Last year, around this time, friends and acquaintances offered me all sorts of religiously neutral salutations: Seasons Greetings! Happy Holidays! Joyeuses fêtes! Meilleurs vœux! Only two people wished me Merry Christmas.
One was Muslim, the other was Jewish.
They meant well. After all, isn’t that the culturally correct greeting? In theory, yes. In practice, most Christians feel uncomfortable affirming their identity. And this self-abnegation gets worse the closer you are to the cultural core of Anglo-America. Immigrants of Christian background enjoy being wished Merry Christmas. Black people likewise. Catholics seem to split half and half, depending on how traditional or nominal they are.
But the WASPs. Oh, the WASPs! With them, those two words are a faux pas. The response is usually polite but firm: “And a very happy holiday season to you!”
Things weren’t always that way. The situation calls to mind a Star Trek episode where Capt. Kirk persuades an alien robot to destroy itself. “That which excludes is evil. If you affirm your identity, you are excluding those who don’t share your identity. You are therefore evil.”
I could question this logic. What about other cultural groups? Why single out just one? But I’ve heard the answer already. WASPs and their culture dominate North America. The path to power, or simply a better life, runs through their institutions. Minorities can affirm their own identities without restricting the life choices of others, but the same does not hold true for WASPs. Their identity affects everyone and must belong to everyone.
I’m still not convinced. Yes, WASPs did create the institutions of Anglo-America, but their influence in them is now nominal at best. The U.S. Supreme Court used to be a very WASPy place. Now, there’s not a single White Protestant on it. That’s a huge underrepresentation for a group that is still close to 40% of the population. We see the same thing at the Ivy League universities, which originally trained Protestant clergy for the English colonists. Today, how many of their students have a Christian European background of any sort? The proportions are estimated to be 20% at Harvard, 22% at Yale, and 15% at Columbia (Unz, 2012).
Sometimes reality is not what is commonly believed. WASPs are not at all privileged. In fact, they have been largely pushed aside in a country that was once theirs.
Whenever this ethnic displacement comes up for discussion (it usually doesn’t), it gets put down to meritocracy. In the past, WASPs were the best people for the job of running the country. Now it’s a mix of Jews, Asians, and other high-performing groups. A cynic might ask whether merit is the only factor … and whether the U.S. is better run today than it was a half-century ago. Indeed, the latest Supreme Court appointee had little experience as a solicitor general and a scanty record of academic scholarship.
Merit isn’t the whole story. There is also networking. In most parts of the world, an individual gets ahead in life by forming bonds of reciprocal assistance with family and kinfolk. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” That’s how most of the world works.
But not all of the world. Northwest Europeans have diverged the most from this pattern, at least since the 12th century (Macfarlane, 1978a – 2012). Their kinship ties have been weaker and their sense of individualism correspondingly stronger. As a result, their cultural evolution has to a large degree been emancipated from the restraints of kinship, and this emancipation has facilitated other ways of organizing social relations: the nation-state, ideology, the market economy … not to mention the strange idea of personal advancement through personal merit alone. This model of society has succeeded economically, militarily, and geopolitically, but it’s vulnerable to people who don’t play by the rules, since the threat of kin retaliation is insufficient to keep them in line. Societal survival is possible only to the extent that rule-breakers are ostracized and immigration restricted from cultures that play by other rules.
This brings us to the dark side of traditional WASP culture: the busybodiness, the judgmentalism, the distrust of foreigners no matter how nice or refined they may seem. That mentality still exists, but it has been turned against itself. The people to be excluded are now those who exclude. The cultural programming for survival has been turned into a self-destruct mechanism … as in that Star Trek episode.
Even if we could somehow abort this self-destruct sequence, it’s hard to see how WASPs can survive on the current playing field. WASPs believe in getting ahead through rugged individualism. Most of the other groups believe in using family and ethnic connections. Guess who wins.
Anyway, I wish all of you a merry end of 2014! Far be it for me to exclude anyone from the merriment.
Unz, R. (2012). The myth of American meritocracy, The American Conservative, November 28
Macfarlane, A. (2012). The invention of the modern world. Chapter 8: Family, friendship and population, The Fortnightly Review, Spring-Summer serial
Macfarlane, A. (1992). On individualism, Proceedings of the British Academy, 82, 171-199.
Macfarlane, A. (1978a). The origins of English individualism: Some surprises, Theory and society: renewal and critique in social theory,6, 255-277.
Macfarlane, A. (1978b). The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition, Oxford: Blackwell.