America’s Wasps Lose their Sting
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have dominated US establishment — but they are on the verge of becoming a minority in their country
The loud tick of a grandfather clock is all that disturbs the peace on a hot July afternoon in the Philadelphia Club. Near the bar the baize-covered* gaming tables are set for sniff, the club’s own version of dominoes. In the double reading room — one side for Democrats, one for Republicans — leather-bound volumes of Burke’s Peerage* line the shelves and an antique globe recalls a world before all the wars and border changes of the last century.
Portraits stare down from the walls of former presidents, all white men wearing dark suits and a prosperous air. Women are not allowed to join — and as for using mobile phones or BlackBerrys, do not even think about it.
One of America’s oldest and most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, the Philadelphia has been the gathering place for the cream of local society since 1834. The same family names — the Biddles, Putnams, Pews, Baltzells and Montgomery Scotts — appear again and again on portraits and notices advertising dinners such as that for the Society of Colonial Wars. There is a sense that nothing has changed for years.
The club has long been a bastion of the Wasps (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), an elite that has dominated US politics, business and culture since the founding fathers. But their traditional grip on power is under threat. Not only does America have its first black president, but whites are on the verge of becoming a minority among newborns.
Soon, for the first time since it was founded in 1789, the Supreme Court*, one of America’s most sacred institutions, will have no white Protestants. This week, after a series of hearings, the Senate judiciary committee will decide on President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan, a former dean of Harvard Law School, to be a Supreme Court justice. Last year Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor, its first Hispanic. Kagan is Jewish and if she is confirmed, as expected, the country’s nine most powerful judges will be six Catholics and three Jews.
The absence of white Protestants has outraged* some of Philadelphia’s bluest blood. “Were the last two appointments for their demonstrated scholarly* application of the wisdom of Solomon* or for factional* political reasons?” asked Tony Biddle, whose eccentric grandfather Anthony Drexel Biddle inspired Walt Disney’s last film, The Happiest Millionaire.
“Do I worry about Kagan? Yes,” said Biddle, pointing out that his family traces its new world roots back to the arrival of William Biddle in 1681.
“People are politically correct and don’t want to say this but the fact is our founders and fundamental values were not Judaeo-Christian, not even Christian-Christian. If you look at the make-up of the 13 colonies [which declared independence on July 4, 1776], the vast majority were from England, so Protestant, white and Anglo-Saxon.”
It was Biddle’s cousin E Digby Baltzell, a sociologist, who coined the term Wasp in the 1960s. According to Baltzell’s niece Virginia, he had tired of writing out the words.
Wasp became shorthand for a way of life — people whose offspring go to the top schools and on to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or perhaps Stanford. They summer in Maine and serve on the boards of museums, charities and universities.
“My great friend Henry McIlhenny, the art collector, used to say there are only two things in life truly shocking — death and bad manners,” said Biddle. “If you get it, you’re a Wasp.”
Yet today even the Philadelphia Club is changing. Among the portraits on the wall is that of Alfred Putnam Jr, a former club president like his late father before him.
“We have members who are Jewish, black, Indian, Hispanic, eastern European,” said Putnam, a leading lawyer. “Lots of people who, I could say, that’s not the kind of person who would have got in during my father’s time. But we rarely say that with regret.”
The change partly reflects America’s shifting demography. Non-whites accounted for 48.6% of births between July 2008 and July 2009 and it is expected that next year they will outnumber white births.
Some argue that the new diversity shows the strength of America. “The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph,” wrote Noah Feldman, law professor at Harvard, after Kagan’s nomination. “Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socio-economic power by hewing* voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion*, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds.”
To suggest there was no more Establishment would be wrong, said Dr Richard Zweigenhaft, a social psychologist who has co-written five books on the American power structure: “The Protestant establishment is alive and well, it’s just that minorities want to be part of it.”
Richard Brookhiser, former speechwriter to President George H Bush, the quintessential Wasp, and author of The Way of the Wasp: How it Made America, agrees. “The fact that for the first time the Supreme Court has no Protestant is a pretty cool metric that means the Wasp is literally in decline,” Brookhiser said.
“But the more important point is that Wasps went from being the power holders to being the templates*. You look at the Catholics and Jews on the Supreme Court or in Congress and they are Wasp-ified and indistinguishable from their Protestant neighbours.”
c. 930 words
Source: The Sunday Times, July 11, 2010
* baize-covered - mit grünem Billiardtuch bedeckt
* Peerage - Peerage, Adelsstand
* Supreme Court - Oberstes Bundesgericht
* to outrage - Entrüstung hervorrufen
* scholarly - gelehrt, akademisch
* wisdom of Solomon - ein Buch der Weisheit (Altes Testament)
* factional - partei-
* to hew to - festhalten an
* inclusion - Eingliederung
* template - Mustervorlage, Zeichenschablone
1. What do the description and atmosphere of the Philadephia Club suugest as to their members?
2. Point out the characteristic of Wasps, their influence of the making of America and how they look upon themselves?
3. Why do 'death and bad manners' shock Wasps?
4. As the headline of this text already suggests, the text contains some figurative language. What figures of speech are there and explain their literal meaning.
5. Explain the quotation from the text: "Wasps went from being the power holders to being the templates".
6. How does Richard Brookhiser assess the decline of the Wasps?
7. From what you know from your course work, will African-Americans and Hispanics in the future play a more dominant role in the USA?