Felicity Huffman, Ross Douthat, and the Corruption of Aristocracy

Yale-Harvard

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

It’s been a week now since the startling news that a few dozen wealthy parents, including an Oscar nominee and Aunt Becky from Full House, had been arrested in the wee hours of the morning, accused of committing varying types of fraud to get their children into their college of choice. Some of these parents went so far as to manipulate photographs to make their children look like athletes capable of competing at the college level, while others employed the almost quaint method of paying proctors to change answers on their children’s SAT exams.

If I’m being honest, after I’d satisfied myself that I was not reading an Onion article, my very first thought was, dammit, I will never again be able to watch an episode  of Sports Night without thinking of this. But my second thought was of a pair of remarkable columns Ross Douthat wrote in December (and I mean “remarkable” in the least flattering way possible), pegged to the death of George H. W. Bush, in which he bemoaned the rise of the meritocracy and the fall of the WASPs.

Douthat’s first column, “Why We Miss the WASPS,” argues that “if some of the elder Bush’s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.” Douthat does not, at any point, offer evidence for these WASPish virtues, just asserts their existence as an article of faith. This first column contains some truly astonishing passages: he laments that the WASP aristocracy “couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard” (meaning, I suppose, that it did not try hard enough to keep the unwashed masses out of ivied halls) and brushes aside concerns about diversity by arguing that “for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists.” The second column complains that his first column was misunderstood; he is happy that the American upper class is more diverse, he says, but meritocracy is a failure because it lacks the “sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige” that he believes marks the oldest WASP families.

Douthat, not afraid to triple-down on his argument, responded to the arrests this week with a column called “The Scandals of Meritocracy.” His answer, as best I can understand it, is that dynasties are good, and everyone who wasn’t born into a blue-blooded family should concede the Ivies to the better sort, and go to state schools. In short, the true sin of the families trying to buy their way into universities was not fraud but a failure to know their place, which is decidedly below the New England aristocracy. (Hilariously, Douthat believes that this would make instruction at elite schools more rigorous because professors would be unafraid to fail students, as if universities that rely heavily on donations from wealthy donors would be willing and eager to flunk those donors’ children.)

If Douthat were younger than he is, his starry-eyed admiration of the “nobility” of aristocracy might be forgivable; as it is, he seems naive and willfully blind. Infuriatingly, he argues that meritocracy is inherently selfish and self-interested; apparently a ruling elite that desires to hold onto the privilege into which it was born is not. He takes it on faith that if the United States would simply formalize a ruling class, the families who make it up would naturally raise their children to be self-sacrificing, benevolent, and civic-minded.

That is not how it would work out. Take the British royal family, which should be the pluperfect example of an elite family with a long legacy of noblesse oblige. Let’s be fair: most members of the British royal family are pretty good at their job, which seems to consist of dressing well, showing up to various ceremonies, waving, and being charming to the small children who hand them bouquets. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I would be constantly tripping over things and looking at my phone and rolling my eyes at the wrong moments, so I am being quite genuine when I say I could not do what they do.)

Having said that, the British royal family? Is a hot mess. They do not exude wisdom and they should not really be in charge of anything more important than their wardrobes, their horses, and their dogs. Let’s take the Duke of Edinburgh, who at 97 should be the most sage of them all, and yet could not be bothered to give up driving even after he caused an accident that left one woman injured. And even after that it took a few weeks to coax several members of the family, including the Queen, to wear their seatbelts in accordance with British law. (The Duke did finally surrender his license when a police investigation failed to clear him of blame.)  The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was famously dissolute, imperious, and rude. Prince Andrew was pals with Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Edward had to give up his involvement in a dilettantish television company after he was accused of secretly filming his own nephew at college. Prince Charles was caught on tape wishing to be reincarnated as his lover’s tampon. (Apologies for the visual.) Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. And when Prince Harry announced his engagement to an American woman of mixed race, Princess Michael of Kent wore a blackamoor brooch to the annual Christmas lunch. These are not people to whom I would look for moral guidance or sound judgment. I believe they are dedicated to the limited roles to which they were born, I don’t think they’re necessarily bad people (Andrew might be a bad person), but I wouldn’t trust most of them to run a lemonade stand, much less a country.

Closer to home, the actual Bush and Kennedy families do not resemble Douthat’s idealistic image of them. I can forgive Barbara Bush for calling Geraldine Ferraro a mean name in the heat of a presidential campaign, but there is no excuse for saying, after Hurricane Katrina, that evacuees “were underprivileged anyway, so . . . this is working very well for them.” George W. Bush was an alcoholic with a drunk-driving arrest under his belt before he found Jesus. Neil Bush ran a string of shady businesses and was accused of insider trading. The Bush patriarch himself was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and in Richard M. Nixon’s attempts to obstruct the corruption investigation of his vice president. Meanwhile, the Kennedy scandals are even more numerous: what seems like dozens of drug and drunk driving arrests; the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick; the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith. Robert Kennedy Jr. uses his position as a scion of American nobility to promote conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism. The well-documented philandering of various Kennedy men seems relatively tame in comparison.

So this is the “intergenerational continuity” Douthat longs for — a stew of scandal and entitlement and antisocial behavior. Why on earth does he believe that putting such families on a pedestal, believing uncritically in their “memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism” would lead to a better outcome than the current system? Would a nation with more Bushes and fewer Lincolns be an improvement? These families are not brought up on the idea of self-abnegation and civic virtue, but on the idea that they deserve the best — the best clothes, the best cars, the best colleges, and ultimately the best cover-ups — just by virtue of who they are.

No, what a formal, inherited ruling class would be more likely to give us is exactly what we saw this week: spoiled rich kids who learned long ago that they had no need to work hard, because their success and financial security was inevitable, an immutable law of the universe; and wealthy parents who wanted to secure not their children’s future–because these kids are going to have plenty of money no matter where they go to college–but their own reputations as people who not only succeeded personally, but also raised accomplished children. It’s not the mythical meritocracy that is to blame for this scandal; it’s the parents’ belief that they and their children should be treated like aristocrats.

I know this seems like a lot of time and energy and pixels to devote to a briefly newsworthy scandal and a trio of foolish columns, even if they were printed in the New York Times. But this thinking goes to the heart of an important question: what kind of country do we want to have? Do we want dynasties? Do we want a system that differentiates between the highborn and the low? Because that is essentially what the families involved in this mess were paying for, and what Douthat is literally suggesting. He doesn’t object to different families playing by different sets of rules; he objects to these particular families doing so, because they have no centuries-old dynasty to fall back on. He isn’t troubled by the corruption involved; indeed, he wants to formally enshrine it, to make de jure what increasing income inequality threatens to make de facto. And that is a problem, because the promise of the United States is that anyone can be anything. Yes, it’s a promise that often goes unfulfilled, that is plagued by hidden pitfalls, that is much thornier and more difficult to keep than it seems on the surface. But it’s still a central American ideal and if we explicitly abandon it then we are explicitly changing the country’s core principle. In exchange for what? For generational stability? For a formalized system of haves and have-nots? I am not at all sure that is a trade I want to make.

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