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Establishment, Virtue, and Perfect Freedom

WASPs:
The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy

By Michael Knox Beran
Pegasus, pp. 530, $30

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Michael Beran’s great book appears for most of the journey to be an elegy or an epitaph, but in the end it is neither. WASPs is rather a sauntering, fascinating, brilliant, and ultimately hopeful essay reminiscent of the ponderous writing of Montaigne. Beran’s work leaves the strong impression that (to borrow an idea from Mark Twain) the death of WASP culture has been greatly exaggerated.

Not that Beran is always positive about WASPs or their legacy. His ethnological sketch is plenty skeptical, but it admires WASPs on the sly. The story is at once bright and shadowy, hopeful and dejected. Beran’s very ambivalence about the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment in America between the Gilded Age and the Vietnam War leaves an opening in his mind’s eye for the possibility that there is a light shining in the darkness. The epigraph to each of the 37 chapters of this book is a quotation from Dante’s Divine Comedy. While the word commedia denotes a happy ending, our Virgil leads us through infernos and purgatories aplenty.

Beran was prepared at Groton and is an Ivy League-educated lawyer who lives with his family in Westchester County. He knows of what he writes. He has written several highly praised books and is a contributing editor of City Journal. Beran articulates what everyone knows but cannot, or would not, say: that there has been an aristocracy in democratic America and, if the people of this American elite failed to bring us the republic of poetry to which their personal formation aspired, what Beran calls Dante’s “fair sheepfold,” we nonetheless find their high aim inspiring. This story is entirely relevant to Episcopalians, since the lines charting the rise and fall of the WASP establishment in the United States will suffice to indicate the progress and the regress of the Episcopal Church.

Who are the WASPs Beran writes about? It is a sizeable company and a Who’s Who. It includes the personages and circles of Theodore Roosevelt, Phillips Brooks, Vida Scudder, Henry James, Henry Stimson, T.S. Eliot, George Santayana, Walter Lippman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Whittaker Chambers, Edmund Wilson, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Joe Alsop, the Bushes, and scores of others.

The longest of Beran’s many long footnotes explains the motto of Groton School, Cui servire est regnare. It is the Latin translation of this line in a familiar prayer book collect: “whose service is perfect freedom.” Beran’s exegesis of the motto is masterful and proves that this maxim is not patrician but thoroughly Christian. Who achieves self-rule and thus freedom will have done so by total service of a king, Jesus.

That Beran goes to such pains to make the meaning of the motto clear is a significant sign of the agon driving his essay. While Cui servire est regnare is a signpost found at the intersection of Christian faith and establishment elitism, Beran wants us to understand that the high WASPs were aiming for something never reducible to class, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or one’s chosen ecclesial affiliation.

Beran includes an important quotation from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932): “The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy.” But Niebuhr’s words are only half-true. Discrimination, seeing what’s what and what is real, and good judgment — these must be accounted virtues, and WASPs are known for them. Dr. Johnson insisted that “judgment is forced upon us by experience.” Elites in any country have experienced much. This is one reason for their debilitating complexes, but it also explains wisdom and advantage. We can be confident that elite Americans will be trustworthy judges, bellwethers, setters of tone, and routinely cursed for being so human.

Beran’s assessment of the American situation seems entirely rational. We once had leaders whose virtues usually overpowered their vices. Today we have vicious leaders who believe power is virtue. In any case, Beran proves his ambivalent WASP credentials by finding our country “an antiseptic space” that is “scrubbed of anything that might speak to the heart” (439). Deeply informed by the Christian religion, the high WASPs believed in the dignity and potential of human nature.

Failing to realize the progress they imagined, they often despaired but they did not seek to assuage their existential pain by “mating with machinery”. It takes him 355 pages to get there (we do not mind his many fascinating excursi), but Beran at last suggests that, in the unsatisfying phenomenon we call “America,” our very best people have in fact served well and have intelligently adumbrated our Ideal Type. The profound shortcomings of the existing Thing are lamented along the way, but the vision remains.

Beran believes the stakes are high. If the old WASPs often failed to use their power and advantages to effect the regeneration they craved, they aimed for the correct target. Today’s elites are “morbidly technical, beguiled by rockets, spaceships, and synthetic ventures in immortality” and not on “the path to the fair sheepfold.” The old habits and virtues of civic culture would go a long way to making things better.

“Both our elites and those who challenge them defend their ideas of human thriving not through appeals to the good, or to a higher conception of excellence, but by promises of greater or more widely diffused material abundance; given a certain income, the requirements of flourishing are then largely met. Matter and utility triumph over the longing for virtue, beauty, and areté.” Aristotle and Beran agree. Seeking after the merely useful does not “become free and exalted souls” but slaves.

 

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