Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The WASP Chronicles, Part One

A certain lovely and inquisitive young woman of my aquaintance, Jewish by birth and upbringing, confessed to me recently that she found much of my behavior, both social and emotional, quite puzzling. Why did I never openly express anger? Why was I so reticent, even unwilling to talk about certain subjects? How could I possibly drink martinis, and why was it so important that I wait until noon to do so? And I slowly began to realize that much of my behavior derives from something that, until now, I didn't realize that I had: culture. I am a WASP. The jesting comment that disguises honest opinion is that WASPs possess no culture. That we are ethnic ciphers--that we have, perhaps, habits that may be mocked, chiefly by African American and Jewish stand-up comics--but not an actual culture. But as I pondered this discovery, and began to tot up the number of behavioral signifiers that went into my identity, I realized that WASP culture is indeed quite real, and far more substantial than one would suppose at first glance. I propose, then, to begin a series of self-examinations--to reveal and analyze WASP culture, out of some attempt to discover its true nature.

This study, it seems to me, has been long overdue--the 19th and 20th centuries, for good or ill, have been the Era of the WASP, and while certain aspects of WASPishness have been anatomized to death, they are usually fettered by issues of class, race, gender, and a general sense of aggrievement against the WASP. Much attempt has been made--successfully and not without justification--to lambaste the WASP, but little if any attempt has been made to understand him. (To call the WASP a racist may be true--as I shall soon show--but it is to miss the forest for the trees. It is the WASP's form of racism that is in need of understanding, not the mere fact of it.) He is too easily regarded as 'the norm'--'the average'--but as I hope to reveal here, this view is inapt. WASPs there are in abundance, but not as many as one might suspect, and they do not represent the norm (that, as always, is determined by the lowest common denominator, to which a WASP would never stoop), but rather a self-segregated elite, a combination of class and breed apart. Yet despite their supposed prominence in public life--many assume that all White, Non-denominational 'Christians' fit the category, which would render Television, for instance, a near-exclusive milieu of the WASP--such is quite simply not the true state of things. There are very few genuine WASPs, and they guard their existence with a quiet fanaticism little guessed at by other ethnic groups. This fact renders them secretive, and given their disproportionate power over the world, we might do worse than turn our attention to the true nature of the WASP.

The WASP is essentially an American creature. True, he is the offspring of English and Dutch heritage, primarily, but the breed has long since divorced itself from its sires--and outpaced them. The WASP may perhaps be likened to the English gentleman, but with a key difference--the English gentleman no longer exists. The WASP does, and thrives.

An admission: I myself cannot claim true WASP-hood, in all fairness. My bloodline is Irish and Polish, primarily, and both the Celtic and the Slavic strains would cause true WASPs to turn from me in polite--always polite--disdain. But having lived on the fringes of WASP society, I have, in a process akin to osmosis, absorbed an understanding of the culture while maintaining an objectivity that allows me to examine it with some--though not complete--detachment. I am not, that is to say, a WASP, but I live like one, and often, and not always to my credit, think like one.

One thing that stands me in good stead as a putative WASP, though, is my religion. It is not enough to be a Protestant. To be sure, the exclusion of Catholics is a key factor in the WASP ethos; WASPs value their independence far too much to submit to the authority of any religious figure whom they cannot beard and berate after services--clergy within arm's reach can be kept under the thumb, and Rome is too far for such authority. Catholics, divided in their loyalties between the Pontiff and often soulless decorum, are not to be trusted to always make the right choice. They cannot pass muster.

But neither can many other Protestants. It is a key aspect of the WASP character that though he believes in Christ and His divinity, a simple acknowledgement of this belief is enough to satisfy his religious duties. Many WASPs are church-goers, but as many and more are not, and those who do go are usually contemplating brunch throughout the service, or using the occasion to 'be social,' as they put it, with neighbors in the opposite pew. True believers, then, are not welcome in the WASP circle, and they gravitate towards denominations that condone a certain spiritual laxity. Episcopalians are quite preferred before all others, but Presbyterians--provided they are not of the wild-eyed, Knox-influenced variety--are nearly as good. Methodists are tolerable, as are Lutherans and the milder form of Calivinists. Not many others make the cut. Baptists and Pentecostalists are entirely out of the question, needless to say--anything that smacks of the evangelical connotes raised voices, open communication of spiritual belief, and a willingness to forgo basic dignity--anathema to the WASP. All WASPs are Protestants, but not all Protestants are WASPs.

His bigotry does not end there. The WASP is racist, it must be confessed. Yet, as much as is possible, it is an inoffensive form of racism. No true WASP ever attended a lynching--violence of any sort is abhorrent to the WASP. Constructing a burning torch would involve manual labor--again, no WASP would, quite literally, sully his hands with such a task. There are no WASPs in the Klan--especially not now that it is made up of blue-collared simians who rarely bathe and have never known the inside of dental examination room. But even if he could join the Klan, the WASP would not. He does not hate. Hatred is an extremity of emotion, and thus vulgar and offensive to the WASP. He does not exactly approve of African Americans, to be sure, but the thought of one as a co-worker--or as Secretary of State--does not threaten him. The WASP knows that, when the chips are down, he will still be the one in charge of things, so the token appearance of black achievement does not threaten, and indeed, quite cheers him, as it seems to pacify the African race as a whole. (The last African American to truly terrify the WASP was Malcolm X, who understood--and worse, explained to his followers--that the WASP would only yield his power at the point of a gun. This is quite true, and it was an enormous relief to the WASP when this fiery prophet was murdered, and most conveniently by traitors in his midst. WASPs cheerfully endorse the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., since under that great idealist's legacy, power can only be yielded voluntarily, and that the WASP will never do.)

But though the WASP prefers to avoid the company of the African American, he does not actively dislike him. Racist jokes are not part of the WASP repertoire of humor, not even in private. (Contrary to popular opinion, the WASP has an extremely fine sense of humor--the opposite rumor exists because the WASP never laughs out loud. But still waters run deep, and do so here. The WASP has a fine sense of the absurd--and indeed, is the cause of much of it in the world.)

It is true that for centuries, the WASP was anti-Semitic, not virulently, but with an assurance and conviction that served, among his other expressed views on the world, as a sign of his good breeding. But following the horrors of the Holocaust, it was quietly decided by the world of the WASPs that genocide renders mild bigotry in bad taste, and now the Jewish people are among those with whom the WASP is most likely to gladly mix and mingle in the social arena. A similar effect on the WASP's relations with homosexuals was achieved by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Homosexuality itself is embarassing to the WASP; it is not that he has any moral or religious objections to it, but gays and lesbians, once out of the closet, tend to be free and open in their loving sexuality towards their partners. It is this, and not the sex of the partners in question, that renders the WASP squeamish on the subject. However, since objecting to homosexuality is the mark of the religious fanatic or the ignoramus, the WASP practices quiet, though long-suffering tolerance of the differently-oriented. Both the Jewish and the gay may be welcomed into the homes and workplaces of the WASP, if not as equals, then at least as 'valued associates.'

The end of the 20th century added Asians to this elect group; while a WASP might not like the idea of an Asian working side-by-side with him in the Human Resources department, where, it is assumed, the Asian "won't quite get" the nuances of American workplace etiquette--nevermind that the Asian is fourth generation and has twice the vocabulary of the WASP--he will reflect with pleasure upon the Asian's salutary presence in Research and Development. (The racism of the WASP is as inclined to anticipate the favorable as the negative: it would simply never occur to the WASP that there are Asians who are poor at math or science, or Jewish lawyers or accountants who are incompetent at their jobs. The WASP is small-minded in some ways, but even in being small-minded, he is charitable in his bigotry. The WASP enjoys the success of Tiger Woods as much as he did Jack Nicklaus--and the WASP is shrewd enough to recognize and admit that Woods's popularity is due as much to his novelty as a "golfer-of-color" as to his remarkable skill at the game.)

Of course, WASPs employ Latinos and--especially--Latinas with open arms, though admittedly only in the most menial of tasks, usually as the day-labor equivalent of the service positions once held by the staff of country estates. Yet Latina maids are afforded an intimate entre into the WASP home as would not be allowed to less-than-immediate blood-relatives. Alas, it is true that these maids are often ill-paid. But as often, they are quite well-paid. This haphazard state of affairs has much to do with the fact that the WASP does not understand the true nature of money beyond his own economic means. It is not a matter of stinginess that deprives many Latinas from earning a living wage from their WASP employers--the problem lies in the fact that the WASP has absolutely no idea what "a living wage" is, and is too embarassed to raise the subject with an employee. (The Latina, alas, is too petrified at losing her status as an employed illegal alien to kick up much of a fuss. If she did, she would probably find her WASP employer glad to remunerate her services with as much over-payment as the previous under-payment. Such are the small tragedies of the intimidation of both sides by the other. Also, neither speaks the other's language.)

As for the Native Americans, the WASP reflects contentedly on the flourishing spread of "Indian Casinos"--as far as he is concerned, this is a problem solved, and he gives no more thought to it, or to the people.

The WASP's racism is, in fact, motivated by the same kind of ethnic exclusivity that one encounters in Jewish and Japanese communities, where intimacy and especially marriage with the gaijin is considered a schande. So too for the WASP. He does not dislike the other races, but he recognizes that in a hostile world, he can only depend on his own tribe, and so he guards it with a well-peeled eye. Others will be admitted only so far as necessity and politeness demand, and no farther. In these barriers lies the core of his racism. But though firm, it is, as I say, generally mild. So-called "people of color" are largely ignored by the WASP--they are easily identifiable, and so pose no threat of infiltration into the ranks of power. The WASP is much more likely to cast a wary and hostile eye to those who are able to "pass"--undesirables from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Greece, and even the Nordic countries--which are regarded as belligerent and/or overly permissive--such people are the ones who meet with the WASP's true talent for bigotry, and woe betide the unwary Scandanavian who lets slip his family's original name at a cocktail party. He has seen the last of people he considered his friends, and may soon find himself unemployed. WASPs do not like to be 'taken in'--and as the people most likely to pull this off, other Whites are, in fact, their most dangerous of foes.

Such, then, is the religious and racial perspective of the WASP. Of his style of life and living, next installment.


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