Joseph Epstein is a conservative writer, mid-70s, who has spent much of his literary life pissing off readers with liberal or left values. His newest piece in the Wall Street Journal—“The Late, Great American WASP”—is a case in point, worshipping a bygone American WASP-ocracy that supposedly sacrificed the pleasures of mere domination in favor of power-wielding packaged with a sense of responsibility. While Epstein’s literary output has been polished to a smudgeless sheen, it still reeks of brownnosing, reminding me of the Francophone notion I borrowed for today’s title: nostalgie de la boue. Literally this is: nostalgia—homesickness—for the mud. It is meant to indicate an attraction to whatever is low, crude, degraded, to the romance of the wallow in our sensual nature without the trappings of civilization.
Why is Epstein so impelled to glorify a caste that could never include himself? He was born in Chicago, but if his parents weren’t born abroad, surely his grandparents immigrated here. He was brought up in a Jewish-American milieu he described a decade ago in an interview, seemingly completely unaware of his words’ embedded self-disgust:
[N]one of the positive stereotypes of Judaism adhere. We were not kids who had political idealism. Our parents did not talk about Trotsky and Stalin and the Party. I knew no one who took violin lessons. A few kids were forced to take piano and they hated every minute of it. We went to Hebrew school because were instructed to and we were bar mitzvahed. The only culture that was ever mentioned among the Jews of my parent’s generation was musical comedy. And you’d get these guys; these terrific brutes working in the scrap iron business and borax salesmen and they would go and sit there meekly with their wives and listening to Pajama Game. They’d come back and say “Gee we saw it in New York and the cast was better.” But there was no real culture. They were nice men, and I don’t mean to belittle them for not having culture. I’m glad to grow up without culture.
The nostalgia in this case, as with so many other such worshippers (Thomas Sowell comes to mind), is for a romanticized version of the inherited social power and privilege that clothes itself as refinement. Epstein approvingly quotes another writer’s homage disguised as description: “Richard Brookhiser held that the chief WASP qualities were ‘success depending on industry; use giving industry its task; civic-mindedness placing obligations on success, and antisensuality setting limits to the enjoyment of it; conscience watching over everything.’” The mud behind this curtain is racial domination, setting in place the rightness of whiteness; exploitation of working people (here nicely named “industry” as if commanding the movements of men and money were work akin to spinning wool, sawing wood, or mending shoes); and a sense of entitlement that prescribed for others social policies and conditions of life—substandard housing, education, healthcare, air, water, and more—that Epstein’s idealized WASP leadership wouldn’t themselves have tolerated for a second. Epstein longs for the sizzle. He seems to have entirely forgotten the acts of savagery that served up the steak.
You read this stuff all the time, presented as the height of cultural commentary. Beyond establishment journals’ tolerance for repetition of fatuous nonsense, what really puzzles me is all the praise doled out to such a clumsy analysis, riddled with holes. Epstein sets up a strawman—a putative “meritocracy” that now rules in place of the WASP aristocracy—then treats it for the length of his essay as if it really existed. To be sure, some individuals who wield power in this country are possessed of remarkable capabilities such as intelligence, drive, and charm, and those qualities helped them rise. But for quite a few, the salient capacity is their bank account’s, the ability to buy their way into politics or commerce. If there is someone who truly believes that here and now, power attaches to merit, plain and simple, that person is a fool.
So why is has a skilled and intelligent writer adopted this stance? It has been said that there are two paths for those who want to survive and prosper without inherited privilege. The first is to make an alliance with the king, which is pretty much what the neocons in Epstein’s cohort have done for the last fifty years. Kiss up to power, worship the entitled as if their entitlement were natural law, and thus gain an advantage, a personal accommodation. The downside, of course, is that kings come and go. The courtier’s relationship to job security is more tenuous than most. The second path is to cultivate an increase in love and justice such that things improve for everyone born beyond the confines of inherited privilege. A rise in the general level of compassion and equity lifts everyone, and though it can’t be guaranteed that the lift will last forever, its impact is likely to be far greater than any personal deal with power.
Since the post-sixties pushback that has come to be known as neoconservativism, a minority of people of color, Jews, and women have chosen the first path, exhibiting an extravagant nostalgia for the pale and composed face that has been painted on the muddy reality of a ruling establishment. It must be time to reread C. Wright Mills’ 1956 classic, The Power Elite. (In case your holiday reading list is too long, here’s a flash summary.) Nearly six decades ago, Mills saw our self-created social mess with crystal clarity. On the left, Epstein’s essay is now being condemned as blind to racial and economic injustice, and rightly so. But to be fully understood, it should be read as an artifact of the colonized mind, expressing the worldview of the colonizers in the voice of a loyal subject. Paulo Freire nailed it when he called it “internalization of the oppressor.”
Next time someone tweets the romance of the WASP establishment, you can easily recognize a writer who is entranced by an alliance with the king, worshipping at the royal altar rather than seeing the mud behind the curtain. Just interrogate the worldview presented: When the yearning for subjugation is disguised as truth, who benefits? Who pays?
This is the first in a series I’m launching, blogs that take opinions and events that are making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and look at them through a cultural lens. Please feel free to send me likely suspects.
Coco Montoya, “The One That Really Loves You.”