Summering used to go with trust funds and prepping at St. Paul’s and double-barreled names that ended in Roman numerals. These days summer at the beach has become an American right that we hold to be self-evident. We are an intensely WASPirational society. Things that were once associated with the Protestant establishment—vacations; golf and tennis and fly-fishing; boats; schools like Andover, Harvard, and Yale; Lilly Pulitzer shifts and flood pants from L.L.Bean—are now what almost everyone seems to want. We have internalized the Preppy Handbook and devour novels that describe the beaching rich. The 1 percent behave outwardly more like the headmaster of Groton than like their own grandparents.
But Peter Pan collars, leaky catboats, boating moccasins, and trust funds are not the secret to becoming an elite. The ideas and convictions that went with all that stuff—the Breton red slacks, the clambakes, the plummy accents, the tennis prowess—have somehow been lost in the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. These days, money is wasted on the rich.
American aristocrats were raised to ski hard and tie a mean Royal Coachman, but they were also often raised in a tradition of service—noblesse oblige it was called—that led them to give away lots of their money and to behave in ways that helped those who had less. John D. Rockefeller famously spent more time at the end of his life giving away money than earning it. It wasn’t because he was so rich. At the beginning of his life, he gave away 10 percent of the $200 a year he earned as an Ohio bookkeeper’s assistant. He was not alone: the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and more recently the Roosevelts all established foundations that made the world an extraordinarily better place. When John Jacob Astor IV gave up his seat on a Titanic lifeboat, he was acting out of a tradition of gallantry and service that was rare then and is even rarer now. There are still titans with a conscience in the 21st century—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey, for instance—but some of the rich hang on to their money until the eagle grins. They don’t even want to pay more taxes. And this has helped create unprecedented income inequality in our country.
The old-line WASP aristocrats were flawed in spite of their Harvard and Yale degrees and ability to set a spinnaker. They had little sexual tolerance, they thought women shouldn’t have careers, they were anti-Semitic, they named their children after themselves with sometimes hilarious results, and they often drank too much. Their gods were bloodlines, that ineffable thing called class, good manners, and, well, God. Our gods, these days, are money and intelligence—but these more modern, up-to-date techno-gods don’t come with a code of behavior or anything as fusty as courtesy or a sense that privilege carries responsibility. We revere our self-made men—and since they have made themselves, they don’t feel responsible for anyone else.
Perhaps the old WASPs we are so slavishly imitating deserved to be overthrown, but they had an attitude about the world that it would be nice to adopt when we put on our pastels and belts dotted with whales to head for the beach.