatever it is, and so on.

Which... does leave open the question of when the end point would be, and yes, diversity-as-end-in-itself is, among other things, a way to avoid answering that question. But I can't imagine I'm the only person who doesn't think we're there yet.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure if it's that Epstein wants to be a WASP himself or to be ruled by WASPs. I suspect the latter, but that's getting too speculative either way. I can't behind labeling the essay racist b/c it expresses admiration for some subset of white people or endorses a political arrangement from Before Now, since this would doom my dissertation and pretty much all other academic work I will ever do, which is all about white people and political arrangements from Before Now. I don't like flowery pink dresses or baggy utility jackets either, but I do like reticence. If you won't be the beekeeper for the WASP farm, ok. But what if you could have interns?