Lately I’ve had a reconnection with a favorite high school teacher, who went on from our school, on the site of a former Shaker community in New Lebanon, NY, to teach at a Quaker school, and to become a weighty Quaker himself. This has been a fun opening, as out of any given group or community, there are always a few with high verbal capacity who like to explore and write. For me, this is my conduit to enlightenment. All veins lead to the center, right? I’m always in the lookout for these folks, bc this is where I can find the dynamic discourse I crave.
Lately we’ve had a thread going about WASPs and meritocracy. Here is a snapshot of where my thoughts are moving: The Puritan and Calvinistic settler’s beliefs in Providence were kind of an end run into what is essentially a meritocratic pattern. In a display of merit, they set up the shells so that predestiny (the ultimate merit) was assumed. The whole ethic was to work hard; membership in the WASP churches and community demanded sobriety, upright behavior, and to be “visibly godly.” The hard work and resulting success, was the vehicle which showed God’s providence and blessing was being made. This mandatory display amounted to playing by a set of rules to gain the space of being deserving and justified. This was a kind of social control. It worked.
And then 100s of years go by. The City on the Hill, and Manifest Destiny became major threads in US history and mythology. A major part of story of the US is wound up in these cultural memes. Then came along social movements in the 1950, 60s and 70s that busted open another tacitly-accepted thread of US history, slavery, racism, sexism, and labor exploitation. Exploited and suppressed people just wanted a fair shake, to get to ground zero of opportunity. Since slavery and structural inequality cannot have been ordained by a just God, the inherent moral flaws of WASP culture and law came out and were challenged in these movements. The 1960s saw blacks and women demanding their rights. They made some gains, but since the 1980s, the WASP/ strict father/ male cohort has been pushing back hard to unwind all the equity gains made.
This gets to core contractions in US history, ideals of equality inconsistently applied and unrealized. What we see today is a kind of bare knuckles fight by white men to retain their initial WASP privilege, of sequestering the whole New World for their own advantage.
And in what way can equality be realized? Meritocracy. But like all human systems, there are openings for corruption and abuse. And so, we are stumbling towards a just society, and Douthat’s recent NYT essay, which we have been exploring, provoked a lot of thought about where, why and how the US is good and bad. It caused people to reach back into the cobwebs of their knowledge of history, and challenged the thoughtful review of various narratives. Douthat says, well the WASPs weren’t all bad, they even had some good. Agreed. The same can be said of academic meritocracy, and of efforts to make an equal playing field for all.
Today there is a trajectory to demean higher education as too elite, as ideologically Left, to attack the educational system as a whole, as a Left conspiracy, to gut the funding, to change the mission. See this Atlantic article about efforts in Wisconsin, to gut the “Wisconsin Idea” on higher education, of that state valuing and supporting the liberal arts. This attack on higher education is part of the same trajectory as Right Wing think tanks, ways to counter and make end runs around the obvious conclusions that history is largely unjust. The Right pushes an exceptionalist story, which is one that justifies the conquerors, justifies slavery and segregation. And so, we get back to the beginning again.
The Douthat cohort seems to prefer exceptionalism, and strict father morality; which brings us back to Providence all over again, the Right is good and justified because they get up early in the morning, word hard, are obedient, disciplined, loyal and respect authority. The Left are corrupt heretics because nurturing family morality is too squishy, too many unearned giveaways. The Left puts harm and fairness above loyalty, respect for authority and obedience; it’s just not honorable! The Left turns the macho, male-dominated world on its head.
There are two different kinds of merit-based schemes here. Two ways to look at US history and how to analyze and justify socio-economic relations on the ground. These two ways are locked in a battle. From where I stand, the battle is righteous, because slavery and inequity can’t be justified. Shoot, it goes all the way back to a tension between the fire and brimstone Judeo-Christian ethic vs. the compassionate Jesus ethic, same game, different day. This goes back to primate dominance, power and control. But, aren’t supposed to be a bit more advanced than that? Or is that why we need stuff like the Brown Act to keep us in line?
This parsing of corrupt, unjust power relations goes all the way back to who we are as a species, with a built-in tension of impulses to cooperate and compete, wound into kin, in-groups and out-groups. E. O. Wilson lays it out in a clear way in his book The Social Conquest of Earth. Bit shoot, even the evolutionists are fighting about the what, where’s and why’s. The whole Douthat WASP article that got everybody going, its more than about a story; it’s about who we are in are primary nature. At the end of the day, our human story is manifold, many aspects that try to be justified. Is there a way out of all the argument?
The way out, is to step aside from the binary framing, to step outside the bio-based moral matrix, and let go of the attachment to positionalism, and gain a larger moral authority through a larger view that disarms all the fighting in the lesser contexts. I can see this is possible, but also that there aren’t many who have extracted themselves from the trenches. Those that have, become our few peace heroes, the Dalai Lama, Jane Adams, Mother Teresa, Pema Chödrön, Gandhi etc. Why? Because we exist in a soup of biologically set moral capacities that takes a lot of work to see outside. Seeing outside demands a level of self-consciousness/ awareness about our very nature itself. We have to be the fish and know the cultural tank at the same time, to now the process and content as twined together.
The fact that this larger view can even be conceived lets me know it’s possible to evolve away from injustice. Our story so far in the US is of a few steps forward and many steps back; it’s been incremental, as has all of history. Now with the scale of our troubles grown so large, and the veneer of civilization known to be fragile and non-binding, do we have the luxury of time to allow an incremental process? Or will the Trump, strict father wrecking ball tear the whole world order apart along with any good it has all, and bust us all back to a Planet of the Apes level? If we can’t be reasonable and stop fighting, to make a more just and inclusive story, to share the boon in all ways, maybe that will our Fate, the brilliant species whose tremendous potential couldn’t see outside its own Stone Age box, and it all became our own tragic undoing.