Authenticity, Lyford Cay & The Prole Gape

January 31, 2012

Yesterday’s post, an article concerning the fears of decline surrounding an influx of vulgarity to the staid Bahamas enclave of Lyford Cay, occasioned today’s rig, a belated memorial to William F. Buckley, Jr., in which his death is described as an ascendancy to that great Lyford Cay Club in the sky.  

When William F. Buckley Jr. went to the great Lyford Cay Club in the sky a year ago today, an era of authentic WASPy style died with him. If you want to get technical about it, Buckley wasn’t really a WASP (because he was Catholic, not Protestant), and his wasn’t so much style as anti-style, but in the decades when he rose to prominence as a conservative provocateur par excellence, such distinctions waned in importance.

“Being a WASP has nothing to do with religion or money,” author Susanna Salk declared last year in her preppy-stuffed picture book A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style. [Editor’s Note: Sure, in the same way driving a car has nothing to do with being licensed.] Rather, she said, it’s all about getting the look right. Whether Buckley would have agreed is debatable, but there he was on page 84, clutching a copy of God and Man at Yale, his button-down rumpled and repp tie askew, a picture of pure prep imperfection.

Old clothes “advertise how much of conventional dignity [the upper classes] can afford to throw away,” author Paul Fussell noted in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. “The wearing of clothes excessively new or excessively neat and clean suggests that your social circumstances are not entirely secure.” That was, of course, never a problem for Buckley, whose “pleasantly disheveled and informal” look (as described by protégé Gary Wills) was rivaled only by that of his fellow patrician and friend, George Plimpton.

That’s not to say Buckley’s clothes weren’t well made. Fussell points to an episode of Mr. Buckley’s long-running show Firing Line, in which he interviewed an oafish Texan of decidedly humbler origins. The Texan’s jacket collar “gaped open a full two inches,” Fussell writes. “Buckley’s collar, of course, clung tightly to his neck and shoulder, turn and bow and bob as he might.” His genteel shabbiness, thankfully, did not extend to an inclusion of “prole gape.”

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WFB: Fads Be Damned.

July 29, 2011

Excerpted piratically, but gratefully, from National Review:

(From a question and answer booklet issued by The Alumni Council of Princeton University, June 1, 1958.)

QUESTION: Why don’t Princeton undergraduates look as glossy as they used to? Is it because the admissions people frown on well dressed, social-looking young men?

ANSWER: Certainly not. Since the war, Princeton undergraduates, like those in other colleges, have gone out of their way to wear beat-up clothes. It’s a fad the GI’s started.

If I had been permitted to butt in with the next question, I’d have asked, “What would you do if the next fad called on the students to go about naked?” The answer would presumably have been as evasive as the first, probably something like, “My dear sir, there are laws against indecent exposure.” To be sure, and there are none against wearing sweat shirts in a venerable university eating hall, or in a classroom where the lecture that morning may be on the age of elegance; none, even, governing dress in fraternity houses where, it is commonly supposed, it is the elite who meet to eat. The reason? Rules affecting a student’s dress are . . .

But let me relate an experience. At Yale, ten years ago, there gadded about a distinguished professor of philosophy with a mania for equalitarianism. Notwithstanding, he was himself a man of personal taste, of imposing countenance and erect bearing, and one day he decided it would be reasonable to expect members of his college (undergraduate Yale is quartered in ten colleges) to come to dinner at the college dining hall dressed in coat and tie. Accordingly, he laid down the edict. Hours later, a student had summoned fellow members of the college student council in extraordinary session to devise appropriate means of resisting the act of tyranny. In due course the president of the council appeared before the guileless master and announced that it was the consensus of the student council that the ordinance he had passed was undemocratic. The master did not reply (such a reply would not have occurred to him, even as a lascivious possibility) “Tell the student council to go—eat democratically some place else.” No, our professor of Philosophy simply rescinded his order, aghast at the revelation that, albeit subconsciously, he had entertained an Undemocratic Thought.

It is the knout of Democracy that is most generally used to flail those who believe the administrators of a college are entitled to specify, nay should specify, norms of undergraduate dress. The economic argument, implausible though it increasingly becomes, is still widely used. It holds that coats and ties are expensive, that therefore the uniform requirement that they be worn daily, and hence worn out prematurely, is a form of regressive taxation. The argument is unrealistic because in point of fact ties do not cost very much, and coats made out of a tough material will outlive even a pauper’s inclination to wear them.

It is something else, really, that prevents the deans and masters from acting. They fear, in an age of permissiveness, the howl of protest. The dean of the Graduate School at Yale said recently, “The attire of students is incredibly sloppy. It would be fine if we could get away with a rule requiring ties at all meals. A good thing to press for in my retiring years.”

Must we wait until the Dean retires? Let us hope not. Meanwhile, I make a few observations. The first: Does not insistence on a minimal standard of dress reflect a decent respect for the opinions of mankind? The same community that insists that one pay at least a procedural respect to the opinions of ideological aberrants can hardly be expected to shrink from deferring to society on the appropriate means of clothing one’s nakedness. Even in the world of getting and spending, for whose coarseness a considerable contempt is stimulated in many colleges and campuses, coat-and-tie is a prerequisite to participation. The Beats who indulge their sloppiness as a symbol of their individualism can take the measure of their hypocrisy by reflecting on their imminent surrender — effective on the day they graduate into the world of commerce in which, almost to a man, they fully intend to spend their lives. The young graduate who informs Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Beane that to require coat and tie is undemocratic, can expect a most un-Philosophic reply. I doubt, going further, that there is a Princeton undergraduate who would presume to call on Jack Kerouac without coat and tie. If disorderly attire is a genuine symbol of personal independence, then the college generation should stick by their symbol at least a few decorous weeks after the ink is dry on their baccalaureate degrees. If it is not that, then dishevelment is what it is: a blend of affectation and laziness.

The second point for the academic community to think over is the matter of authority. Is it theirs to stipulate a minimal standard of dress? Professor Joseph T. Curtiss of Yale said recently, “Respectful or respectable dressing is a characteristic of adult society. Some people are born gentlemen, other people acquire gentility during life, still others must have it forced on them.” The tendency is to depreciate the beneficence of externally imposed norms of civilized behavior. There are many who, like myself, would, if left alone, permit our standards of personal dress to deteriorate to the level of the downright offensive. Conscientious members of society — and I include here, intending no offense, administrators of our colleges and universities — should not permit us to indulge our disintegrative proclivities. Coat-and-tie is merely a symbol. It could be courtesy; deference; reverence; humility; moderation: and are these not, all, the proper concern of a college administration? Is there a relationship between a faculty’s weakmindedness, and a student body’s disorderliness?


In Decline, Graciously

July 2, 2010

Via The New York Times:

Satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court.

Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Like any ethno-racial or religious group, the population of white Protestants is internally diverse. It would be foolish to conflate the descendants of New England smallholders with the offspring of Scandinavian sod farmers in the Middle West, just as it would be a mistake to confuse the Milanese with the Sicilians, or the children of Havana doctors with the grandchildren of dirt farmers from Chiapas, Mexico.

So, when discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

It is not as though white Protestants relinquished power quickly or without reservation. Catholic immigrants, whether from Ireland or Southern Europe, faced a century of organized discrimination and were regularly denounced as slavish devotees of the pope unsuited to democratic participation.

And, although anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe, it was a persistent barrier. Protestants like Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a great president of Harvard in the early 20th century, tried to impose formal quotas to limit Jewish admissions to the university. The Protestant governing elite must also bear its own share of responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination.

Yet, after the ideals of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth. Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of “The Sun Also Rises” as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Interestingly, this era of inclusion was accompanied by a corresponding diffusion of the distinctive fashion (or rather anti-fashion) of the Protestant elite class. The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, né Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated.